From one bag of trash every week to one bag every three weeks. That’s what my wife, dog and I now produce.
How’d we get there? Composting our food and yard waste. As an added bonus to not having to haul heavy, stinky garbage, we’ll have nutrient-rich compost to feed our garden in about a month. Getting here took a bit of trial and error.
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Humans have been composting for thousands of years, so it must be easy — at least that’s what we thought. We constructed a wood frame and surrounded it with chicken wire to deter pests. We tossed on soil, yard waste and dumped in the first bucket of food scraps. Not long after, my wife heard a rustling noise coming from the corner of the yard.
Although vertically challenged, our beagle, lured by her nose, used her girth to barrel into the pile for scraps. Any compost guide worth its compostable pages will tell you if you keep meat and dairy out of the pile, you’re not likely to have rodents. While that may be true for raccoons and other scavengers, our omnivorous beagle seems to enjoy banana peels, spinach stems and coffee grounds. I guess we shouldn’t expect an animal who regularly eats poop to be discerning.
After taxing our vocal chords for a few months screaming “out!” we attended the city of Columbia’s composting class to seek answers. We found a mound of them and earned a certificate to purchase an enclosed bin for $20, which solved the beagle problem. But I learned we had a few other issues to turn over.
If you toss food scraps (no meat or dairy) and yard waste in a pile and do nothing else, it will decompose. You can then put the product on your garden, although you might have to wait until next year. With just a little bit of planning and management, you can have nutrient-rich compost in two months, all while benefiting the environment.
Steve Callis is a master gardener who has been composting for 20 years. He had some tips to help 18 other aspiring composters and me on a warm May morning at Capen Park:
1. Put in two parts brown (high in carbon, like leaves) for every one part green (high in nitrogen, like grass clippings)
2. You want your pile to get pretty hot, up to 140 degrees in the middle. Check it with a meat thermometer, or stick a piece of rebar in the middle to gauge the heat. The top of the rebar should be warm to the touch. If it’s too cold, adding manure (not pet poop) can help bring up the temperature, which helps break down molecules.
3. If you want your pile to work faster, cut food waste into small chunks and turn it about once per week. This allows the organisms to break down the material faster and allows more oxygen to move through the pile, which also expedites the process and helps prevent odors.
4. Like nearly all life on the planet, your compost needs water. “Grab a handful of compost and squeeze it. You should get a few drops of moisture,” Callis said. If you get more, then it’s too wet; less and it’s too dry.
5. When it's ready, it should be brown and crumbly. “If you can’t tell what it started out as, it’s probably finished,” Callis said. If it’s not finished, be patient.
Why go to the trouble? Adam Saunders, board president of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, has a ready answer.
“Composting is a really simple way to recycle waste you create, " he said. "That will benefit your local environment by adding nutrients to where you live and making the natural capital greater for your area. Investing in natural capital by making your soil and environment more productive is going to benefit you, your garden and everybody in the long run."
It’s also going to ease the burden of hauling all that waste to the landfill. According to EPA data, the average American produces about 4.5 lbs of trash per day, adding up to 250 million tons of trash per year. That’s a tough number to imagine, but a report from the University of Utah puts it into conceivable terms:Picture 63,000 full garbage trucks each day for a year. If they were lined up end to end they would stretch halfway to the moon.
Here on earth, Saunders suggests using pallets, which you can buy for $1 from Civic Recycling or find for free from many businesses, to construct your compost bin. Not only do pallets make sturdy walls for your compost bin, giving them another use diverts them from the waste stream. For design inspiration you can check out the city’s compost demonstration site at Capen Park and look in the Missourian’s recent sustainability guide.
Nurturing your lawn and garden, reducing your waste and potentially saving money by not having to purchase compost and soil treatment are great reasons to start your pile today, but experienced composters advise to set your goals accordingly and choose the right tool for the job — a pitchfork rather than a shovel to turn the pile — unless you’re trying to combine composting with your workout routine.
Really want to reduce your impact? Check out the Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins for guidance on how to become your own closed system by composting human waste.
Michael Burden is a journalism graduate student at MU, a graduate instructor and the MU campus representative for the Peace Corps.