Program to help people waste less and grow more with composting

By Logan Roddy, contributor

The Covid-19 pandemic forced people to shift their food buying and eating habits away from restaurants and more toward grocery stores and cooking at home. As a result, tons of food waste are being sent to the landfill with regular curbside trash pickups.

“It’s the largest by percentage weight of the trash collected, at about 30% of an actual trash can” said Michael Neese, Winchester’s Refuse & Recycling manager, who has noticed the uptick. “And it’s very convenient because we collect curbside.”

Neese and the City of Winchester have partnered with conservation nonprofit Sustainability Matters to host a virtual educational program for anyone in the Valley — or beyond — called “Composting for the Clueless,” sponsored by a grant from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Split between two Zoom sessions Thursday from 7-8 p.m. and again on May 20, the program will focus on giving inexperienced composters the tools to waste less.

Along with the two virtual presentations, “Composting for the Clueless” will have a community support Facebook group, where those interested can ask questions and consult “Compost Coaches” on some of the finer details.

Sari Carp, executive director of Sustainability Matters, said this is timely because in addition to eating more meals at home, a lot of people are starting to garden in their spaces.

“And a lot of those new gardeners are growing vegetables, and vegetables are very hungry plants meaning that they need a lot of nutrients that compost can provide,” Carp said.

Many restaurants have built-in processes for handling food waste, but individuals and families often don’t. And while the amount of food waste that goes to the landfill has remained consistent over the past few decades, Neese said it has increased over the last year. 

“It’s only picked up as trash, and so that’s one of the hurdles to overcome is trying to get people to use their existing space in an urban setting with smaller backyards instead of putting it out for trash collection,” Neese said.

He said public tax dollars pay for the disposal of everything that’s picked up on trash day. 

“Each house that prevents some of that disposal is preventing some of that money from being used,” Neese said.

Because urban areas don’t have the tree canopy or biodiversity of a wooded area, they’re prone to losing topsoil through asphalt, concrete, and general erosion. He says that composting can have a regenerative effect to bring back some of that topsoil and make our existing green spaces more conducive to growing better food.

Deborah Abercrombie, who lives in Clark County, relies on composting to help restore nutrients to her garden soil. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Abercrombie)

Diverting waste

When compostable waste goes to the landfill, it rots and produces methane, which is piped out. In Frederick County, up I-81 from Harrisonburg, that methane is trapped and used to generate electricity.

“But it’s still taking up space in the landfill,” Neese said. But when composted, it keeps the material local and can be used to rejuvenate the environment.

“Just reducing our methane imprint, reducing our dependence on the landfill, we just want to put things in the landfill that don’t have another place to go,” Neese said. “Think of the landfill as a junk drawer. If you put stuff in the junk drawer that doesn’t need to be there, you start to fill it up.”

Carp agreed, adding that because legislative changes can take years to happen, it’s important to educate individuals on how they can make changes at home.

“Humans create a ridiculous amount of waste,” she said. 

Deborah Abercrombie grew up in Tyson’s Corner, where her mother taught her the ways of gardening, farming, canning, foraging and other conservation practices on their small ⅓-of-an-acre plot of land.

“My mother’s a daughter of the Depression. They hoard everything—string, twist ties, plastic— you name it, they save it,” Abercrombie said. “And composting is an extension of that. Rather than sending stuff to the landfill, you put it in a pile and let it decompose and then you reuse it because why go out and buy compost when you could make it?”

She now owns a 7 1/2 acre property in Clark County, but she’s kept the self-sustaining practices taught to her close.

“We were joking about how this pandemic hasn’t impacted us at all because we’re like apocalypse survivalists,” Abercrombie said with a laugh. “We’ve been preparing for it our entire lifetime. We always have a stocked pantry, we can, we plant—and we always have. It’s a lifestyle to think like that.”

She said even when she lived in a small ground-level condo in Sterling, she found ways to can what she grew and compost with limited space.

“Maybe it was just my coffee grounds that I dumped out, but I still composted,” she said. “And I tried to figure out how to fit it in my schedule. I do what I call the easy way, which is where I build a pile and go off and leave it for a year and comeback and it’s all nice and composted.”

Easy to start

Abercrombie said for beginners, it’s important to know that there’s no right or wrong way to compost. 

“It all depends on your level of effort you want to put in,” she said. “You can manage this. You just have to figure out to what level you want to. It can be as easy or as hard as you want to make it.”

Neese said he also takes a hands-off approach to his composting, basically allowing the materials to decompose on their own and spends around 10 minutes each week and maybe an hour a month to really turn and spread his piles.

“Start with your end in mind. What are you going to do with the compost? It’s really easy to make, but the final use guides the rest of the system,” Neese said. “If you have a bunch of vegetable and flower gardens or you’re just doing soil amendments for your grass, those are different volumes that you’ll need and different seasons that you’ll need it.”

Abercrombie said above all, it is a soil amendment.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of soil you have, it’s always beneficial,” Abercrombie said. “If you have sandy soil, it gives it structure and holds it together. If you have clay soil, it gives it bulk so it can breath and it’s not so compacted. It helps hold moisture in.”

She said that the biggest misconception surrounding composting is the “slimy smell”, which she says if you do it right, it can be avoided.

“It’s important to have a combination of materials, because the stuff that just comes from your kitchen is what causes the smell,” Abercrombie said. “If you just put some grass clippings in your pile, it would make a mushy mess, but you throw in some chipped up branches or leaves or straw, it adds another layer and keeps it from building up that slime.”

Some other unexpected items that can be composted are hair, from both people and pets, and junk mail — the plain envelopes and not the ones with the little plastic window—as well as plain pieces of paper. 

“Just shred it up, and put it in the compost,” she said. “You can do the same thing with newspapers.”

Plants on Deborah Abercrombie grow in soil enhanced by nutrients from composted food waste. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Abercrombie)

A win-win

As a conservationist since the early 1970s, Abercrombie said she’s noticed the percentage of compostable materials sent to the landfill hasn’t really changed since then, which is around 30%. And most landfills don’t have great recycling programs, because there’s “just no way to recycle a lot of things.”

“But your yard waste, your grass clippings, your bush trimmings, your dead flower heads, all of that is compostable,” she said. “But if you’re raking up your leaves every fall and putting them in bags and sending them to the landfill, they may get recycled, they may not.”

Carp also said it only increases people’s carbon footprint to put waste out for trash collection and to buy compost because all that has to be transported and processed. It takes a little work, but it’s a win-win for people’s gardens and the planet. 

“All you need is a desire, a place, and a plan,” Abercrombie said. “And once you have that desire, the place and plan tend to fall into place.”

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