Breaking Down Composting
This week is International Compost Awareness Week! The state of Hawaii defines composting as “a process in which organic solid wastes, such as biosolids (sewage sludge), green or yard waste materials, manures, and non-treated wood chips and shavings, are biologically decomposed and stabilized under controlled conditions to produce a stable humus-like mulch or soil amendment. This term includes the processing of organic and non-treated wood waste materials for the generation of wood chips or other materials that can be used as soil amendment, planting mixes, mulches for horticultural and agricultural applications, landfill cover, and land reclamation.”
National studies show that approximately 1/4 of the waste that we produce is organic material (like grass clippings & food waste) that can be composted. But the actual recovery rate for organic materials is much, much lower. Aka all this stuff is going to an incinerator or a landfill. When organic material is placed in a landfill, it starts breaking down anaerobically (without oxygen) and produces methane gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect, trapping heat and warming the atmosphere. Yikes. So what can we do to harness all this carbon-rich material for our benefit?
At a large scale composting facility, yard waste, like grass clippings and hedge trimmings, is placed in a large grinding machine and ground into smaller, more homogenous pieces. This material is placed in a rectangular shape (called a windrow) and nature starts to do its thing. As the material starts to break down, heat is created from these reactions especially in the middle of the windrow. The pile is “turned” a few times a week to keep it at the optimum temperature for decomposition to occur but not hot enough to kill off the microorganisms doing all the work, or start a fire. Finally, the material will run through a screener that ensures all of the large pieces and any bits of trash contamination are pulled out and separated from the final product. Ta-da! It’s time for you to take it back to your garden to feed your soil and plants.
So how can you contribute to the recycling of organic material and diversion from the landfill?
🌱 If your county trash service provides a ‘green’ bin, use it! If they don’t, ask for it or check to see if they provide a drop-off spot nearby! Make sure you check what’s accepted. Is it yard waste only, or can you place your kitchen food scraps in there too?
🌱 Try not to get caught up in the fad of “compostable” and “biodegradable” one-time use products. The below photo is a demonstration of compostable products at a composting facility. They take a very, very long time to degrade and most composting facilities don’t accept them. They cause a space problem at facilities because the carbon-nitrogen ratio in the windrow needs to be maintained in piles, so more piles are created than would be without the disposable products.
🌱 Lastly, be a consumer of compost! Recycling of organic materials happens because there is a market for the product created. If you have a garden, a lawn, or farmland, take advantage of the benefits of compost and help keep your local composter in business!