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Weis: Compost Happens

You may have seen the popular bumper sticker that reads, “Compost Happens.” But does it? Or, more to the point, does it happen often enough?

Well, about 30% of Chittenden County residents compost. By doing so, they’re keeping 8,000 tons of food and yard scraps out of the landfill each year. That’s pretty good, but soon all of Vermont will be doing even better, thanks to a groundbreaking piece of legislation known as Act 148.

Passed a little over a year ago, Act 148 phases in the composting of all organic refuse over the next few years. This makes sense, since food and yard residuals represent the largest single component of our residential waste stream.

According to our Agency of Natural Resources, “Vermonters generate more than 600,000 tons of garbage every year, or about two tons for every Vermont household.” So, since one-third of domestic debris is compostable, all diversions from the waste stream mandated by this new law will make a very big difference indeed.

And there are many more benefits to composting besides decreasing the load on our landfills. Believe it or not, one handful of soil contains more microbial life than there are people on the planet. This makes compost an excellent nutrient-rich resource for our lawns, gardens, and fields.

In fact, using compost in the garden cuts down on having to use fertilizers, many of which are manufactured using natural gas. Also, composting can help neutralize toxins, since most herbicides and insecticides are broken down in the composting process.

What’s more, compost can hold almost twice its weight in water, which helps prevent plant dehydration and fosters water conservation. And compost can even help extend the growing season.

Another thing to consider is that food scraps decomposing in a landfill produce methane, while composting creates carbon dioxide. And methane is twenty times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This means that composting just five gallons of food waste offsets the greenhouse gases produced by burning a gallon of gasoline.

I’m not surprised that 90% of those who start composting are still doing it ten years later. That’s because composting doesn’t take much time or money. At our house, we just put our non-usable leftovers into a bucket under the sink and empty it about once a week into a bin in our yard. Every now and then we add leaves and grass clippings. The whole process is really easy. It yields great benefits for our garden. And I promise you, it’s not smelly at all.

For those who need some help, there are groups like Highfields Center for Composting that can demonstrate how to “close the loop” on our food system. Highfields facilitates composting at home and drop-off programs in our businesses and schools. They make it clear just how powerful composting is when it comes to increasing community resiliency, supporting local farmers, and protecting our environment.

Suffice it to say that composting today is a no-brainer. Which kind of brings to mind another bumper sticker I saw recently: “Compost: because a rind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Russ Weis advises first-year students at Northern Vermont University in Johnson, where he also teaches writing and works closely with two student environmental groups.
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