July 22, 2014

LIVING GREEN: Composting doesn’t stop for old man winter

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A patron drops off compost at one of Chittenden Solid Waste District’s bins. CSWD and Green Mountain Compost both offer free compost drop-off, as well as buckets, at their Redmond Road locations. (Observer courtesy photo)

A patron drops off compost at one of Chittenden Solid Waste District’s bins. CSWD and Green Mountain Compost both offer free compost drop-off, as well as buckets, at their Redmond Road locations. (Observer courtesy photo)

By Becka Gregory

Observer staff

Just because temperatures have dropped below zero doesn’t mean your home can’t lessen its waste production this winter. Composting is an easy and effective way to reduce landfill waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average U.S. citizen produced 4.4 pounds of garbage per day in 2011, with organic materials being the largest component.

Composting breaks down organic materials into useful products and diverts that waste from the sole landfill in Vermont, located in the Northeast Kingdom—reducing CO2 from landfill-bound truck trips in the process. Throwing organic wastes into the landfill will not lead to the same decomposition as composting does. In fact, it is almost the opposite. Processes for managing the smell of the landfill prevent organic wastes from breaking down as they do in a compost pile, since landfills are covered daily to reduce the smell and sight of waste, which prevents oxygen from entering the waste piles. Organic materials in landfills often mummify, and if they do decompose, they do so in the absence of air, which produces methane gases.

Though not a quick process, the end game of composting is a nutrient-rich, environmentally friendly soil mix that can be used in outdoor gardens and landscapes and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.

COMPOSTING AT HOME

Backyard composting is an option for those who have space for a compost pile or pit. Pre-fabricated Soil Saver compost bins can be purchased at Williston-based Green Mountain Compost, operated by Chittenden Solid Waste District, to easily get you started, or you can find other compost container options at local hardware stores and more sophisticated indoor composting options online. Generally, an outside pile of one cubic yard or more is best for the insulation needed in chilly Vermont winters.

No matter what the season, make sure your pile is getting the right balance of materials. “Materials that are higher in nitrogen (greens) or carbon (browns), are what makes composting happen, and the microbes that break down waste need both — ideally two parts carbon to one part nitrogen. Add two to three buckets of browns to the pile for each bucket of food scraps,” said Jennifer Baer of Green Mountain Compost.

To keep a backyard compost pile active in the winter, it needs to be insulated, which can be done by covering your pile with a tarp, or using foam or hay bales to prevent the elements from penetrating the pile. Keeping the pile static and adding new material without turning the pile in the winter will also help microbes munch down through the chilly months, as turning your compost breaks up the natural insulation created by the outer layers of the pile.

Moisture levels are important—make sure the pile doesn’t get soaked through from rain or snow, or get blown dry by wind. The worst thing that could happen is that your pile freezes through this winter, but that will not ruin the microbial action happening inside, it just pauses it until spring.

DROPPING OFF COMPOST

If you want to compost but don’t want to take care of a compost pile at home, Green Mountain Compost offers drop-off composting at its facility at 1042 Redmond Road, as does CSWD at 1492 Redmond Road. GMC provides free four-gallon buckets for storing your compost in between drop-offs, complete with a guide on what can and can’t be composted.

If you store your drop-off bucket outside in the winter, try spraying it with a little cooking oil before filling it up. Then, if the food scraps freeze, they will easily slide out of the container at the drop off center. If you store your bucket inside, “something that can help with mitigating odor can be mixing in some of the browns, like leaves, sawdust and paper. Adding some once in a while, such as taking a piece of newspaper and shredding it in there, or soiled napkins or paper towels, can help, and you can compost those items and bring them to the drop-off center,” said Baer. Outside or inside, chopping down materials into smaller particles aids the composting process.

Whether in your backyard or at a drop off center, the most crucial element of successful composting is understanding what can and can’t be composted.

The commercial facilities at Green Mountain Compost and its “arriated static pile” composting process can break down materials that backyard bins can’t handle, such as meat and bones, oils, dairy and soiled paper items, because its piles get to 160 degrees, which is much hotter than backyard piles. GMC is “sort of like a luxury resort for microbes, we give them everything they need to make great compost,” joked Baer. The facility can handle most “compostable” products, but not their plastic counterparts. “There is confusion about certain items, especially now that we have all these compostable products that are being developed. We accept compostable trash liners, plates, cups and clamshells,” said Baer. The facility does not, however, accept compostable utensils due to the difficultly of telling them apart from their plastic counterparts on sight.

For residents and businesses in Williston, composting will become legally required in the near future. Act 148 introduces waste reduction techniques in a step fashion by staggering compliance dates between 2014 and 2020. Changes applicable to Chittenden county include: introducing “Pay-As-You-Throw” pricing structures for trash pickup by 2015; forbidding clean wood from landfills by 2016; mandatory offerings of compost pick-up by trash haulers offering trash pick-up by 2017; and by 2020, all food waste will be banned from landfills.

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