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WMEAC: Backyard composting can be clean, easy and available for anyone

• Nov 17, 2017 at 3:00 PM

It is a common misconception that composting is a dirty process that will create a stench in the neighborhood and lure raccoons and other vermin to your yard. In reality, when practiced correctly, composting is a clean, easy and odorless process that will not only benefit the individual, but also the community and the environment at large.

The Kent County Solid Waste Commission has a goal to reduce the amount of garbage entering the landfill by 90 percent by the year 2030. This seemingly ambitious goal is not so unrealistic when one considers that 26 percent of the waste stream that enters a landfill is compostable yard waste and food scraps.

Master Composter, WMEAC member and Holland resident Ken Freestone kept track and found that his two-person household alone produced 20-30 gallons of compostable organic waste every 2-3 weeks. If compost piles and receptacles were employed widely throughout West Michigan, it would be a significant step in bringing us closer to the landfill reduction goal, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The scientific breakdown of organic waste is quite simple. When carbon-rich “brown” material such as dry leaves or straw is mixed with nitrogen-rich “green” material such as grass clippings or fruit rinds, and exposed to oxygen, the compost undergoes aerobic decomposition. The byproducts of this are a highly fertile, organic soil and carbon dioxide. However, when the organic waste is buried in a landfill and not exposed to oxygen, it undergoes anaerobic decomposition, and emits methane gas as a byproduct, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide!

Beyond the environmental and communal benefits of composting, it can also be a money-saving endeavor for the home gardener. As the detriments of industrial farming become more prevalent, so do home gardens in urban and suburban areas. With organic topsoil pricing in at around $10 per 2 cubic feet, depending on the size of your garden, you could be looking at spending anywhere from tens to hundreds of dollars — just for dirt. This expenditure can be completely averted by simply piling up food scraps and yard waste, turning it every 2-3 weeks, and letting the micro-organisms break it all down.

Compost turns a once-living thing into soil conditioner, weed preventer and fertilizer all in one that is more beneficial for your garden than anything you could buy at your local home improvement store.

Putting together a bin for composting should be very simple for the average “do-it-yourself” tinkerer/gardener. While bins and kits can be purchased directly off the shelves of most hardware stores or garden centers, a wide array of plans can be found on the internet that detail how to create compost bins from salvaged or upcycled materials. Winter is a great time to explore designs and start keeping your eyes out for discarded building materials that can be used to build your compost center.

In the interest of keeping material out of the landfill, compost bins can be built from salvaged pallets, old shower doors, or plastic garbage cans that have reached the end of their functional lives to haul from the house to the curb and back once a week.

In keeping with the “upcycling” theme, in 2018, WMEAC plans to introduce classes on building compost bins from the same barrels we use for rain barrels. These classes will also include a beginner’s guide to composting, and may feature vermiculture (worm farming) elements, as well.

Despite the array of benefits, people still seem reluctant to compost. When exposed to the right amount of oxygen, the decomposing organic waste will be odorless and therefore will not attract unwanted scavengers, as many worry it will. The process is simplistic with very little labor for the composter.

“I am just the hired help for the compost,” said Ken Freestone. “I provide the food and I turn the pile, but the micro-organisms do the heavy lifting.”

Composting is beneficial in so many facets — from the individual all the way to the atmosphere. WMEAC is working to make composting a more widespread practice throughout the urban and suburban areas of West Michigan to have a positive impact on all levels of the community. We hope to make backyard composting clean, easy and available for anyone who wishes to partake. 

— By Bill Wood, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council; and Bennett Markus, a student at Grand Valley State University currently working as an eco-journalist for WMEAC.

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