Composting: Nothing is Wasted

[This post is part of our continuing series on crafting loving landscapes, organized under the Back to the Garden tag.)

Apropos to our discussion of food waste last week, our friend Alice sent us a clipping from the Wall Street Journal about industry response to the problem of food wastage. (Thanks, Alice!) It seems that appliance and household-product manufacturers have, through consultation and study, discovered that consumers feel deep-seated guilt about wasting food.

“It’s a guilt that doesn’t only have to do with money. It just feels wrong,” says Gaston Vaneria, vice  president of marketing for Newell Rubbermaid Inc.’s Rubbermaid consumer line, which includes food storage containers. “Consumers have the feeling of not being competent…”  (WSJ, April 22, 2015, D1)

Despite our guilt, according the WSJ, we’re wasting more food all the time. We’re wasting three times more than we wasted in 1960. That makes sense in lots of ways, including the advent of all these super-sized retailers with their perverse economies of scale inducing us to buy food in huge quantities, combined with, perhaps, a greater recent emphasis on eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, but oddly, we’re somehow wasting 20% more now than we did in just back in 2000.

The response of the industry to our guilt is–of course–to offer us more crap to choke the landfills new consumer products to address our needs, everything from smart refrigerators which promise to keep veggies longer, to plastic storage containers with replaceable charcoal filters in the lids.

My response, as you probably predicted, is to suggest that we deal with our guilt and our rotten vegetables by first, trying not to be so wasteful, and second, by composting, because spoiled food is not the end of a journey, it’s simply the beginning of a new journey.

O, Compost, my Compost! It’s hard not to get sappy about my love for compost. If I could write a poem to compost, I would. And I don’t think I’m alone in my compostophilia. Many clear-headed, rational individuals who I know will get a little sentimental, if not downright metaphysical, when they talk about what their compost piles mean to them.

Forget that compost is the best way to keep green matter out of the landfills, to save space and reduce methane emissions into the atmosphere. Forget about the great good compost does for the life of the soil. Forget that compost is the alpha and omega of organic gardening, and that any good gardener doesn’t like to see so much as a carrot peel go to waste, because it seems you can never have enough compost. No, just forget the vast practical utility of compost and think about what it symbolizes.

Compost is the purest alchemy. It is the nigredo, the black matter of putrefaction, which is the first step on the path to creating the philosopher’s stone.

As we tend the pile, we see the scraps and clippings, recognizable at first, wither and dissolve slowly into the whole, and we think about our own individuality, our own fates, and the way our lives give back to the world.

We see how nourishment can come out of loss, how new experience rises out of past mistakes.

We see also the great cycle of life. Everything changes, but nothing is lost.

What can compost not accept? What can it not forgive?

Simply put, keeping a compost pile is good is as good for your soul as it is for your soil.

Waste Not

If you can’t keep a compost pile, agitate to make your city adopt more comprehensive “green waste” policies. Many cities have disposal bins for yard trimmings, which are composted at city facilities, but we need community composting facilities to capture and reclaim food waste from homes, schools, businesses and restaurants.

You also may be able to keep a worm bin if you can’t keep a compost pile, and we’ll talk more about those soon.

If you want to start a compost pile, check out this comprehensive, free pdf booklet from Cornell University on the topic.

I’d also recommend keeping your eye out for classes–free composting classes offered by various community agencies are pretty easy to come by, and sometimes they even come with free or discounted bins.

As you get into it, you’ll find there are different styles of composting. Don’t let this confuse you or put you off. The most important thing to remember is that you can find a method that works for you. Don’t get hung up on looking for the perfect solution, just start any way you can. You can refine as you go. Compost doesn’t mind.

And I’m not even going to talk about the…uh…fertile frontier of human waste composting here–but you know we’re always thinking about it!

038 The Ground Rules with Nance Klehm

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On this week’s episode of the Root Simple podcast we talk with Nance Klehm about The Ground Rules. Nance’s project gathers waste from restaurants and institutions in Chicago, composts that waste and then uses the resulting compost along with mushrooms and plants to bioremediate damaged urban soils. Nance describes The Ground Rules as “re-imagining waste and biological infrastructures.” You can find out more about the project on the Social Ecologies website and on Nance’s personal website. There’s also a video about The Ground Rules. If you’re in Chicago you can visit Nance and Emmanual Pratt’s exhibition, For the Common Good: Meet the Remediators.

Nance’s explanation of The Ground Rules is really inspiring. She’s developing a manual to help people develop similar programs and will be coming out with a book about soil in the fall.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Abandonded Christmas trees: the sad sights of January

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The last of the Christmas trees are appearing on sidewalks and curbs. When I look at these, all I see is organic matter crying out to return to the earth. These trees don’t want to go to the landfill, they want to stay in the flow, to become nutrients and habitat. The way I see it, we owe them decent treatment in return for the joy they gave us over the holidays.

It’s not that hard to strip the branches off a tree, and throw those branches and needles beneath another tree as mulch. The trunk can be made into firewood–or hugelkultur!

(Of course you don’t want to mulch with trees sprayed with fire retardant or anything other fishy business)

Compost Piles on Fire!

Image: Wikimedia.

Image: Wikimedia.

Call it a weird, unintended consequence of our ongoing drug war, but apparently indoor compost piles are igniting house fires all across the U.S. Pot growers stack up their leftover biomass and, soon after, the whole house goes up in a puff of smoke, so to speak.

It got me wondering about two things. What’s the biology of a compost pile fire? And do non-pot growing folks in cold climates commonly have indoor compost piles?

First the biology. BioCycle has a whole article on fire prevention in municipal composting facilities that covers this common problem.

So what situation(s) can lead to a fire? Here’s what can happen with a low moisture, large pile with little air exchange, combined with water getting into the pile in a place where there is enough air to support biological activity and chemical oxidation, but not enough to cool the pile.

An old, dry compost pile, or a pile of overs screened out of the finished product, is a case in point. Water seeping into the dry compost can restart microbial activity and initiate reheating. A “macropore” or crack from the hot spot to the surface often develops into a vent, or chimney. Air movement up through this vent draws more oxygen into the hot spot where heat is being generated, rapidly escalating the transition from a biological fire to smoke and glowing embers. Appearance of this hot, humid air at the surface can be an important indicator that heating is taking place inside the pile.

Compost pile fires are unlikely for most home scale gardeners. One preventative technique recommended in the Biocycle article is to keep piles smaller than 12 feet high. Not a problem for most backyard gardeners.

Now a question for our readers around the world: who, other than pot growers, have indoor compost piles?

015 Worm Composting and Skunks

Our worm bin.

Our worm bin.

On the fifteenth episode of the Root Simple Podcast Kelly and Erik discuss how our cleaning project is going, worm composting, the ongoing skunk menace in our garden and we review two books. Apologies for some clipping in the audio and the cat interruptions.

Worms
During the worm composting segment we cover:

Skunks

What are we reading

Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.

Bread: A Global History By William Rubel.

Kelly mentions Werner Herzog’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.