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Thursday, June 16,2011

Don't toss those scraps in the trash

By Mindy Rappoport

 

You just finished eating dinner and now you’re about to throw watermelon rinds, lettuce and a coffee filter into the garbage.

But wait! There are critters that will feast off those kitchen scraps. They live in your food, gut and your backyard — that is, if you have a compost pile.

They’re microbes, and they’re what help break down your organic material should you choose to create a compost pile in your backyard.

And if you have the time and space and want to add more nutrients to your soil while cutting down the amount of greenhouse gases produced in landfills, why not create a compost pile in your own why not create a compost pile in your own backyard?

“Composting is assisted biodegradation,” says Dan Matsch, Eco-Cycle’s compost expert. “It’s manipulating what would normally happen in nature anyway. You’re just doing it in a focused and sped-up way.”

Boulder County has been encouraging citizens to compost organic materials since 2005, when a resolution was passed that outlined the steps to institute a “zero waste” plan throughout the county.

Creating a backyard compost pile is just one way that Boulder citizens can reuse organic materials, says Susan Meissner of the Boulder County Resource Conservation Division.

“When things break down anaerobically — without air — like they do in a landfill, that’s when methane gas and harmful greenhouse gases are produced,” Meissner says. “But when you compost, it’s actually introducing air and water to the system, so it’s much less gas-producing.”

So if you want be more eco-friendly and create a compost pile, the first step is to start collecting kitchen scraps in a bucket that you’ll empty in your backyard once a week, along with any yard waste. While guides on backyard composting typically suggest that your pile be made up of one part green, nitrogen-rich materials and one part brown, carbon-rich materials, Matsch says not to worry about getting the perfect mix. Green materials you can add to your pile include fruit and vegetable scraps, and you can throw in dried leaves for the brown part of your mix, according to Boulder County’s backyard composting brochure, which can be found at http://bit.ly/inUOfe.

Before emptying your kitchen bin full of organic materials out in your backyard for the first time, Matsch recommends that you make sure your pile is set up on soil and, if possible, under a deciduous tree. By positioning your pile on earth instead of concrete, microbes can make their way into the soil, live there, and repopulate, while the tree provides your compost with shade to stay cool in the summer and allows the sun in to warm it up in the winter, he says.

Meissner also suggests that you keep your pile close to the kitchen so that you don’t have to go far to empty your scraps, and even consider adding an enclosure like one of the bins Boulder County is selling wholesale on June 21. To maintain your pile, Meissner says to keep it as moist as a wrung-out

sponge. Add oxygen by using a three-pronged hand rake to mix up the first few inches of the top of the pile, Matsch says. Ideally, your pile should be between 90 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Boulder County’s backyard composting brochure, but Matsch says not to worry too much about monitoring the temperature.

“There are some [microbes] that exist at low temperatures, like below freezing; there are some that live in a temperate environment,” Matsch says. “I rely on the critters in the temperate range and retention time.”

If you want to speed up the composting process, Meissner says you can cut kitchen scraps up into one- to two-inch-sized pieces so that microbes can cover more surface area at a quicker rate. And if there’s room in your freezer, you can also put your organic waste in there one day before adding it to your pile; this process bursts the cells, breaking the organic material down into a pile of slop, Matsch says.

Your compost is ready when your organic materials are unrecognizable and the mixture is dark brown and falling apart, according to the backyard composting brochure. Once it’s ready, you can add the compost mixture to your soil or use it as potting soil for plants.

For those living in Boulder or unincorporated south Boulder County who don’t have time to maintain a backyard compost pile, Western Disposal will pick up your food and yard waste curbside every other week.

“Every homeowner in Boulder and unincorporated Boulder County South has compost service built into their service by regulation,” says Bryce Isaacson, vice president of sales and marketing at Western Disposal.

“Every hauler that collects waste in the City of Boulder and unincorporated Boulder County South has to provide three services to the homeowner in one rate and a pay-as-you-throw pricing system. So if you have a 32-, 64- or 92-gallon trash container, the hauler has to provide single-stream recycling and compostable pick up no less than every other week.”

Another use for your kitchen scraps and yard waste is compost tea, a solution containing microbes that you can add to your garden to “repopulate the existing populations of good critters you have in the soil,” Matsch says.

To make compost tea, start by soaking your freshly harvested compost pile in a five-gallon bucket of water with an aquarium pump running in it. Matsch says the aquarium bubbler provides the solution with oxygen while separating the microbes out from the pile. If your solution is bubbling vigorously, let it brew for 24 hours while making sure it remains at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s more of a light bubbling, let it brew for six to seven days.

Next, strain the liquid into another bucket. If the compost tea smells sweet and like soil, use it within 24 hours, as the microbes die once their oxygen source is cut off. Matsch says you can also refrigerate your compost tea for up to 14 days without the microbes dying.

Matsch discourages people from adding manure to compost piles because it has to be exposed to high temperatures to kill harmful bacteria and then tested to ensure that it can be used on crops, otherwise fecal bacteria can contaminate produce and make those who consume it sick.

Compost tea can be applied in two ways: to soil and to leaves. If it’s applied to soil, microbes will repopulate and add nutrients, whereas if compost tea is applied to leaves once a month, it will help the plant fight against diseases like mildew, Matsch says.

When done correctly, composting is not just a method for getting rid of those dinner scraps in an environmentally friendly way, but a way to ensure that your future home-cooked dinners are made with ingredients you’ve grown in rich, safe soil.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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