Education for Sustainability at the Compost Fair

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Tompkins Weekly 4-24-19

By Sarah Dellett

This Sunday, the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) is hosting its 25th Annual Compost Fair at 615 Willow Avenue from 12 to 4 p.m. The event is organized by CCE’s Master Composter program, which trains community members in composting and community outreach. The event is free and open to the public. All are invited to attend, including kids, beginners, and advanced composters.

I am currently training to become a Master Composter. I had first learned about the program from Joey Gates, a Master Composter, and the coordinator of a local dish service called the Dish Truck. As a student at Cornell, I studied agriculture and soil science. For one of my classes, I did a video project with Gates on how she is using bioremediation on her land in Mecklenburg. When she bought the property, it was littered with garbage. Gates is restoring it back to a managed farm by cleaning up the trash and adding organic matter to remediate the soil.

Taking a step back, however, we see how necessary composting is for everyone. The United States alone produces the most garbage per capita, much of which can be reduced through composting. Central to the Master Composter program is sustainability; composting benefits the three P’s: people, the planet, and profit. As one Master Composter and sustainability expert puts it, “composting is the ultimate sustainable action.” As a collective effort, the practice of composting provides an easy and clear step towards creating a sustainable world.

The 2017 Compost Fair. Photo Provided.


Composting is a waste reduction tool that creates nutrient-rich organic material from otherwise wasted material, such as: food scraps, lawn debris, dried leaves, and shredded newspaper. Composting directly affects our wallets by diverting these items from the trash, which in Tompkins County must be tagged for removal. Trash tags help to pay for transportation, labor, and supplies. It costs around $180 per ton to send trash to the landfill. When you compost, you will see your cost of trash removal decrease.

The nutrient-rich compost that this process creates can be returned to the soil in a home garden. It is a high-quality soil amendment that provides nutrients and improves soil structure at no cost to the gardener. And best yet – you get to eat the things you grow, which can mean fewer trips to the grocery store and less gas!


Like me, most of the Master Composters in training cited environmental reasons as their primary motivation for composting. There is daily news coverage about the environmental emergency we are facing. One solution is to transition to renewable resources. Food scraps and other organics are a renewable resource! Composting is the natural process that returns nutrients from the soil back to the soil, and the cycle continues as plants flourish. As noted environmentalist John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Trash removal doesn’t just cost us out-of-pocket; there are also many other hidden costs. Landfills generate greenhouse gases (GHG), which negatively impact environmental and public health. Pollution puts us at risk of respiratory diseases and shortens our lifespans. Ever-increasing amounts of GHG emissions result in making our planet much more difficult to live on. We are getting a taste of that now with more frequent weather events, fires, floods, and droughts. Widespread composting can reduce GHG emissions by 20 to 40 percent.


If we are to create change, it must be a community-wide effort. Pollution doesn’t confine itself to a country’s or property’s borders, it impacts everyone. As a Master Composter-in-training, the hours spent in the classroom and at volunteer opportunities have shown me the breadth of our outreach in Tompkins County. There are Master Composters who were trained 5, 10, and 20 years ago who remain involved. Many have started projects that continue to be volunteer opportunities, such as composting at festivals like the Ithaca Festival and GrassRoots.

A group of my fellow Master Composter trainees recently presented on socioeconomic barriers to composting. Their findings highlight the importance of educational and cultural conditions that encourage composting. If people are educated on how to compost, and if composting is the cultural norm, the practice will be widespread. The Master Composter program is involved in many places and events around Tompkins County to do just that.

I have personally been involved in composting events in the Ithaca City School District. School lunchrooms have separate bins for compostables, recyclables, and trash. Making composting commonplace from a young age can have long term benefits, as our habits are often formed at this time. Young composters grow up to be adults who compost!

With that, I hope to see you at the Compost Fair this Sunday, April 28, from 12 to 4 p.m. at the Cooperative Extension Education Center, 615 Willow Avenue. Come and ask all of your composting questions, win prizes, and enjoy some time with us outside.

Sarah Dellett is a Master Composter-in-training who is helping to organize the 25th Annual Compost Fair at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. Look for her at the Kids Area at the Compost Fair.

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