Compost 101: The Basics
Composting is a great solution to reduce some of the impact we have on our planet.
Why Composting is Essential – Even if You Don’t Have a Garden!
Most Americans are familiar with the idea of recycling; “Reduce, reuse, recycle!” was a common lesson for many of us in elementary school. However, as we produce more waste, there has been a growing interest in what we can do to avoid landfills. So here we are with our Compost 101 to get you started.
What is Compost?
You may have noticed, but not all materials are recyclable! It is becoming harder and harder to find end uses for some of our low-grade waste, such as plastics. Composting is a great solution to reduce some of the impact we have on our planet. Instead of rotting slowly in a landfill, these materials can be broken down and turned into valuable nutrients for gardens and farms.
I work every day to find ways to minimize the impacts of a college campus where I serve as Sustainability Officer. In this role, I manage a variety of projects that help the environment such as saving energy, reducing water usage, or educating the students, staff and faculty on actions we can all take to make our campus more sustainable. One of my favorite projects has been ramping up our compost efforts. This will help reduce the impact of food waste and increase our diversion rate. The diversion rate is an important metric many organizations can use to measure the percentage of total waste that is recycled, composted or otherwise diverted from the landfill.
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Calculating Your Diversion Rate: Avoid the Landfill with Compost and Recycling
One concept everyone must understand in any good Compost 101 article is what a Diversion Rate is and why it’s important. It’s something that can be applied to both your personal life or professional if you choose to measure it. Eventually, it’s a measurement of what you prevent from ending up in the landfill!
If you have 100 lbs of waste and sort it into recyclable and compostable items, you have your diversion rate. For example, 100 lbs (total waste) – 20 lbs (compost) and 5 lbs (recycling) = 75 lbs. So, from your original 100 lbs of waste, only 75 lbs actually end up in a landfill. The diversion rate = (lbs diverted/total waste)*100, meaning you diverted 25 lbs or 25% of your waste!
With my college occupying over 4.5 million square feet of classroom and office space, so we generate a lot of waste. In fact, we generate an average of 2.6 million pounds annually! With a diversion rate of about 20%, we have plenty of room to improve. The nation-wide average, as of 2017, was 35.2% and here in Colorado, the state-wide average was only 17.2% in 2018.
Compost 101: What’s really the difference between Compost and the Landfill?
To illustrate our point, let’s talk about the humble banana. It’s a common belief that a banana in the trash will decompose like it does in nature. In short, this is simply not true! In reality, a discarded banana peel in a Colorado landfill could last up to 25 years due to the lack of oxygen in this environment. Why is that?
In Colorado and other places with enough land, landfills are usually a large hole dug into the ground. Then, it’s lined with plastic to prevent materials from getting into the water supply. Eventually the hole is filled with trash and they compact it down. Finally, we bury the trash or cover it with dirt. In contrast, places with less land available will end up burning it or shipping it.
All of these factors lead to a lack of oxygen getting to the waste, preventing it from breaking down! Most importantly, the lack of oxygen creates an anaerobic environment and releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is between 28 and 34 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, effectively raising the temperature of the planet at a faster rate.
On the other hand, if you throw that same banana peel into a compost bin, it will be broken down naturally in a number of days or weeks. It typically heads to an outdoor compost pile or windrow where some water is added and it is turned periodically to ensure proper oxygen levels and temperature. As waste breaks down, it emits carbon dioxide instead of methane (much better in this case). Finally, the compost product can be sold and used to help grow food. Healthy compost contributes vital nutrients to the soil where it is applied.
If you are able to process this compost at your home, you can eventually take advantage of these added nutrients yourself by adding it to your garden!
Compost 101: Communication is Key