Composting can turn food waste into ‘black gold’

It is spring, and my attention has returned to my neglected compost pile. It’s a 4-by-4 foot rather unsightly area in my background where I toss things like coffee grounds and vegetable scraps and wait for it to miraculously turn into wonderful fresh smelling compost.

The last time I looked there seemed to be lots of happy worms, but that was months ago. I am at the age now where I no longer garden much and must hire someone to turn the pile, periodically. It no longer gets the regular care it needs. I also no longer have a need for much compost since I only have containers with flowers in them and a few houseplants.

I know why I should be a better composter. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in the U.S. we generate some 66 million tons of food waste and only 5% is composted. Food waste makes up 24% of municipal solid waste. Once there, that wasted food is responsible for 58% of our landfill methane emissions. Not only are we generating massive amounts of methane, but we are also throwing away valuable nutrients.

Worldwide, a third of all food ends up in landfills. What composting does is turn that waste into what farmers call “black gold.” You can buy this black gold at your gardening store, or you can make your own. Lots of communities like Brooklyn, Manhattan, D.C., and Seattle are now implementing curbside food waste collection. So is California.

On a small scale, as I have attempted to do, you can make your own. You need three things: food scraps (greens) which are high in nitrogen, yard trimmings and leaves (browns) which are high in carbon, and water. Here in the desert, you need regular water, or your pile will dry out and die. And you may not have the right balance of greens and browns available. In a balanced moist pile, tiny microbes decompose everything through a process called aerobic digestion. Unlike anaerobic indigestion, this process does not produce methane. But it requires oxygen, thus the need to turn it regularly.

Forest Abbot-Lum is the Composter in Residence at the Yale Sustainable Food Program. Yes, that is his job title. He says that you must have a perfect ratio of greens and browns, and that browns can include leaves, twigs, sticks and cardboard. “The goal,” he says, “is to lay out a diverse buffet for microorganisms to eat as quickly as possible.”

According to Dr. Whendee Silver of the Department of Environment Science at UC Berkeley: “What happens during the composting process is that the complex community of microbes that make up organic material, which we call feedstocks, starts to break it down in a feeding frenzy. As that happens the temperature of the compost pile rises dramatically. When material has reached a point at which the microbes do not have the tools to break it down, microbial activity decreases and the temperature drops dramatically,” Silver says. “The material decay includes some of the microbial bodies, recombined constituents of the original feedstock like materials. Together these create a slow-release fertilizer that is ready to be added to soil.”

I want to do my part, but my situation has changed. I don’t generate much food waste anymore, I don’t have a need for a lot of compost, and I really don’t want to pay somebody to turn the pile for me. I also am tired of looking at my unsightly neglected compost pile.

So, I’ve investigated some other options. While there is no governmental curbside service that collects food scraps here, Reunity Resources in Santa Fe will pick up your food scraps on a regular basis for a fee. You can also take food scraps to their facility where they can be added to their giant block-long compost piles.

But I have another plan. My friend Shirley was recently visiting, and she suggested that I might consider an electric composter. She has a product called Lomi. They are not inexpensive, but they do seem to do the trick at least to some degree.

You can put most food waste in including eggshells and coffee filters, as well as some yard and plant trimmings. It is no more noisy than a dishwasher and does not emit an unpleasant smell. Yes, it uses a small amount of electricity, between 0.6 kw and 1 kw per use, but I have solar. It may be a good solution for many of us, including apartment dwellers.

Published on April 8, 2024, in the Albuquerque Journal.

© Judith Polich. All Rights Reserved. May be republished with author’s written consent and proper attribution.

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