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The synergy of back-yard composting

  • Article by: Steve Watson
  • February 3, 2014 - 6:40 PM

If you have gone full circle with back-yard composting — from kitchen waste to composter to garden to the harvest directed back to the kitchen — you have been enriched in many ways and are nurtured in the same way that a garden thrives from a new supply of rich compost.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board and state Rep. Frank Hornstein are rightly advocating for curbside organic recycling to improve waste-management practices (“Minnesota needs a lot more trash talk,” Jan. 26), but they must also leave the back door open for ready access to the composter. That is the place to pitch a wide variety of kitchen and yard waste: coffee grounds, banana peels, wilted lettuce, melon rinds, garden clippings, grass and leaves. All of this waste will be transformed into a rich, black garden resource called humus.

No other recycling process stays home; no other practice offers benefits as empowering to the city and to its residents. The holistic practice of back-yard composting can help to change our thinking about city services and ourselves. It provides an active role for each of us in recycling and waste management.

Without back-yard composting, curbside pickup is still beneficial, decreasing the organic waste stream headed for the landfill or the incinerator and continuing the useful practice of hauling off big organics like downed tree limbs. But curbside pickup limits our active participation and, thus, our license and motivation to engage in the direct “trash talk” conversation.

With curbside collection, the ongoing lessons of composting are lost, as is the right to manage a valuable, organic, natural resource. Yet those who take the job of organic waste manager (steward of the purchased land) are our examples and activists for serious waste reduction in the city and state.

And now, a leap forward to see what kind of a future a committed group of composters (and community-builders) might create:

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First, take a quick look inside the trash bin at one of these dedicated homes. No organic waste. No smelly garbage. And no potential downside or danger from scavenging pests. Because almost all organic waste now stays home for recycling, the city has limited garbage-truck visits to twice a month. Participating homeowners earn a reduction on their bills, and they score a big win for the city. With the end of weekly pickup, fewer garbage trucks and drivers are used; gas and maintenance costs are lowered, and homeowners sleep better (with fewer early morning wake-up calls from noisy trucks).

Inspired, the city has gone a step further. After measuring the reduced waste flow, it has announced an optional plan for organic activists to sign up for a single monthly pickup of nonorganic recyclables — cardboard, paper, bottles, cans. Why? More money saved.

Yet something larger has begun. The holistic back-yard experience of no-cost recycling has become a living, active example for reducing waste of all kinds. With greater appreciation for precious resources, spending habits gradually have changed, including limits on excessive purchases and excessive packaging.

Per person, this has saved lots of money, has protected resources and has felt good. But activists have seen that they can continue to grow that feeling by enlisting neighbors — with the help of an initial monetary incentive. On the activists’ advice, city leaders have responded with a voucher program to help buy a variety of ample and efficient composters. Like the voucher reward that residents collect for regular visits to a health club, this program also has grown the health and strength of the community.

Although some local jobs have been lost, the city’s savings have generated new services, opportunities and jobs previously unimagined — benefiting citizens of all ages.

• • •

At present, the move to transport organic waste away from homes is one partial solution to changing consumer habits. Yet the greater good, and what the Editorial Board has called “public accountability,” rests with home composting. It needs a solid kick-start from the city to activate an already-willing pool of homeowners.

Can these new practices actually come to pass?

The “trash talk” must be allowed to continue, and each of these positive projections should be scrutinized and critiqued. If Minnesota wishes to succeed in waste reduction, it will exploit a responsible and active citizen core and a set of thoughtful leaders. In reducing waste — with the upfront example and practice of home-based organic recycling — there is much to be gained, economically and holistically.

 

Steve Watson, of Minneapolis, is a retired teacher and the director of Steve’s Earth Engine, a manufacturer of cedar composters. He co-created the Minneapolis Compost Project with the city of Minneapolis in the 1990s.

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