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Composting 101: Don’t Let Food Scraps Go to Waste

Kristen Baskin saw a lot in her travels through the developing world: “All the trash and all the waste, including toilets, was all really in your face,” she says of her time with civil-society organization Future Generations. “You could really see where everything went and what happened to it.”

The experience inspired her to contemplate waste and how to reduce it. In 2012, back in Athens, she started the curbside composting service Let Us Compost. The business provides weekly compost pick-ups for residents and businesses and offers “zero waste” event composting. On the weekends, farmers and gardeners can buy the rotting results at the service’s Saturday Dirt Shop in Winterville.

The business boasts 200 regular customers, among them coffee shops, a hair salon and the USDA meat testing lab. Customers can dump any and all food into their bag-lined bins—even the bags break down.

To date, Let Us Compost has diverted more than 468,000 pounds of food scraps from the landfill. “All of that got turned into compost that people can use in their gardens,” Baskin says. “And all of that would have been just sitting in the ground, producing methane and never disappearing.”

That’s because when food lands in the landfill, it stays there. Since new waste is constantly piled on top of old, food at the dump doesn’t get the oxygen exposure it needs to break down. This facilitates the buildup of methane—“kinda like a landfill fart,” says Mark McConnell, a local environmental activist. “When you throw something in the garbage like a banana peel, it’s gonna have an effect on the entire planet as far as climate change goes.” (In Athens, the methane is captured and burned to generate clean power, but that’s not the case at all landfills.)

McConnell is an arborist but once ran a composting operation that had him removing 20,000 pounds of compost weekly from Whole Foods’ regional distribution center. He also gives talks about composting and offers animal mortality composting services.

In addition to reducing waste, compost enriches soil without the need for chemical fertilizers, according to the EPA, which recently partnered with the USDA to call for a 50 percent reduction in food waste by the year 2030. Composting can also help capture and destroy volatile organic chemicals in the air, and it helps plants sequester carbon dioxide, another potent greenhouse gas that would otherwise be hanging around in the atmosphere.

The announcement of a national waste reduction goal bodes well for the future of composting, Baskin says. “Once that happens, you know, it kinda starts trickling down,” she says, “and people start using different methods of composting.”

But it’s easy not to think about what we’re throwing away. “I think part of it is we’re all too busy to take the time to do the work,” McConnell says. “And maybe we don’t realize how important that work is.”

The biggest obstacle, Baskin says, is changing habits. “A lot of people think it’s easier to just have a really large trash can and put everything into it and not think about it,” she says. “It’s the same obstacle that makes people not recycle.”

Granted, a lot can go wrong in a backyard composting operation, and many a pile has gone unattended and abandoned. “That’s part of the reason we wanted to do this service,” Baskin says. “People don’t really get tired of it. It’s really easy—it’s just like the trash service or the recycling service, and I think it’s more sustainable that way than something people are gonna do for maybe six months and then say, ‘Forget about it.’”

Some Athenians, though, are down to get dirty. The Athens-Clarke County Recycling Division and UGA Cooperative Extension offer the Georgia Master Composter Program, a nine-week course that gives students a thorough knowledge of composting methods, soil types, the biology of composting and more.

Program participants include backyard gardeners, college students, retirees, small farmers and others. Post-graduation, they are expected to share their newfound knowledge by volunteering—40 hours their first year, 20 each year after that. This may be done in children’s classrooms, at a farmers market, in community gardens or elsewhere. “They’re wanting that education, but they also have a desire to pass the information along to the community,” says ACC Cooperative Extension agent Amanda Tedrow.

Students learn from the community, as well. They visit “a small farm, a small composting operation, a community garden and a backyard facility,” Tedrow says. “We just want them to see different scales, different methods of composting, and actually get some hands-on time.”

And all those things that can go wrong in a pile? Master Composters learn to fix them. “We actually have, essentially, an entire class on troubleshooting,” Tedrow says. This means being able to identify compost that is too wet, too dry or too smelly, and being able to differentiate between bad bugs and helpful ones.

Often, Tedrow says, program graduates are called upon to solve pest problems or revive long-abandoned piles in community gardens. “We just make sure that the Master Composters are ready to address questions like that,” she says.

Athenians with compost questions can also reach out to the ACC Recycling Division, which maintains a composting facility at the landfill. The county composts all of its leaf-and-limb pickup and 25 percent of incoming biosolids from the wastewater treatment facility, says Suki Janssen, director of the Solid Waste Department.

ACC Recycling doesn’t yet provide countywide compost pickup, but it might be coming. Janssen says the division is looking at the potential costs such a service might entail. “It’s gonna boil down to community support,” Janssen says. “So we’re looking at all those costs, and then we’ll take those costs up to the Mayor and Commission and see if they will approve that activity for the Solid Waste Department.”

Janssen says the Recycling Division hopes to implement a pilot compost pickup program at area schools this year. In the meantime, partnerships among the division, Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful and UGA Cooperative Extension enable community outreach through the Master Composter Program, K-12 classroom education, seminars on composting basics and International Compost Awareness Week in May. The Let Us Compost pile lives at the landfill facility, and the county works with Baskin on larger waste-reduction endeavors like the one at AthFest. “We try to compost when we can at certain events that are more receptive to it,” Janssen says.

She’s also working to change our thoughts on food waste. “Call it food scraps,” she says. “Waste implies that it’s trash. We’re trying to get people to look at food scraps differently—if you call it food waste, that implies that it should just go into the landfill. ‘Scraps’ kinda gives a different connotation.”

And, as Baskin knows, a pile of scraps can be powerful. “It’s really, really important for the soil. It helps with water retention, and it makes the soil more nutritious so that more food can grow—and you don’t need very much of it,” she says. “So it’s kind of like magic.”

Waste Not, Want Rot

The EPA says that about 15 percent of municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. is food scraps and 14 percent is yard waste. When this organic matter is broken down in the presence of oxygen by bacteria and other soil organisms (aerobic decomposition), carbon dioxide is released as part of the natural carbon cycle: CO2 that was absorbed from the atmosphere as the material grew will go back to whence it came as it breaks down. Broadly speaking, there is no net gain or loss of greenhouse gases in this process.

When organic material is trapped in an oxygen-free environment such as a landfill, anaerobic bacteria slowly consume it to produce biogas—mostly methane with some CO2 and trace amounts of foul-smelling and corrosive hydrogen sulfide. Methane is 21–25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So, while it takes a very, very long time, putting organics in the landfill effectively amplifies by many times the global warming potential of those materials that would have otherwise had a net zero impact if allowed to decompose in air.

Many landfill operators flare off the biogas, mostly as an odor control strategy but with the added benefit of converting the methane into CO2 and water vapor via combustion. In October 2013 Athens-Clarke County’s landfill was equipped with a system that uses collected biogas to fire a generator that puts electricity on the grid. This is the best solution to deal with organics that were buried over the last several decades, but it is an imperfect system. It is better still to keep organics out of the landfill in the first place, and fortunately in Athens we have a lot of ways to do that. [Jason Perry]