The dirt on composting


Spring is here, buds are forming on trees, and soon flowers will start blooming. It’s time to organize your yard and plant some seeds. It’s also the perfect time to think about composting.

“Twenty five percent of the waste we throw away in the garbage is compostable,” said Suzanne Jarosz, Student Recycling Coordinator at University of Minnesota. Jarosz went on to explain the benefits of composting, “It’s really good for soil; we use it here at the university for the landscaping. It has amazing nutrients that you really can’t get anywhere else.” Great soil equals great vegetables and flowers, and it’s the perfect way to get rid of waste.

When organics or food waste enters a landfill it turns into methane, which is a serious pollutant. “Methane is 23 times worse for the environment than CO2,” explained Eureka Recycling’s CEO and President, Susan Hubbard.

“There is a huge environmental benefit from composting,” said Hubbard, “It’s not just about the dirt.” When organics are recycled they produce soil rather than methane.

Eureka Recycling

Eureka does zero waste events such as Wishes for the Sky, Pride Block Party, Living Green Expo, and Basilica Block Party. They are a supplier and anybody can talk to Eureka about organizing a zero waste event.

Eureka provides training to co ops, coffee shops and restaurants on recycling and composting. One example is the Red Stag, in Northeast Minneapolis.

Eureka helped the State Fair compost an estimated 10,000 ears of corn a day, and provided composting for many of the buildings.

In 2001, Eureka started to explore the economic and ecological viability of composting in the Twin Cities. They did a pilot program in 400 St. Paul homes. A few families cancelled trash pickup because of this and many did not want to give back the compost bins when the experiments were done.

“The best, most environmental way to compost is at home,” according to Hubbard. Anyone who has a backyard can do the traditional compost bin. The structure of the container or bin is not as important as what goes inside. The compost shouldn’t get too wet or too dry. Try mixing in food scraps with dry leaves to create a nice mixture. Compost novices should stay away from meats, milk, cheese, oils, or similar foods. These items will make you compost smell and will attract wild animals.

With spring here, you should be smelling flowers, not compost. According to Hubbard and Kennedy compost should have an earthy smell. “If you are smelling it, you are not doing it right,” Hubbard commented.

Smells of vomit, ammonia, or decaying animals mean that you have drowned your compost. Let it dry out or mix in some dry matter like straw, leaves, or hay to correct the smelly problem.

Jarosz also cautions against one other thing, “With the bio-degradable or compostable dinner ware you have to be really careful. A lot [of compostables] have plastic substrates in them. Most of it will compose, but you are left with plastic film that doesn’t do anything. In a personal composting setting, I wouldn’t recommend doing that.”

Apartment dwellers can’t be expected to build a compost bin in the parking lot or a nearby park, but they can start small with worm composting in their building. A 20 gallon bucket or wooden box, approximately 20 inches high, and a handful of Red Wriggler worms will get the worm composting operation started. The worms can be ordered on-line from LaVerme’s Worms, which also offers information about vermicomposting.

“Kids love it,” said Dianna Kennedy, Director of Communications at Eureka Recycling. Vermicomposting is the technical term and it produces extremely rich soil. All worms will produce soil, but special worms are needed for indoor composting. The downside is that the worms will not eat everything, Hubbard explained. They eat mostly fruits and vegetables but not a lot of citrus or banana peels and nothing too greasy. Vermicomposting is virtually odor-free.

Curbside compost pick-up is coming soon to St. Paul. Eureka Recycling is working with the city on this project. Though Eureka cannot name an exact start date, it says the project will begin within the year.

“I think people are looking for the next step,” Hubbard enthused. Also called organic recycling, this program is as easy to use as regular recycling.

“It’s a natural step,” agreed Jarosz, “It takes the same amount of effort to throw away organic waste as it does to put your bottle or can in the appropriate container.”

Some smaller cities like Wayzata and Minnetonka are already curbside composting.

Useful Links

Information on composting from Eureka
Build your own compost bin
Gardenworks (includes link to PDF file on composting)
LaVerme’s Worms has information on vermicomposting

The Linden Hills neighborhood in Minneapolis is starting a pilot composting program in April, according to the Linden Hills Power & Light Web site. The Web site describes the pilot program:

Once you sign up to participate in the pilot (see above), the city will deliver a 65 gallon green “organics” cart to your home. It looks very similar to your normal black wheeled bin that you bring out to the curb before your garbage collector arrives. From then on, you will wheel both bins out to the curb on your regular collection day and the city will take your compostable garbage (green cart), and your non-compostable garbage (black cart).

If you want to compost, but are too busy to worry about how wet your bin is getting or what foods are wrong or right, start out the simplest way possible, with a compost bin for leaves. Rake them into it in the fall and let them be; you will have fresh, new dirt at the bottom come spring.

Melissa Slachetka contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.