High-rise Refuse Becomes Urban Gardening Treasure

Atlanta visitors bring lots of money to town, but they leave lots of waste behind.

To help the city's downtown hotels make better use of their refuse, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, the University of Georgia and other state agencies joined the hospitality industry to form the Georgia Hospitality Environmental Partnership.

One of the partnership's projects is helping hotels get rid of soap barrels.

Nine barrels a month don't sound like much for a large hotel like Atlanta's Westin Peachtree Plaza to worry about. But over a year, those barrels add up to more than a ton of garbage in local landfills.

Managers at the Westin, one of GHEP's pilot hotels, chose not to ignore the bright blue and white plastic barrels, which hold concentrated laundry detergent. Instead, they decided to use them.

"It was a simple concept, but hard to implement," said Jeff Darrow, DCA's GHEP program manager. First, the Westin reused as many drums as they could as recycling cans and trash cans.

But they soon ran out of ways to reuse them. GHEP and the Westin worked with the supplier to return the barrels to the detergent manufacturers for reuse.

The supplier had a program to allow for their return. But the Westin would have to stockpile 30 barrels before sending them back. Storing that many of the 55-, 25- and 5-gallon drums was too cumbersome.

Storage was a problem for recycling them, too. The barrels filled the recycling container and left no room for the hotel's other plastics.

Bobby Wilson, a Fulton-DeKalb County extension agent with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, heard of the problem. He offered another solution -- gardening.

First, Wilson and other metro extension agents used barrels to create irrigation systems in demonstration gardens and community gardens in low-income neighborhoods. For less than $20 -- enough to buy a spigot and some tubing -- they could turn two of the 55-gallon drums into a drip irrigation system.

The agents used other barrels as composting bins. For some of the bins, they simply cut the tops off of the barrels and drilled holes in them to provide air circulation.

For others, they drilled holes in both the tops and bottoms. Then they cut a door in the side and placed the barrel on a stand with a rod running through the center. This allowed them to mix composting materials easily by rotating the barrel.

The composting bins are at work now in the demonstration and community gardens. The Extension Service can provide plans so others may reuse barrels in similar ways.

Finally, Wilson and the other agents used the old barrels to create "Circles of Gardening."

They cut the tops and bottoms off of each barrel. Then they cut each into three 11.5-inch rings. They placed old newspapers or cardboard on the ground, then set the rings on top of them. The agents filled the rings with compost and used them as bottomless planters.

The first to develop this concept, the DeKalb County agents are spreading the method and its benefits throughout the country. The Urban Gardening Program in Jackson, Miss., is already using the idea.

The detergent drums are readily available. They're used not only by hotels, but also by hospitals and others. The Extension Service uses more barrels than the Westin can provide, so Emory and Crawford Long hospitals and the Emory Inn and Conference Center are pitching in, too.

"This is a perfect example of how partnership should work," Darrow said. "The Westin had a problem waste stream, and the Extension Service saw an opportunity. Now they're sharing their experience so other businesses and organizations can see the opportunities, too."

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.