Q: Is separating food scraps for composting, including post-consumer food scraps, legal?
A: Yes, and with the passage in 2012 of Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law (Act 148), not separating food scraps will be against the law for all Vermonters by 2020. Currently, large businesses and institutions within 20 miles of a certified compost facility, like Lamoille Soil, are already required to divert food scraps from landfills. By 2020, all businesses and residents will be required to divert food scraps from landfills. Go to the Agency of Natural Resources Department of Environmental Conservation’s Universal Recycling webpage for more information and a complete implementation timeline.
Q: I’ve heard you shouldn’t compost meat, bones, and dairy products. What’s the deal?
A: Larger composting facilities mix food scraps, including meat, bones, fats, oils, and dairy products, with carbon materials, hay, leaves, wood shavings, shredded paper, and manures into large piles, approximately 6-8 feet high and 12-14 feet wide at the base. Because of their large size and proper recipe and moisture, these piles are excellent incubators for bacteria and fungi that actively break down the meat and dairy through a process known as aerobic digestion. This breakdown results in temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit or more year-round, which kills pathogens and even weed seeds, producing a healthy soil amendment. Compost pile temperatures above 131 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 3 days are required to destroy pathogens and weed seeds. In addition to destroying pathogens the heat produced in this process also acts as a major determent to interested animals.
It is possible to achieve hot composting conditions at home or at on-site composting operations. Typically compost piles need to be 1 cubic yard or larger to sustain heat, especially throughout the winter. You may also insulate a compost bin/pile to buffer the pile from losing heat. Using a thermometer probe to monitor compost pile temperatures can be a fun and rewarding experience that can help assure you’re achieving hot enough conditions to compost meat and other animal products.
Q: How long does it take for food scraps to turn into usable compost?
A: Generally, it takes between 6 to 12 months to create finished compost depending on the process, volume, and management.
Q: I’ve seen some packaging or grocery bags that say “biodegradable” or “degradable” on them, can I put them into my compost pile/tote?
A: In general, the only products that are truly compostable are those approved by the Biodegradable Products Institute or BPI. Beware of front organizations claiming to certify other types of “degradable” products. Some chemical companies now make “bio-degradable” or “degradable” products, which are made of petroleum plastic that, over time, will break down into small pieces of plastic unnoticeable to the human eye.
This deceptive marketing is dangerous because adding plastic to soil has been found to harm plant growth and affect human health. In general, truly compostable products will bear the Biodegradable Products Institute logo seen to the right.
Q: Can I compost biodegradable and compostable coffee cups, silverware, or other compostable plastics and paper?
A: Typically, no. Most composters will not compost any “compostable disposables” at this time. These items look like trash and cause confusion as to which container is for compost and which is for trash. When composting compostable disposables, trash also migrates into the compost pile and totes and is more difficult to detect and separate. In addition, the Northeast Organic Farming Association has ruled that compostable disposable plastics are not natural and therefore cannot be turned into organic approved compost which is another reason that composters do not typically compost compostable disposables.
The Caveat: Some compostable disposables are manufactured using 100% paper, cellulose, or bagasse (a byproduct of sugarcane production) and do not contain compostable plastics. These products often can be composted without jeopardizing organic approval of the finished compost. Always contact the manufacturer of a product to obtain the SDS (Safety Data Sheet) in order to learn what it is made of AND contact your composter when in question about the compostability of a certain “compostable disposable”.
Q: What do composters do with the finished compost? If it is sold, why do businesses, restaurants, and schools pay organizations to take food scraps?
A: In most collection programs, your food scraps are taken to a private composter who is not part of the collection organization but is a critical part of this composting program. Composters are paid approximately $35 per ton of food scraps. Landfills are paid $100 per ton or more for trash. Composters do have a saleable product unlike the landfill, but they also need to purchase and collect carbon-rich materials such as wood chips, manures, hay, etc., which are blended with your food scraps to compost them properly. During the composting process roughly 50% of the original volume is lost, essentially doubling the per-unit cost of purchased carbon-rich materials. In addition, composting is a labor and equipment intensive process and the resulting product, while valuable, is generally undervalued in the market. For example, unlike chemical fertilizers and pesticides compost is not tax deductible for agricultural uses.
Q: I’ve heard food scraps in the landfill produce methane gas. Do food scraps in compost piles release methane?
A: Methane is produced under anaerobic conditions (without air or oxygen). Food scraps and other organic matter contained in plastic bags in sealed landfills do not have access to air, which in turn promotes the development of anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that thrive in environments lacking in oxygen), which release methane as they digest the food scraps. Properly managed compost piles are turned, or aerated, maintaining proper oxygen levels. This oxygen promotes aerobic (with air) microbial populations, which do not release methane gas when they breakdown and eat food scraps and other organic matter. Studies have shown that properly managed compost piles release negligible amounts of methane.
Q: How do I compost in the winter in Vermont?
A: It’s okay to continue to add food scraps to a compost pile all winter. The compost pile will usually decompose at a much slower rate in the winter but will speed up again in the warmth of spring.
When you set up your bin, consider how much snow you get and how much shoveling you want to do to get to the bin all year long. If you continue to add food scraps directly to your pile during the winter, be sure to cover those greens with browns to minimize nuisance attraction and odors.
It is possible to store food scraps outside in covered pails if you can’t get to your pile during the winter. Sawdust or compost added to the bottom of the container will help to absorb the liquid during thaws. The containers can then be added to the pile in the spring with brown material at a ratio of 2:1.
You can now bring your food scraps to any LRSWMD Drop-Off Location if you do not want to backyard compost throughout the winter! $1 for up to five gallons
Q: My pile isn't decomposing?
A: Backyard piles are commonly too dry. The compost should be as damp as a wrung out sponge when squeezed in your fist. Too much brown material can increase the likeliness of having a dry pile also. Try turning the pile and adding green materials and water. Regular aeration with a pitch fork or pile aerator can be helpful in assiting the decompsition process.
Q: Can I Compost kittly litter?
A: Certain brands of kitty litter lend it to more easily be composted. “The best choices for compostable cat litters are those made from natural, living sources…. Another good option for an earth-friendly and compostable cat-litter is a commercially produced litter made from pine or cedar.”
Ultimately, it’s up to your level of comfort on how much of your kitty waste you compost, what process you use to compost it, and how you use the finished compost. Here are some websites with different perspectives while support keeping the used litter out of the landfill:
Can I Flush Cat Poop and Scatter the Litter?
BENEFITS OF COMPOSTING
According to the "Better Gardening Bulletin" circulated by Gardener's Supply Company:
"Backyard composting takes advantage of the natural cycle of plants living, dying, and then decomposing to pass their vitality to new generations of plants. The end product - compost - is a tremendous source of nutrients for plants that also dramatically improves the texture and fertility of your soil."
Some of the benefits of composting listed in the publication include:
- Improvement of soil structure, texture, and aeration
- Increases water holding capacity
- Grows stronger, deeper-rooted, drought and disease resistance plants
- Adds beneficial organisms to the soil to make nutrients more available to plants
ALTERNATIVE COMPOSTING OPTIONS
GREEN CONE: A Green Cone digester should need very little maintenance. It is important to ensure that the top of the basket and the bottom lip of the outer green cone are below ground level and always fully covered with soil. In a well operating Green Gone very little waste residue will be produced. Should the reside build-up to the ground level and not decrease, the upper cones can be removed to access the basket to empty the residue which can be added to your backyard bin to finish composting.
You must sprinkle the provided accelerator powder on the food waste for the first 5-6 times you empty food into the Cone. This will help build up a healthy amount of bacteria to start your Cone working. If you see blue-grey “fur” (mold) growing on the food waste inside your Cone and it does not smell – it is working! You should see this “fur” start to build up over the first 10-14 days. While you can see the mold you do not add accelerator powder; when the level of the mold starts to disappear (during the colder months), add some powder.
1.5 gallons of food scraps can be added daily in the summer and every 2-3 days in the winter. For an average family of four, the basket should only need emptying every 2-3 years. The residue can be dug into any suitable area of ground or added to a backyard bin. Make sure the lid and the green outer cone are kept clean and free from any food waste. Do not spill food waste on the ground around the cone as this could attract animals. The Green Cone is NOT a composter and will NOT handle large amounts of garden waste and does NOT produce compost.
VERMICOMPOST: As defined by the EPA, vermicomposting is a method of composting using a special kind of earthworm known as a Red Wiggler (Elsenia fetida), which eats its weight in organic matter each day. Vermicomposting is typically done in a covered container with a bedding of dirt, newspaper, or leaves. Fruit and vegetable scraps can then be added as food for the worms. Over time, the food will be replaced with worm droppings, a rich brown matter that is an excellent natural plant food. Vermicomposting requires less space than normal composting methods and is therefore, ideal for classrooms, apartments, and high-density urban areas. Here is one of many websites to answer more questions: http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/Redwormsedit.htm
BOKASHI: Bokashi is a Japanese term meaning "fermented organic matter." The compost process will create a "pre-compost", pickled mixture of your kitchen scraps - including meats, bones, fats, and dairy products. Bokashi is an anaerobic process that takes place in a tightly lidded bucket. Many commerical buckets are available but not necessary. Be sure whatever vessel you are using is able to be easily drained; a spigot at the bottom of the bucket is the most convenient. Layer the bucket with your kitchen scraps and bokashi powder, a bran-based powder that is incoulated with benefical bacteria, until the bucket is full. Once the bucket is full, seal the bucket for about 2-3 weeks. During this time, be sure to drain off the liquid every 1-2 days and dilute it 30:1 for watering plants with a compost tea. You can also dump it directly down your drain at full strength if you have a septic system. The microbes present in the liquid will help the keep your septic tank happy! After the 2-3 weeks, combine the fermented food scraps with soil, in the ground or in a pot, and let it lie dormant for about a month. The pre-compost directly out of the bucket is highly acidic and needs the soil microbes to balance it out before plant roots can safely grow in it. This is a really helpful webiste for all things Bokashi: http://www.planetnatural.com/composter-connection/indoor-composting/bokashi-composting/