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WMEAC: Turning belief into action by composting

• Apr 20, 2018 at 4:00 PM

Despite the fickle April weather, Michiganders know that spring is all-but here. Soon everyone will be breaking out their shorts and sandals and getting outside to try and soak up some vitamin D.

No doubt that, for some of us, that will mean yard work, planting a garden or grilling shish-kebabs. While any of those things can be pretty satisfying, the ecologically conscious homeowner can squeeze one more satisfying activity into all three at once: composting. It keeps your garbage bin, and your local landfill, emptier and your garden happier.

For some, “composting” may bring up images of smelly, rotting fruit or piles of matted grass clippings that lay in the corner of the yard. But when done right, it can be a scent-free and productive process.

"Every two weeks I go out there and work for 15 minutes," said Ken Freestone, a certified master composter through the Michigan State University Extension.

Every couple of weeks he flips his compost bin, a 3-foot cube, and stirs the compost inside. Stirring the compost occasionally helps keep air and moisture spread evenly through the bin. The real work is done by the bugs and microorganisms in the compost pile, breaking down the food scraps and yard waste.

"I consider myself to be the hired help," Freestone said. “It’s what nature does all by itself.”

He estimates that he gets 20-30 gallons of usable compost every couple of weeks, and uses it in his gardens as “fabulous” soil.

But composting isn’t just for gardeners or homeowners.

Brittany Goode, a sales associate with Aldea Coffee, has been working for the last 18 months on improving their composting and recycling practices. They’ve become almost entirely waste-free, composting coffee filters and muffin wrappers and recycling milk jugs, bottles and cans.

"For the most part, everything is either recyclable or compostable," Goode said.

Aldea cleans, sorts and bags their recyclables, storing them in homemade bins until they’re ready to be brought to the recycling center (they’re working to arrange a pick-up). They also save their coffee grinds, filters, muffin wrappers and other leftover scraps in 5-gallon buckets for a local composter to bring home.

It didn’t just stop behind the counter, though. They removed stir-sticks and straws from their counters, having customers use spoons that they collect and wash instead. Their garbage can has been replaced with a dish bin, which the employees sort into the recycling, compost and sink for washing. She says her customers have been interested and receptive.

"It's been really rewarding to witness all that happening," Goode said.

At Aldea, they keep sorting buckets under their sink for recycle and compost. Freestone keeps a small container on his counter, where he prepares food, which he empties into a 5-gallon bucket by the back door, which is emptied into the main bin a couple of times a week.

“I know I will do it if I do it in small steps,” Freestone said. The only organic things that can’t go into compost are meat or dairy products. He says they don’t break down well, and can smell or attract “critters.”

If you want to compost, but aren’t sure if you have the green thumb to put the soil to use, Freestone says to talk to your neighbors. They might be willing to share their compost bin, or your compost bin’s product.

"I had neighbors who were constantly coming over and grabbing a couple buckets full of compost to use because they were putting scraps in my compost pile, too," he said.

There are also commercial compost pick-up services that work like trash pick-up services. Some of these can handle animal products like dairy, that Freestone recommends keeping out of your compost at home.

As you warm up the grill and fire up the lawnmower, remember those bell pepper scraps from your shish-kebabs can be mixed in with the grass clippings and bush trimmings and re-used in your garden in less than a month. Composting is a low-cost, light-work way for individuals or businesses to put their ecological beliefs into action.

Anyone interested in learning about compost bin construction, how to sort or stir compost, or anything else can get a chance to talk with Ken Freestone at a DIY Composting Workshop being held at the Momentum Center for Social Engagement in Grand Haven at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 25. Staff from Aldea Coffee and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council will also be present.

Joshua Vissers wrote this column on behalf of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, where he has been working as an intern.

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