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Putting a Human Face on the World Summit on Sustainable Development - 2002-08-28

Their faces announce the World Summit on Sustainable Development that began August 26 in Johannesburg, South Africa. They welcome you from giant billboards and banners in the airport, on the road into town and around the convention center where delegates are meeting in one of the biggest United Nations conferences ever held.

The larger-than-life images portray 12 different grassroots development activists, each exemplifying the summit's theme of "People, Planet, Prosperity."

"Wes enriches the world." That's what the towering billboard across the street from a gasoline station in Johannesburg says about Wes Adell, a former county commissioner from Linsborg, Kansas.

The billboard bears a huge photograph of the smiling, bearded American, holding up a heaping handful of fresh compost from the enormous pile behind him. The photo was taken in Linsborg, which is where he first became troubled by the amount of yard waste being dumped in his community's landfill.

In 1991, Mr. Adell launched a project to turn all those branches, leaves and grass clippings into soil-enhancing compost. That project quickly grew into an ambitious program to save landfill space and reduce polluted runoff into local rivers and streams.

"I remember the first time I had a real good batch of several hundred tons of compost finished," Wes Adell explained. "I had gotten it tested by the Ohio State Research Laboratory telling how good it was and we announced Saturday morning we were going to give some back to the community. There were 127 pickups and trucks that came to get the compost and it was gone in two hours." That program was such a success that the town started another project that used the nutrient rich compost to improve the soil in other parts of Kansas, a Midwestern state with few trees on its flat, dusty plains.

"And this has turned into a beautiful compost and tree station project, now seven years old, and we've given out more than 100,000 trees across Kansas," Mr. Adell said.

Wes Adell began receiving invitations to preach the gospel of composting around the world after the United Nations honored him in 1996 with its National Excellence Award for "best-practices innovation." The annual prize recognizes outstanding contributions to soil and water conservation.

Mr. Adell's innovations have included more than just composting systems. For example, a simple kit he designed converts a 20 liter bucket and 30 meters of tubing into a small-scale drip irrigation system that works under most growing conditions, even in very arid regions. He says adding compost to the irrigated soil can improve vegetable production by 50 to 100 percent the first year.

At the Johannesburg Summit, Mr. Adell is also promoting two new high-tech composting machines. One produces high quality compost in just three days, instead of the weeks or months normally required. Another pulverizes that compost by swirling it inside a chamber at tornado-like speeds.

"What happens when the materials go through that air [is that they] pound and pulverize each other so that we have some amazing new things develop that we've never had before," he explained. "For example, we don't have to pull glass out of the waste stream and compost it. That sounds really crazy, but what happens is that the power of the air breaks and pulverizes and pounds the glass into fine sand silica. So it is just like out in the soil. It [works] fine with the compost."

Wes Adell says his billboard celebrity in Johannesburg has given him an opportunity to discuss ways to turn an environmental problem into an environmental asset.

"I noticed this big giant landfill coming up from the airport to the site of the conference," he said. "The mounds must be 100, 150 feet [15-30 meters] high. The garbage trucks were emptying the trash. I thought, 'Wow, we could eliminate 90 percent of all that garbage, and convert it to an asset and that would help grow more vegetables, which is a real need.' And that could really help improve the environment, because we would protect the water, the aquifers, being affected [by] the landfills. We could create new jobs with the compost from the growing of vegetables and trees. We could improve the environment as well as the living conditions of the people. And if we improve the living conditions, then it helps improve their lives."

Wes Adell says when he started the composting project back in Linsborg, Kansas, he didn't dream that a decade later, it would have spawned similar efforts in communities around the planet. Mr. Adell says it has been shocking to see his larger-than-life image posted everywhere on billboards announcing the U.N.'s World Summit on Sustainable Development. But it has been humbling, he says, to know that his work is receiving such international attention.