Sunday, November 23, 2008

Can Compost Save Planet Earth?

That's the question I posed in my Powerpoint presentation yesterday at the Historical Society of Washington. And about 60 determined souls braved arctic temperatures and bitter winds to show up at 10 am to hear it.

During two years as president of D.C. Urban Gardeners, I never ceased to be amazed at the number inquiries about composting. And not just from gardeners. No, there are many renters and apartment dwellers out there who want to do something good for the planet by recycling their kitchen scraps. They want to know how to compost.

Yet even here in the nation's capitol we are woefully behind in responding to this pent-up urge to compost. Unlike jurisdictions such as San Francisco, which has implemented curbside recycling of food waste and dirty paper for composting, there is virtually no public composting program or infrastructure in the District of Columbia.

In fact, crews have been busy all over town lately sucking up leaves into big trucks and hauling them off presumably to a landfill. In the past, some of those leaves have been composted on a trial basis and made available at a municipal transfer station that could take you half a day and a satellite imaging system to find.

So people want to know not just the basics of composting--what kind of bin to use, how to avoid nasty smells and rats--but where they can take their food scraps to be composted, or, if they are composting with worms, where they can take the finished castings. (Okay, how about spreading them around in the nearest curbside planting?)

In other words, people need help, and the city is not offering any.

The District is in a hard place--we are a small city/state crowded on all sides by Virginia and Maryland with not a lot of big open lots for composting. But my reading is that so many people are ready to start composting, something will have to give soon.

Note: There are many composting resources linked from this blog, starting with a series of videos detailing how to compost. For a whole list of other places where you can learn more about composting, composting with worms and composting bins, scroll down to the lower right.


Anonymous said...

Has it not been documented that composting actually adds green house gases? I am sure there are such publications on this. So far, and because of this - my husband will not let us compost...


Meg Wolff said...

You are a national treasure!

Meg Wolff said...

p.s. If you don't mind (pls. let me know), I added a permanent link to your composting section. It is on the left toolbar of my blog. "Learn How To Compost With Ed Bruske, The Slow Cook, from DC."

Ed Bruske said...

ejk, I have never seen any documentation that composting by humans adds any significant amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, beyond what the decay of the world's organic matter would add without human intervention. I would love to see such documentation. Can you site a reference? On the other hand, I have seen it postutated that composting at extremely high temperatures--e.g. "hot" composting--does create for CO2 that slow--e.g "cold"--composting. One of the biggest produces of greenhouse gases is livestock. So maybe we should all stop eating meat?

Ed Bruske said...

Meg, you are too kind. By all means, spread the word about composting wherever you can.

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

I recently attended a presentation by Dr. Timothy LaSalle of the Rodale Institute who made the case (with stats) that true organic agriculture with abundant use of compost and cover crops actually helps to sequester CO2 in the soil - and it could be a significant amount. I don't have the numbers here as I type but I took notes - and it was impressive.

Very enlightening.


Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, thanks for that report. There was a study out of the University of Illinois not long ago that had similar findings: using artificial fertilizers burned up much more of the organic matter in the soil (creating CO2) than did farming organically with cover crops. The original question was whether making compost spews greenhouse gases, and I have yet to find someone who can nail down a specific answer to that question.

Justin said...

I found out about the composting talk as it was going on. I would have liked to be there. Do you know where I can get a batch of worms to start a worm farm under my sink? Buying them seems so...wrong.

Nate said...

Composting feels right and natural to me. It is the best and oldest form of recycling. Thanks for this resource.


Matt said...

e.j.k, yes, you're right composting does create CO2, and as Ed says, the bigger the scale and the more heat involved, the greater the levels of CO2 produced. However, the alternative is that organic household and garden waste is sent to landfill, where the anaerobic breakdown of waste creates methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2. The ideal solution is small scale composting in our own back yards where collectively we can have a huge impact. Best of luck!

splashylady said...

composting/rotting is bound to happen to scraps reguardless of us getting involved. In fact the food we intake compost within the body.
My garden offers better growth at the compost pile than any place else. (BTW I don't plant the tomatoes, canalopes, squash, cucumber .... that volunteers there)
I guess the idea that growing ones own veggies cuts back on ones earth foot print. Shall we take the time to look at how many stages vegtables go through before they get through our front door?

Plants clean the air, compost adds valuable fertile soil that we would otherwise use chemicals for.

there is no easy way to deal with the crisis we have gotten the earth into.
however giving back what you took from mother earth has to be the right thing to do.
Mother earth grows on her own and I assure compost on her own, It's only natural, who are we to question the natural order?

maybe people should do more composting and growing of veggies and flowers ..............
and less driving, turning more electric power off, investing in products that are more earth friendly,
above all get rid of our disposable world.

for those folks whom worry about green house gasses, have you stopped eating meat?
done for now ..... interesting blog I thought

Ed Bruske said...

SL, good thoughts all

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your report and you're right composting does create CO2 but i am not sure about your question.
But still being a climate change activist i have something interesting for you.
We've got to be united to save earth! Earth Hour is practiced at large scale in all developed and developing countries but there has been more publicity and awareness this year, as well as participation from large corporations like which is a good sign - that there is still hope and that people still care!

Let's all do this, no matter where you are! Saturday, 28 March 2009. Lights off from 8.30pm to 9.30pm!