Composting: Nature’s Process of Recycling Food
BY MIRANDA CAIN
There are thousands of landfills and dumps around the United States. Inside those waste lands is trash – a hodgepodge of things people couldn’t be bothered with any longer. According to cleanair.org, in 2008 the average amount of trash produced every day by each person in America was 4.5 pounds. Of those 4.5 pounds, only 1.1 pounds was recycled. The same year, food scraps accounted for 12.7 percent of waste generated, yet only 2.5 percent of those scraps were composted, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. What happened to the rest? Landfills or incineration – both very “un-green” options.
While not every item can be recycled or reused, food and organic waste can be kept out of landfills by composting. “Composting is nature’s process of recycling food and other organic waste,” says Daniel Blake, CEO and co-founder of EcoScraps, a company that organically converts food waste into high-quality soil conditioner.
Composting is an area of the green lifestyle that more people have embraced, and one way to take your recycling to the next level. “To understand why composting is important, you need to understand what the alternative to composting is. If you don’t compost, you end up sending the material to the landfill,” said Blake. And organic material that isn’t composted turns into the greenhouse gas, methane.
“Besides decreasing methane gas emissions and extending the lifespan of our limited landfill space, compost also restores essential organic material to the soil that improves water retention, can decrease erosion, and break up clay soils, creating a better environment for plants to thrive,” continues Blake.“It will allow people to reduce their individual carbon footprint by reducing the amount that they throw away. It would also allow them to create a garden soil that is very premium, and will allow them to grow bigger flowers and vegetables in a very environmentally friendly way.”
While composting is a complex biological development, it is also a method of recycling that is an easy addition to anyone’s household. There are numerous kinds of composts bins, but if you are just starting out, it’s recommended to keep things simple.
“There’s all kinds of ranges, or ways, that people can compost – from a heap to a contained pile in the backyard, to using worms, to using a commercial bin,” said Jeff Schalau, Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County. “The simplest thing you can do is to dig a trench in your garden area and bury your kitchen scraps,” Schalau continued, providing a short list of must-haves: raw materials, a small space outside or a bin, a moist oxygen-rich environment, and time.
Wondering what can be composted? Well, there’s a big list: kitchen and yard waste, shredded paper, floor sweepings and vacuum cleaner contents, animal manure, hay, and even hair.
“Really, what you’re doing is feeding microorganisms,” explains Schalau, while describing the complex biological processes that take place in a compost.
There are certain things, however, that shouldn’t be used to feed the microbes in the compost – meat (it attracts animals and pests), fat, grease, oils, pet waste, weeds with seeds (weeds will sprout in the compost), and diseased green waste (because the disease can then spread to what the compost is supposed to be fertilizing) and toxic materials, to name a few.
Compost is a delicate balance of organic materials, oxygen and moisture. “It should never be wetter than a wrung-out sponge,” said Schalau.
The best way to judge if the composting process is going well is by the way it smells. “If it smells earthy and good, like fungi and sweet, then things are going very well,” said Schalau. However, if it starts to smell rancid – worse than rotting trash – then it needs more oxygen. This can be done by rotating or spinning the composting so that it is aerated. Another way to aerate it is by adding dry leaves.
Also, if it smells like ammonia, then there isn’t enough nitrogen in the compost. This can be fixed by adding more brown materials such as fertilizer or manure.
It isn’t necessary to have a big garden or a large space in the yard to compost. Schalau says the majority of composters collect a few kitchen scraps every week. To simplify the process, get a composting bin. These bins contain the compost, come assembled, deter animals from getting in, and some even allow for aeration of the pile.
“And so if you’re doing that, you’re doing good things because you’re reducing what goes into the waste stream,” Schalau said.