What’s the Deal with Composting?
By Alexandra Mascareno
You’ve heard the buzz about composting in Austin, but you’re still confused? Not to worry! Here’s a handy composting tell-all.
Let’s start with the basics: composting is a natural process that breaks down organic materials – like food scraps and yard trimmings – into an earthy, nutrient-rich, soil-like material. This soil-like material can later be used as fertilizer. It’s no wonder composting is called nature’s recycling!
Composting is important because it not only helps our environment, but also allows us to downsize our trash cart, which can mean big savings in service fees (more on that later). A study conducted in 2014 showed that almost half of everything residential customers send to the landfill is compostable material.
That’s an incredible amount of organic waste, much of which could benefit families in need, be processed and used as animal feed at local farms, or be composted. When these materials are buried in landfills, they don’t break down as they would in nature or in a compost pile. They decompose anaerobically (without oxygen) and in the process, they become the number one source of human-caused methane released into the atmosphere. Yikes!
Now that we know what composting is, let’s talk about two types of composting you might encounter as an Austinite: home composting and curbside composting. What’s the difference?
The type of composting most people are familiar with is home composting (previously called backyard composting). This type of composting is accomplished by obtaining a home composting system like this one:
Inside this tumbler, greens, browns, water and air are combined to provide microorganisms the perfect conditions to produce heat and break the organic material down into compost. The two things to keep in mind are: Always try to put 3 parts brown to 1 part green, and “If it grows, it goes!” This means vegetables, fruits, food-soiled paper, and food scraps are all good to go in the cart. Greens are rich in nitrogen and are often food scraps. Browns are materials that are rich in carbon, like yard trimmings and leaves. A bit of water will keep the materials damp. You also need to add air to the pile to make sure there is enough oxygen. After maintaining the pile for about 6 to 12 months, your pile of organic materials will completely turn into soil conditioner that can be used for your lawn, garden or potted plants. Composting at home helps you grow healthy plants, reduce chemical use and protect the groundwater.
Curbside composting is the same concept as home composting, but on a much larger scale. You still collect compostable waste in your kitchen, but the variety of materials accepted through the City’s curbside program is greater. Then, you will place the compostable items in your 32-gallon compost cart to be picked up every week, instead of processing them in your home composter.
You might have heard that meat and bones can be composted through the curbside composting collection, and thought “Meat? Bones? That’s crazy!” Well, thanks to the commercial composting facility we contract with, these materials are properly broken down into compost. While meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products and bones cannot be composted with a regular home composting system, they can be in these large processing facilities.
At the facility, a large machine grinds the organic material, sifts it, and then piles it up to begin the cooking process (remember, heat is what breaks down the material). These large piles of organic materials reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and with the right amount of time and moisture, they eventually become nutrient-rich compost that is packaged and later spread across gardens throughout Austin and the rest of central Texas. For a more in depth look, watch our video on our curbside composting program!
The curbside composting program allows you to help our planet by reducing the amount of organic waste that goes into landfills, help the city reach its Zero Waste goal, and reduce the size of your trash cart. Remember, your service fee for trash, recycling and curbside compost is determined solely by the size of your landfill trash cart. The majority of Austin Resource Recovery customers have a 64-gallon trash cart. If most of your waste is going into your compost and recycling bins, you could downsize to a 24-gallon cart, saving you $76 per year!
You’ve Got This!
In short, composting is important because it protects our planet, helps your wallet, and gets us one step closer to the City of Austin’s Zero Waste goal. Now that you know all there is to know about composting, we hope you feel ready to take on the organics!