Last New Horizons column was on building the soil. There were many strategies briefly mentioned, so I wanted to dive into compost more in depth. Compost is the natural process of aerobic decomposition and recycling of organic material into a humus rich soil amendment, and it is critical for multiple reasons.
Food waste and loss accounts for up to 40% of all food produced, and 31% of that is at the retail and consumer level corresponding to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). That equates to 218.9 pounds of food waste per person, per year in the United States. One in six people in the U.S. face food insecurity, meaning they have a lack of access for enough food for all household members.
The wasted food adds unnecessary pollution, erosion and fossil fuel consumption. Agriculture is responsible for one-third of greenhouse gases and greatly contributes to climate change. Also, food waste dumped into landfills creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
The USDA started a program in 2013 called the Food Waste Challenge. Their goals are to: Reduce food waste by improving product development, storage, shopping/ordering, marketing, labeling, and cooking methods; Recover food waste by connecting potential food donors to hunger relief organizations like food banks and pantries; Recycle food waste to feed animals or to create compost, bioenergy and natural fertilizers. Maybe we could get our local grocery stores and restaurants to join the challenge. More information here: https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm
As individuals, we can take several steps to reduce food waste in landfills. First, buy only the perishable foods that you can eat, and process food you cannot by freezing, drying or canning it. Give excess food to your neighbor instead of throwing it out. Nothing builds community like sharing food. We must change from being a disposable society to one that values every resource.
Second, compost your food scraps. There are several ways to compost. A compost bin outside is a typical way many choose. Here in the mountains we need to be careful not to attract bears, but I have a compost bin and have not had a problem (knock on wood). Perhaps they are just not interested in my vegetable scraps or it is in a safe location. This type of compost requires a balance of air, moisture, green material (vegetable/fruit scraps, coffee grounds, etc.), and brown material (carbon including dried leaves, straw, cardboard, etc.). Microbes break down the food and turn it into a nutrient-rich amendment to the soil. Many manufacturers make compost bins, and I recommend a round tumbler-style that you can easily turn with a crank if you are buying one. You will also need at least two, as when one is full, it will need to decompose for a while before you can use it, and then you can start on the other one. If you are scared of animals getting into your food compost, use your outdoor bin for debris from the yard or chicken coop.
Another compost method is vermiculture. This can be a large-scale outdoor operation, but is often using red-wiggler worms that you store in a container in your house. They live well in highly populated areas, can eat half of their body weight every day, and can double their population every three months. They produce worm castings, which have exponentially more nitrogen, phosphates and potassium among other nutrients as well as a high microbe population that jump-start container and outdoor soil. I use 5-gallon buckets for my worms, but there are also effective manufactured worm containers for purchase. They are easy, require a small space, do not smell, and are amazingly efficient. I am sure I could give my worms more attention, but they are thriving regardless of my occasional neglect, and create a fudge-like soil amendment that feeds my plants.
There are other ways to compost as well, but these methods are the easiest. One question I am repeatedly asked about composting is wouldn’t food waste in a landfill create compost and help break down the trash? Methane gas is created from a anaerobic decomposition from a lack of oxygen. Compost does not create methane gas because it is aerobic and has the right balance of the green and brown materials, making a healthy home for microbes to break down the scraps and recycles it into a valuable soil amendment.
Reducing food waste makes sense environmentally, socially, and economically.
Robyn Wilson has degrees in International Business, Sustainable Communities, and Bilingual and Multicultural Education. She teaches permaculture design at Colorado Mesa University. Robyn returned to Grand County to manage the cabin community of Grandma Miller’s New Horizons. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org