What Kind of Compost Bin Are You?

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Tompkins Weekly         4-23-18

By Hannah George

As the days get longer and incrementally warmer here in Tompkins County, many people are starting to think about their gardens, and the gorgeous flowers and delicious sun-ripened tomatoes to come. More and more people are also thinking about compost – that rich, earthy, soil amendment made from decomposed organic material such as leaves and food waste. Most people with outdoor compost bins at home notice that winter slows the decomposition process, so as the compost thaws and starts to once again shrink in volume, the prospect of having nutrient-rich compost to add to gardens returns.

I decided to start composting for the many ecological and personal benefits it provides. I love knowing that my banana peels and watermelon rinds will get broken down and returned to the soil, instead of hitting a dead-end in a landfill. Saving money on trash tags feels pretty good too, and taking out the compost takes no more time than taking out the trash each week.

Master Composter Lisbet Rattenborg gives a tour of the compost demonstration site at the Compost Fair. Photo provided.

You’ve probably heard that composting is good for the planet. But why exactly? Here are a few reasons:
• Sending material to a landfill is more expensive than composting, because of the higher costs of labor, transportation, energy, and supplies.
• Food scraps in a landfill can’t break down properly in the anaerobic or oxygen-deficient environment, and therefore produce methane gas, which is 20 to 30 times as effective as greenhouse gas as compared to carbon dioxide. Landfills generate 13.5 percent of human-related methane emissions because of this food and organic material (EPA 2013).
• Nutrients in food scraps can be recycled back into food by using finished compost in gardens and on farms. This issue will gain more attention as phosphorus mines begin to run low, and recapturing nutrients will become more critical.
• Compost builds great soil by improving structure and moisture retention. Compost is biologically active, which can be beneficial for suppressing disease and developing symbiotic relationships with plants.

Tompkins County’s goal is to reduce the amount of material that is sent to the landfill to 2.1 pounds per person per day by 2030, and a big part of reaching this goal will be diverting food scraps to the compost. More than 2 pounds of trash per person per day may seem like a lot of waste, but Tompkins County is actually outperforming the national average when it comes to waste reduction! Part of that is due to having county support for waste diversion efforts, through infrastructure and community education through the Master Composter program.

When getting started with composting, picking out the perfect bin for your lifestyle is the key to success. As a Master Composter-in-training, I’m learning that there are a few key questions to ask before getting a bin. These questions are: Do you have a yard? Does your yard get filled with leaves each fall? How many minutes per week do you want to spend composting? Is your goal to produce compost to use in your garden, or do you mainly want to divert waste and reduce your ecological footprint? No matter your situation, there’s a compost solution for you! This is a theme behind this year’s Compost Fair, held at CCE Tompkins (615 Willow Ave, Ithaca) on Sunday, April 29 from 12 to 4 p.m.

For many years, I have used a low-maintenance welded wire composter, and more recently introduced a large black plastic cube with a lid, a hand-me-down from my grandfather who now composts through the Tompkins County Food Scraps Recycling program. Most recently, I’ve been trying out a “stealth” compost bin right in my kitchen as part of the Master Composter class curriculum. A functional bin, whether outside or in the home, should not have any bad odors. In fact, I can’t smell the compost bin in my kitchen unless I get up close, at which point it smells pleasantly of earth after the rain. Other students in the Master Composter class have been experimenting with Japanese bokashi fermentation as well as worm bins, which are both indoor techniques.

If compost is piquing your curiosity, the upcoming Compost Fair is a fun, free event for everyone in the community. The event offers something for everyone – whether you’re just learning about what compost is, or if you’re a well-seasoned composter. There will be different booths on indoor and outdoor bins, how to troubleshoot problems, looking through a microscope at the bacteria and insects that do the work of composting, and composting for kids! In addition to learning, there will be a free raffle, and entertaining compost themed performances by Compost Theater, Rot ‘n Roll, and the Local Farmer’s Union. For more info, visit ccetompkins.org/compostfair. This year’s fair is held in conjunction with both the 4-H Duck Race and Streets Alive!

Hannah George is a Master Composter in-training at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. The Master Composter Program is sponsored by the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management.

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