Our “Eat the View” organic garden has expanded more than triple in size from last year and there are plans to continue the expansion with every season. With efforts to bridge the gap to a more sustainable future and with the growing patches of vegetables come the need for more organic materials such as mulch, soil, and nutrients. The expansion of the “homesteading” on our near half acre of land has necessitated the development of a new composting project. This discourse focuses on efforts at capturing some of the beneficial opportunities that Mother Nature intended.
Like most folks, you are probably tossing good nutrients down the kitchen drain or into the garbage can. Moreover, if you keep a tidy yard, maybe you are like many folks who bag up their fallen leaves, yard debris, and grass clippings and put them out on the curb nicely packaged and ready for the weekly trip to the landfill. Some folks do not pack that well for a trip to the beach, but they sure do pack their grass clippings all nice and tidy for the trip to someone else’s back yard, as long as it’s not in my back yard, right!
NIMBY, or “not in my back yard” as the saying goes, buy hey, at least this yard stuff is safe material and not hazardous…oh, but did that trusty neighbor next door recently treat his yard and garden with herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers….Diazinon, Malathion, Roundup, Weed-B-Gon, Turf Builder, or Winterizer ring a bell?
Consider this…with a little work, you can reap the benefits and rewards that Mother Nature intended.
- Thirty percent of all kitchen household waste is organic material that can be recycled, yet most folks just drop it into the garbage pail or disposal.
- In developing countries the average household generates up to 75% of its total waste in organic material, there are many missed opportunities here also.
Inside the Kitchen
It is one of the paradoxes of modern culture that materials can change their value in an instant; similar in the fashion as one person’s trash becomes another person’s treasure. The food on your plate, so desirable when first appreciated with a robust appetite, having already traversed an incredibly long chain of energy, resources, and processes expended in the production and preparation for the table; in one instant turns into garbage by the contented palate. What a moment ago was a chef’s delight, now is a nasty platter, at best a “leftover”, or consigned to the doggy bag, or transferred to a storage container and pushed to the back of the refrigerator and left for mold growth experiments that would make anyone cringe, and most likely and ultimately thrown out with the garbage or disposal.
This remarkable value transformation occurring entirely in the human mind creates the perception that what was once a full plate of nourishment, is now a has-been by-product collection of trash, totally void of any redeeming qualities. Alas, in reality, the plate scraps, discarded vegetables, and debris resulting from the toil and hours of determined preparation of the meal are still full of energy and life, complete with the same nutrients needed for life as when first served from the kitchen. Moreover, these discarded scraps offer a far more generous variety of elements necessary for producing more food than can be found in any sack of fertilizer.
Things that were common during the agricultural age became passé or lost in the industrial and information age. Lately, more with emphasis on the production, packing, shipping, and preparation of food sources, with little importance on completing the cycle with decomposition back into the earth from which it started. Foodstuff scraps are for the most part disconnected from the complete natural lifecycle. This system relegates organic kitchen material to enclosed plastic bags, mixed with refuse, plastics, paper, dust, and other non-recyclable items, shipped off to a landfill, and then covered with earth, buried forever in a tomb, never to be utilized again, or at least for many decades. There are so many similar life cycle disconnects in our “modern-age” that it seems plausible to suggest there must be a better way! On a bright spot, some communities are now organizing food waste recycling efforts, for example, the city of Oxford; UK has successfully implemented a food waste collection system since December 2009.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Using the same processes found in nature, it is possible to return once living food scraps into viable life-giving elements that will nourish future plant growth. Anything that was once living can and will decompose and break down into its simplest elements. Even the kitchen scraps on your plate that was once a culinary delight can some day become tomorrow’s nutrients in next year’s vegetable crop. How does this process occur? Decomposition is the process of organic matter broken down by other living organisms into the simplest elements and thus completing the plant compost life cycle.
Most folks do not have a food waste collection system in their neighborhood. So, have you considered a food waste recycling system in your own home? You probably already have one, known as the garbage disposal. About half of all homes in America have one, it is usually electrically-powered, installed under a kitchen sink between the sink’s drain and the trap which shreds food waste into pieces small enough (generally less than 2 mm) to pass through plumbing. The problem with this system is that the foodstuffs added to the sewerage treatment system and it cannot easily handle the extra load of kitchen waste disposal units. Food scraps range from 15% to 30% of household waste, and are a problematic component of municipal waste, creating public health, sanitation and environmental problems at each step, beginning with internal storage and followed by truck-based collection.1
With up to 30% of total household waste being organic food waste lost in garbage bags either to landfills, or in the sewerage treatment plants across America, we see a lot of lost compost material each year. According to the Recycling Services department at the University of Colorado in Boulder, each of us generates on average 4.4 pounds of waste per day per person.2 In addition, with the average size of households in the United States being 2.6 persons,3 this means each household adds an average of 11.4 pounds of waste per day, or 4,176 pounds of waste per household on an annual basis. This figure equates to as much as 1,253 pounds of organic food waste material generated per household in the United States on an annual basis. Moreover, did you know that the projected number of households in the United States for 2010 is 114,825,428?4
You have to wonder what the percentage of US households that currently use their kitchen food waste as compost. The amazing thing is that when you take the projected number of current households in the US and multiply that figure by total household organic food waste the figure is an astounding 143,876,261,284 pounds, which is 71,938,131 tons. To give you an equivalent in nature to compare by, the largest mammal is the blue whale, which can weigh about 150 tons5, and the annual weight in household waste material would be the same as 479,587 blue whales. On the other hand, and for optional reference and scale comparisons, if you like to equate it to manmade objects, annual household organic waste would match the weight of the ill-fated Titanic6 times 1,563.9. That is a lot of organic waste material folks!
Restaurants getting into the act
These figures do not even touch the amount of organic kitchen waste generated by restaurants, commercial kitchens, hotels, country clubs, caterers, and food manufacturing plants across the country, of which many are sending their stuffs to the landfills and sewerage treatments plants. Image how much of that kitchen waste could be converted to viable elements for gardens.
However, there are initiatives and success stories such as the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, PA that has focused on creating a cost-effective composting partnership, read more…
In another success story, the Bay Area Utility for the city of San Francisco Bay, CA has started a leftovers recycling program where electricity is generated from the methane gas produced from food decomposition, read more…
What to Compost – The IN List of kitchen and indoor household substances
- All your vegetable and fruit wastes, (including rinds and cores) even if they are moldy and ugly
- Old bread, donuts, cookies, crackers, pizza crust, and noodles: anything made out of flour! (debatable, see related links lists)
- Grains (cooked or uncooked): rice, barley, you name it (debatable, see related links lists)
- Coffee grounds, tea bags, filters
- Fruit or vegetable pulp from juicing
- Old spices
- Outdated boxed foods from the pantry
- Eggshells (crushed)
- Corn cobs and husks (cobs should be cut up)
- Cardboard rolls
- Clean paper
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Cotton rags
- Nut shells
- Tea bags
- Wool rags
What Not to Compost – The OUT List / Reasons of kitchen and indoor substances
- Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
- Releases substances that might be harmful to plants
- Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs
- Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
- Fats, grease, lard, or oils
- Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
- Meat or fish bones and scraps
- Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
- Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)
- Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses harmful to humans
Outside the Yard
Organic yard material accounts for much more volume per household than do kitchen organic wastes, especially when you consider the amount of leaves, grass, weeds, branches, and other debris created throughout the seasons. Did you know that in developing countries the average household generates up to 75% of its total waste in organic material? This is a huge increase from the 30% of organic material that households in industrialized countries create. However, much lower when compared to the total waste volumes that industrialized counterparts create, the numbers are still staggering. In many cities of developing countries, the per capita waste generation rates are near 500 grams per day, with at least 300 grams being organic material, which equates to about 0.6 pounds of organic waste per person per day.7
Developing organic wastes
Consider the population of São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil with 11,037,593 inhabitants as recorded in 2009;8 this would amount to about 6,622,556 pounds of organic waste material per day per capita for the metropolis. Annually, the city has to contend with 2,417,232,940 pounds of organic waste material, and that takes a lot of infrastructure to handle that amount of trash. In addition, the metro area of São Paulo includes a much larger population of 19,889,559, so do the math on that! Indeed, that is a lot of organic waste material. How much of this organic waste material is captured and recycled?
Closer to home…
Our homestead lot is about 0.45 acres in total size, and the house footprint takes up about one-third of that space, so we end up with about 0.3 acres of useable land area including the yard, garden, sidewalk, and driveway space. Of this space, most likely about one-fifth or 0.2 of an acre makes up the actual grassy portion of the lot.
When using the rear mower bag for the grass clippings the yard generates about eight full bags, and these get mixed into the compost pile, along with the leaves and useable kitchen waste materials. In the three weeks that I have started using the mower bag to catch the yard grass clippings two bins have become ½ full. Plans are in place to expand the compost bins to double their capacity, and 4 more pallets are in the works to be added soon.
This is the simple homemade compost bin made with leftover pallets from a previous paver’s project and wire. Pallets can be wired together creating a perfect set of compost bins, and require only free pallets and a little wire to fashion them together, a simple project that takes little time and effort, and helps to recycle wood pallets that otherwise end up in the landfills themselves.
All composting requires three basic ingredients:
- Browns — Includes materials such as dead leaves, branches , twigs
- Greens — Includes materials such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, coffee grounds, and other indoor household materials
- Water or moisture
The Outdoor IN List
- Animal ( cow or horse) manure
- Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
- Fireplace ashes
- Grass clippings
- Hair and fur
- Hay and straw
- Shredded newspaper
- Wood chips
- Yard trimmings
The Outdoor OUT list / Reasons
- Coal or charcoal ash
- Might contain substances harmful to plants
- Diseased or insect-ridden plants
- Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred back to other plants
- Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
- Might kill beneficial composting organisms
The benefits of composting at home, in the community, or at the restaurant, far out weight the costs. It not only saves the environment, but it directs energy and nutrients back into a complete cycle that generates new plant life.
Here are some of the known good things about composting:
- Compost contains macro and micro nutrients often absent in synthetic fertilizers.
- Compost releases nutrients slowly—over months or years, unlike synthetic fertilizers
- Compost helps bind clusters of soil particles, called aggregates, which provide good soil structure. Such soil is full of tiny air channels & pores that hold air, moisture and nutrients.
- Compost brings and feeds diverse life in the soil. These bacteria, fungi, insects, worms and more support healthy plant growth.
- Healthy soil is an important factor in protecting our waters. Compost increases soil’s ability to retain water & decreases runoff. Runoff pollutes water by carrying soil, fertilizers and pesticides to nearby streams.
When that first batch of finished compost is ready to spread, congratulate yourself for your efforts because you are ecologically minded, and know that organic materials should be recycled into the soil instead of being put in a garbage can. By recycling the organic materials, valuable nutrients and organic matter are recycled. You have helped alleviate the solid waste problem!9
How to build a compost bin from reclaimed wood
30 things you should never compost or recycle
Compost This: Household Waste
Composting: Basic Information
What are the easiest, most important things to recycle?
Why is it Important to Recycle Paper?