Compost – a better land fill

In 2014 we were staying with my mom while saving up for a house, and there was a large backyard used mainly for the exercise of mowing the lawn. But then, I learned about composting. It was incredible. The onion skins, the carrot tops, the apple cores that were filling up the trash can every day and making it all stinky could instead be thrown out into the backyard. After the labor of raking up a yardful of leaves, instead of stuffing them into brown paper bags for yard waste pickup, they could just be piled up in the backyard messily.

Even though my mom’s not a gardener, composting piles were immediately useful as there were some dips in the yard and a couple of holes where shrubs had been dug up and wouldn’t be replaced. All the compostable material went right into those spaces. It would mound up for a while, but then it would break down or compact. Then more could be heaped on top and eventually that would flatten out also. Of course, this is similar to the concept of sanitary landfills, but without having to put all the produce trimmings in plastic bags first and then sealing them underground forever where they wouldn’t benefit the soil.

Fast forward a couple of years to this February. My husband and I had just bought our own house. One of the very first projects on my agenda was to set up a compost bin so I could have plenty of rich humus for future gardening projects. Being frugal, I found some hardware cloth that had been abandoned in the back yard, secured it into a cylinder shape with some twist ties (my husband has a whole collection that he’s saved), shoveled the grass off of its new location, and “planted” it. Success! All the food scraps we had, all the yard waste, I just threw it in there for our first five months without ever turning it, watering it, or whatever else it is that people do with compost piles.

From the outside it hasn’t looked like much has happened and I didn’t really expect much when finally turning / moving the compost to a new bin this weekend. But I was hoping, and was rewarded with this.

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Rich on the inside!

Although the outside was dry and didn’t sustain any kind of life, some of the inside was rich, moist, and full of bugs helping to break it down further. So now I understand why you’re supposed to turn the pile, to get some of that other material on the inside and benefiting from this goodness. Maybe in the future I’ll turn it more than once every five months. We’ll see.

As for the new compost bin, I needed one that was just a little larger. Strolling around the neighborhood during bulk pickup week turned to my advantage when I found a perfect-sized portion of chickenwire, which I’ve used as my new enclosure.

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The new compost pile

You can see a bit of the mess I made shoveling out another section of grass and some of the heavy clay soil underneath. I should probably add that back into the compost. The pallet was used for a gardening project earlier in this year, but it had bugs around it that looked like termites so into the compost it went too! At least it’ll help serve as a support. The new bin is about half-filled from the contents of the other full compost bin. And I’ll start filling up the old bin again (it’s closer to the house) while this one breaks down. If I wasn’t so lazy, I just might have compost for the fall garden. But, meh, I’ll settle for spring. 🙂

Interested in learning more about composting in your backyard? Zero Waste Chef has a great post on Composting for the Lazy.

80% of Austin trash isn’t trash

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The city of Austin adopted a Zero Waste plan in 2009 with the goal of diverting 90% of waste from landfill by the year 2040, and they’ve just released the results of the 2015 Community Diversion Study. This is the first study of its kind done here in Austin. I haven’t read the full report yet but wanted to share the overview of findings.

Unfortunately, we didn’t meet the 50% diversion goal for 2015. Only 42% of waste ended up reused, recycled, or composted this year. But it may give us some of the information we need to forge ahead.

“I’m extremely encouraged by the results of this study,” said Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert. “The report has provided us with valuable data that shows us how we are doing and where we need to improve as a community in order to reach Council’s vision of Zero Waste.”

Here’s the breakdown of the material analyzed on its way to be landfilled. 18% could have been recovered and reused as is. 26% could have been recycled. And a whopping 37% could have been composted. Less than one-fifth of the load would have gone to landfill if those resources had been sorted to the right place.

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Fortunately, there are several steps already lined up to help us improve.

  • An ordinance already exists to require recycling for multi-family properties in Austin with at least 10 units, but as of this fall it goes into effect for properties with at least 5 units.
  • Also starting this fall, businesses over 15,000 sq. ft. will be required to divert organics material for composting, and over the next couple of years all food businesses will have to take part.
  • Austin is also hosting the 2016 Zero Waste Business Conference in June, which should both get some much-needed attention on the subject and present more ideas for improvement.

There are also some hopes to roll out curbside organics collection for more than the pilot group of residential customers, but I don’t think there’s any budget allocated yet for it.

Personally, my guess is that at least half (probably much more) of the big number above could be reduced by source reduction–that is, buying less stuff and using less packaging for the stuff that is bought. It’ll be an interesting read to see how reduction is handled in the report.