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Compost Like the Earth Depends on It

by Ben Becker, Newsletter Writer

As the winter slowly releases its icy grip giving way to those first wet days of spring, we turn our calendar pages and look forward to April’s milder days. At last, it is here. One holiday which often seems subdued is April 22, the day we set aside to celebrate our planet. Like so many other days specifically designated for the appreciation of something or someone essential in our lives, taking only one day to recognize the Earth is wholly insufficient. However, by marking this otherwise innocuous day in April, for at least 24 hours we can take time to consider this home we all share, and how we will continue to care for it the rest of the year long. 

For Willy Street Co-op, Earth Day and the days surrounding it serve as a reminder that our mission is not only to serve people and community by providing access to quality, local foods, but also to consider our environment in all our activities. This mandate was enshrined by our Board of Directors when they assigned as an End the requirement that the Co-op “nourishes and enriches our community and environment…” Striving to meet this goal requires much more than our annual recognition of April 22, and many activities and innovations undertaken to achieve it are pervasive throughout the experience of shopping at the Co-op. From our product selection to our rain collection barrels to our more energy efficient closed-door refrigerated cases and even our electric vehicle charging stations which are totally powered by clean, renewable energy, Willy Street Co-op demonstrates a number of choices we make to be more environmentally sustainable. Yet our commitment to using natural resources more responsibly involves more than meets the eye. 

Behind closed doors, your Co-op is using low-flow spray valves and air-cooled ice machines, thereby ensuring that our dependance on water stays low. The power of the sun is providing hot water in our HVAC system without anyone taking notice. You may not have realized that Willy Street Co-op also partners with Green Power Tomorrow in order to include wind and solar energy as part of our energy portfolio. Modestly tucked away from notice is a system of discarded material disposal that diverts much of our waste from the landfill into recycling or compost, helping to curb our carbon footprint. 

Our success in enriching and nourishing our environment requires participation at all levels of the Co-op. Not only does it require a strong commitment from our managers and those who make operational decisions, but the actions of every employee, whether stocker or cashier, and the choices our customers make also determine the impact we have on our planet. It isn’t just the foods or products we purchase, but the decisions about what will happen after we have consumed our purchase. These items still have a role to play even after we are done with them, and by making careful choices about where our product or its packaging ends up, we may determine that it will prove productive as recycled organic matter in compost mix, or doom it to an ignominious fate of releasing greenhouse gases within a landfill. 

Composting at the Co-op

Composting performs an important role within the Co-op’s overall strategy of environmental stewardship. You may have encountered compost buckets in our Commons, by which we collect food scraps from customers. These buckets are collected each week by Earth Stew, who will work their magic to ensure that this biological matter will be transformed to serve another useful purpose. These buckets only make up a small part of our compost collection. For each freshly made elixir ordered from our Juice Bar, or a dish made in our Deli, there is an orange peel or a pile of carrot shavings resulting from its preparation. These food scraps are gathered separately from other waste and diverted into our Sanimax receptacles. Once these scraps are collected, they will be processed into Purple Cow Compost, allowing this refuse to enrich and nourish our soils. Partnering with Earth Stew and Sanimax benefits our Co-op and our environment in multiple ways. Notably, it keeps this organic material out of landfills, where its gradual breakdown through a process of anaerobic digestion would release methane gas, a chemical with a global warming potential 56 times worse than that of carbon dioxide. As important as this control on our carbon footprint is, it isn’t the sole benefit of efficiently composting food waste. By collecting this waste instead of relying on garbage disposals within our sinks, we keep this waste out of the local sewage system, which in turn reduces water use. 

Improving our soil and atmosphere

Composting is not just remarkable in its ability to curb both our carbon emissions and reduces our consumption of natural resources. Many see compost as a viable way to improve both our soil and atmosphere. Coloradans are exploring the use of compost as a means to sequester carbon. In Boulder, Colorado, experiments in applying compost to formerly degraded farm plots has not only proven a highly effective strategy for capturing carbon but also a means to improve the genesis of vegetation growth. These experiments looked to create a carbon sink, or method by which carbon is absorbed and stored within the earth, where it will benefit growing crops or forests rather than wreaking havoc on our atmosphere. Compost is not only an environmentally preferable material for agriculture because of its potential to shift carbon from the air into the soil, but it provides several advantages as a fertilizer. While the application of manure to the soil can release deadly pathogens such as E. Coli into our water and food system, it also releases dangerous and unpleasant emissions such as methane, nitrous oxide, and ammonia. Compare this to compost, which carries none of these hazardous emissions (Waste 360). In addition, compost stabilizes nitrogen for a slower release than manure, better nourishing the plants rooted into the soil. 

While this may frame compost as a miraculous product for those engaged in Earth-conscious agriculture, the production of compost is really an easy and approachable way that we can all use to care for our planet. By looking through a smaller lens at this organic matter, we can see that it is more than just a way to provide nutrients to the soil and improve plant growth in our flowerpots and garden. Indeed, composting can help greatly in reducing the waste stream created at home, especially when you consider that 30% of waste that goes to the landfill is made from food scraps and yard waste. Both are biodegradable materials, that can be composted in order to avoid their contribution of methane and other potent greenhouse gases. 

Making compost

Making compost is fairly simple in terms of technical ability. It only requires three essential ingredients. First, you will need what are referred to as the browns. These are materials with a high carbon content such as dead leaves, branches or twigs. This carbon will provide an energy source for the unseen microbes that will perform the real work of the composting process. Next you will need your greens. This refers to materials that are rich in nitrogen (a chemical essential to plant growth) such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, or coffee grounds. You will want to balance out your compost mix so that the greens and browns are roughly equal to each other in volume. Finally, you will want to add water to keep your compost mix moist and well-hydrated. 

Compostable items

While these three basic inputs summarize what you will essentially need, the list of compostable materials is inclusive to many household waste items including fruits and vegetables, teabags, eggshells, coffee grounds, shredded newspapers (avoid color pages as the ink may contain toxic metal), yard trimmings and grass clippings, old house plants, hay and straw, leaves, sawdust, woodchips, old rags, dryer lint, hair and fur, and even fireplace ashes. There are some organic materials you will want to exclude however, in particular, animal products such as milk, fat, bones or meat, as these will create unpleasant odors and attract unwanted pests. 

Your compost pile

If you have access to a yard or outdoor space, you will want to carve out an area for your compost pile. Pick a dry shady spot near a water source. Once your compost space is designated, you might choose to use a bin, basically a three sided enclosure that will allow you to both contain your pile while also accessing it with your rake for turning. If you are willing to make a greater financial investment in your compost project, you might also choose to purchase a compost tumbler. Once your space or container is set up, go ahead and add the brown and green materials you have collected, being sure to chop or shred the larger pieces. Next, add some water to your dry materials. After your compost pile has had some time to become established, you can add fruit and veggies by burying them below a ten inch layer of material. You may also choose to keep your compost pile covered with a tarp to prevent moisture from escaping. 

It is very important that as you add to your pile and the composting process progresses that you are continue to water it and stir it with a rake or trowel. This is especially important during the summer months when decomposing organisms are more active. Stirring and layering the compost allows the microorganisms within the pile to gain access to oxygen, permitting the aerobic digestion that produces that pleasant smelling nutrient rich result. Without oxygen, the compost will instead engage in anaerobic digestion, releasing gases and turning your pile into a smelly mess and a potential breeding ground for pests. If you have ever witnessed a compost pile that included animal products or was improperly maintained, you will know just what a foul and fetid sight it can be. 

The amount of time it takes for your compost process to be completed will vary between two months and two years depending on weather and conditions. If your pile is well maintained, you should end up with a rich substance dark in color with a pleasant earthy or nutty odor known as humus (not to be confused with the garbanzo bean dip). 

If you don’t have access to a yard or outdoor space, you can still compost inside as well by using a special type of bin. Essentially, you will be following the same process as an outdoor compost but on a smaller scale. Be careful to ensure that you are properly maintaining your indoor compost so that you avoid attracting pest and rodents, and you should find yourself with a healthy humus in two to five weeks.

Tiny creatures

As important as the turning, layering, and watering of the compost pile is to transforming scraps and waste into nutrient rich fertilizer, it is but one small part of the composting process. The real change is taking place in a world that we cannot perceive, as tiny creatures are acting to digest, break up, and decompose the material. First, there is the decomposition at the physical level, in which small, but still visible critters actively grind, bite, suck, chew, and tear our waste into smaller pieces. These bugs, or macroorganisms, include mites, centipedes, worms, millipedes, ants, beetles, nematodes and others. At another layer of the process is the actual chemical decomposition of materials, in which the very chemistry of the organic waste itself is altered. This is accomplished by invisible microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes. The most important of the decomposing organisms are the incredibly petite aerobic bacteria, of which there are millions of in only a gram of decaying matter. 

These microbes eat the carbon from your brown waste which becomes their energy source, while the nitrogens from your green waste are built into proteins necessary for reproduction and growth. The process of oxidation through which these bacteria obtain energy also produces heat, which can cause your compost pile to rise in temperature within only a few days. 

Because this heat is produced through aerobic digestion, the practice of actively maintaining a compost pile in order to introduce oxygen and promote oxidation is often referred to as hot composting. This chemical digestion performed by aerobic bacteria to the excretion of nutrient chemical including nitrogen, phosphorus, and magnesium; all of which are necessary for plant growth. However, if compost is not frequently turned, the oxygen level will decrease, killing off the aerobic bacteria and slowing the composting process by as much as 90 percent. This lack of oxygen also allows for anaerobic microorganisms to take over. Instead of nutrient-rich humus, these creatures will instead produce substances similar to ammonia that can be toxic to plant growth along with other foul-smelling gases such as hydrogen sulfide, cadaverine, and putrescine. 

Composting with worms

If anxiety over offensive odors or lack of time to water and turn your pile dissuade you from engaging in a composting project, fear not, for you may choose a method that involves employing a common macro-organic digester, the industrious worm. A worm composting bin, also known as a vermicomposter, can be cheap and easy to maintain. You may be able to purchase a worm composting bin, or you might choose to build your own. 

Building a vermicomposter

You will need two plastic bins; one should be taller than the other, with the small bin able to fit within the other. Having this larger bin will come in handy as it will allow excess water to drain from the worm’s domain so that they do not drown, and then you can remove this water with ease. This excess water, also known as worm tea, is rich in nutrients and can be added to your garden or indoor plants. When making your own worm composter, make sure you have a drill and various bits handy, as you will need to make holes about 1/8 inch in diameter near the bottom of the inner tub for the worm tea to drain through. You will need two one inch holes near the top of the taller bin so that your worm friends can breath. Be sure to use a fine vinyl screen (such as one you might use in from a window screen) to cover the holes at the bottom. Use a waterproof adhesive to affix the screen in place. Avoid using metal screening material as they will rust when exposed to water. These screens will prevent your worms from slipping out of the bottom of the bin. 

Once your composter is holed and screened, add about a pound of dirt for the worms to start with, and a three inch layer of shredded paper. Add some moisture and about a pound of worms, and give them some time to settle in while you collect food scraps. Worms can digest materials similar to what you would use in your hot compost such as vegetable and fruit scraps as well as bread, tea and coffee grounds, and cereal. You will want to avoid giving them plastic or fabric teabags in addition to any animal by-products. Dryer items such as stems or outer onion peels can take longer for your worms to digest. When selecting your worms, keep in mind that nightcrawlers are pretty good composters, but red wigglers are the ideal breed for turning your waste into healthy soil. 

Whatever you do, be sure to avoid the Asian jumping worm, which is sometimes mistakenly identified as the Alabama jumper or Georgia jumper. This invasive species is sold as bait, and upon escaping or release, it destroys native ecosystems by devouring leaf litter at an unsustainable rate, denying forest plants and critters necessary habitat and nutrition. 

Caring for our planet

While invasive species, unsustainable agriculture practices, and improper waste disposal can all create negative consequences for our environment and our future, employing strategies like composting can help us to care for our planet, not only by enriching our soil but in offsetting the greenhouse gases leading to climate change. Creating a more sustainable lifestyle and economy takes serious commitment and substantial changes, but composting is one small way that we can all have a big impact. This Earth Day, join the Co-op in making this practice part of your overall strategy to enrich and nourish the environment.