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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Hot stuff: Andrew Tuckman, a consultant with Vision Recycling, shows off a 'sausage' where food-based compost is 'cooked.'

The Town Midden

Composting in Santa Cruz is poised to hit the big time--if it can survive budget woes

By Molly Zapp

Leftover tofu lo mein and moldy baguettes always have a future long after they're deemed inedible. They could be composted into a product that nourishes the ground and controls weeds without pesticides, or they could clog up the landfill and emit greenhouse gases. For the untold number of Santa Cruzans who "compost" instead of compost--quotation marks to designate the well-intentioned practice of dumping one's food scraps in a pile with no upkeep, proper mixture or understanding of the process--those orange peels and mashed potatoes past can be a little of both.

Ecology Action specialist Gavin Comstock, who helps run the county's comprehensive composting classes, defines the crunchy-sounding composting process simply: the recycling of organic material into soil. For those who compost, "compost" or have interest in learning about the process, the county provides free, hands-on composting workshops and free or subsidized composting bins.

"Composters" who want to be more efficient, or those who currently do not compost but want to, can take heart in the simple biological inevitability explained by master composter Bob Sellers.

"No matter what you do, it's probably going to work," Sellers says reassuringly. All organic material will eventually break down; the not-too-tricky key is learning how to make the composting process more efficient and ensuring that one's compost pile emits only carbon dioxide instead of methane, the greenhouse gas food scraps emit when dumped into landfills.

A composter since Bush Sr. was in the White House, Sellers says he uses the nutrient-rich finished compost to nourish his garden and grow his own produce. For Sellers, turning what would otherwise fill up landfills into an organic product is a way of life he hopes more people will embrace.

"We've been a throw-away society; it's about time we start using some of what we throw away," Sellers says.

Dump and Run
There are three basic composting methods, explains Comstock: cold pile, warm/hot pile, and worm bin composting. Cold pile composting is the most low-maintenance and takes the longest; essentially, one simply tosses any amount of food scraps and some yard waste onto a pile, waters it to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge, and with time and air, it will compost. The warm/ hot pile methods have the same basic premise as cold, but must be in larger piles--3 square feet for hot composting. The inner temperature of a hot compost pile must reach 135 degrees Fahrenheit, which dedicated composters monitor with a device that looks like an orgy-sized meat thermometer. The high heat speeds up the biological process and allows a wider variety of green waste to be used in the compost mix, like dried weeds whose seeds would sprout in a cold compost pile. Worm composting relies on the work of red worms and white worms to break down food scraps.

Lynn Appley, master composter who helps teach a comprehensive composting class, explains that different composting methods work for different people. For households that produce only a small amount of food scraps, and for folks who don't have yard space for a compost pile, worm composting can be the best option. Though the critters in the compost bins must be protected from frost and the worm's kiss of death, orange peels, worm bin composting is fairly low-maintenance, and some worm bins can be kept inside without smelling strongly. The cold compost works well for people who have access to some land outdoors, and warm and hot composting are ideal for serious gardeners and farmers who produce larger amounts of green waste and food scraps.

Worm bins only require the bin, food scraps, water, a pile of shredded newspaper on top and, of course, the worms. The other methods are most successful with a 50-50 mix of "greens" and "browns," plus water and air. "Greens" include food scraps, fruit peels and any materials that provide nitrogen. "Browns" include dried grass, straw, dried leaves, paper towels and other organic material that provides carbon. Paper-like takeout containers labeled "compostable" can be shredded and added to compost piles. Comstock recommends that so-called bioplastics like Taterware be put in the green waste refuse containers, as they are tough to break down.

Though a pile of biodegrading biscuits can look like future black gold to composters, it also looks like a free buffet for rats, raccoons and other assorted four-legged scavengers. Sherry Lee Bryan, senior program specialist at Ecology Action, who co-manages the County of Santa Cruz Home Composting Program, maintains that the county's vermin population is not markedly increased by individuals composting. "There's plenty of open trash cans and places for vermin to hide out without composting," she says. Meats, bones and dairy especially attract four-legged creatures, and Appley and Comstock heavily emphasize the importance of not trying to compost them.

"You've got to bury your food scraps," Bryan says. "Don't dump and run. Those smells, of course, attract critters -- you've got to cover your food scraps with other [brown materials]. For folks who live in really, really rodent-infested areas--maybe there's a big pile of wood rats next door--we recommend that they bury their compost bins underground." If vermin are really serious, Bryan suggests creating a mesh net to keep them out. In addition, the free and subsidized composting bins given out by the county are vermin-resistant.

Pile It On
Over at Vision Recycling, the private company already subcontracted to recycle the county's yard waste, there is talk of enacting composting on a much larger scale. Jeff Gage, director of Vision Recycling, says that the company has a composting pilot program with about 50 local restaurants and schools. Vision president Tom Del Conte says they are pursuing obtaining permits to expand their composting operation to a countywide curbside food scraps collection program, and hopes to go before the Board of Supervisors in November.

In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, the county put almost 100,000 tons of waste into landfills--and that's after 65 percent of the refuse collected was recycled or otherwise diverted. (Current county regulations prohibit recycables, green waste, household hazardous waste, mattresses, concrete and some other products from going into the landfills.) About one-sixth of what goes into the county's Buena Vista and Ben Lomond landfills is compostable food scraps. While making curbside composting available on a countywide basis probably wouldn't result in a complete absence of food scraps going in the landfill, a 15 percent reduction in materials in the landfill would be 15,000 fewer tons filling up the ground.

Food scraps and other compostable materials in the landfill emit methane and carbon dioxide. Methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, is produced by anaerobic decomposition. It's also the smelly gas (farts) produced by livestock and, we are told, people. Carbon dioxide, a far less harmful gas, is produced by aerobic decomposition and does not smell. Though much of the methane produced in the Buena Vista landfill is collected and transformed into energy, not all of it can be collected. Bryan says that when done correctly, composting is aerobic decomposition, and therefore subverts the production of the greenhouse gas entirely.

"If done properly, only carbon dioxide is emitted in a backyard (composting) pile, instead of methane," she says. "Methane is 16 to 20 times more powerful of a greenhouse gas than CO2; therefore, aerobically composting organic material is preferable," Bryan says. A telltale sign of a composting pile going anaerobic is a strong odor. To prevent a pile from going anaerobic, one must simply take care to ensure a good balance of materials by adding the necessary "browns" to the pile, stir the pile regularly and keep it water-permeable.

Everything Goes
Commercial composting, as they do at Vision, can compost meats, dairy, bones and fat, products that the county discourages individuals from trying to compost because of their smell and tendency to attract vermin. The compost piles at Vision are enclosed, and a recent trip to the facility included neither obvious evidence of vermin infestation nor a rank smell. For folks who already compost at home, the curbside composting would allow them to compost all of their food and yard waste in some form.

Though Comstock and the others at the county class support large-scale composting over the food scraps otherwise going into the landfill, he stresses the value of consumers composting at home.

"For the success of our future and decreasing our waste, decentralization is essential," Comstock says.

Composting at home eliminates the need to haul the waste to a commercial facility, and the fuel needed to run the machinery. But commercial composting would also make it much easier for people unable or uninterested in composting at home, and, according to Del Conte, would create jobs. Financially, compared to trash, composting is more viable: Del Conte says it costs $65 per ton to haul and dispose of garbage, while recycling green waste is only $30. And, of course, composting results in a reusable and resellable product, which Del Conte says "there's plenty of market for."

Funding for the county's composting education program comes from the garbage fees. The cost of trash collection is based on tipping fees; that is, the monthly fees are based on the size of waste container one fills, but increased recycling has had an unintended economic impact.

"Because we're so good at recycling, and because the economy is so bad and people aren't buying as much, the tipping fees are way down--which means not as much money is given to the county," Bryan explains.

Currently, the county fully funds the composting program, which also includes information booths and outreach to schools. But much of the program could be shut down as early as June; according to Bryan, due to county budget concerns, the program was asked to come back with a budget of just 30 percent of what it was this year. "This spring is pretty much our last shot," Bryan says.

Over 500 people participated in composting classes in 2007, and the Master Composters report having "composting consultations" with over 2000 people who work the county informational booths. Though 69 percent of folks who attended the classes were not currently composting, Bryan says she has no way to gauge how many Santa Cruz residents compost. Hundreds? A few thousand? Ascertaining that detail would require funding for a study, and extra funding the program doesn't have.

Sellers wants to see more people be accountable for the waste they produce, and thinks many people need economic incentives to reduce, reuse, recycle and make composting "a fact, not an option."

"If you turn it in, you'll get money back," he says. "If you don't, it costs more. It doesn't seem like anything else motivates people unless you hit them in the pocketbook," he concludes.

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