Monday, March 2, 2009

Composting: Food (scraps) for Thought


My attention was recently directed to this article on composting from the February 18th New York Times. Though the techniques here are more oriented to an urban setting than ours were, the article triggered fond memories of my college days at Stanford University where I lived in what was, at the time, the college's only entirely cooperatively-run on-campus student housing facility.

The old converted four-story row house had once been a proud Stanford fraternity. Now it was home to about 35-40 (depending on how many radical, self-styled revolutionist non-students were crashing on our basement couches at any given time) earnest young students trying on what remained from the 60s of the counter-culture's radical mantle .

While the other students lived in well-managed college dorms with eating clubs and janitorial service, aside from campus security, under whose jurisdiction (and watchful eye) we fell, we functioned entirely independent of the university. Each week, small groups from our hardy little commune would take turns buying food for the house at the San Francisco Farmers Market (vegetables and soy products mostly and tons of eggplants because they were cheap), cooking the meals, cleaning the place, organizing the bills, holding meetings to discuss house business and scheduling our intramural soccer team (we were really good)... and, oh, yes: we composted all food scraps and organic trash.

I was brand new to co-op life and to me our religiously-tended (raked, turned and faithfully managed) little compost heap looked almost exactly like what I recognized to be a pungent-smelling pile of rotting food. But my ardent and often clenched young counter-culture housemates assured me the compost would become the best fertilizer for growing our OWN vegetable gardens - saving us from having to actually buy food.

The fact that we didn't technically have our own garden - or even the space for one - never came up and so our compost pile kept growing and growing until I graduated. If the actual compost we produced was ever put to use during our residency, the event escaped me. I suppose if I went back today I'd find that either our little agri-science project had given way to other collegiate experimentations or the University would be bursting with the finest vegetable gardens on planet earth (a distinct possibility... after all, they did call Stanford "The Farm") and would owe all of us, from way back when, a huge debt of gratitude for our visionary approach to organic garbage disposal.

But lest I get too far off track, composting does yield splendid rich, loamy fertilizer and there are distinct environmental advantages to it that, while not as significant as recycling, do in fact keep food waste out of landfills mitigating to some extent methane production as detailed by The Times article:

Composting does not have as big an environmental effect as recycling, Environmental Protection Agency figures show: recycling one ton of mixed paper is four times as effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as producing the same amount of compost.

But keeping food discards out of landfills does more than twice the good of keeping mixed paper out, E.P.A. officials said, because decomposing food that is buried and cut off from air releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, at higher rates than paper. (The ventilation in composting prevents methane creation.)
For those truly interested in effective composting, find good information here, at vegweb.com - Introduction to Composting, and at the Wastes - Resource Conservation page of the EPA website.

Not quite ready to commit to composting (or hate plants and have no room for a garden anyway)? The website Earth911.com has a great resource article, "8 Ways to Green Your Trash", that includes tips on trash auditing, recycling, reusing, smarter shopping and yes, even on composting.

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