Area Composters Share the Dirt on Their Dirt

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Alice Dreger for ELi

Outside a kitchen door, a bucket of compostable kitchen scraps waits to be taken to the compost pile.

With warm weather on the horizon, East Lansing residents are tending to their lawns and gardens, but many could also be composting – using garden waste and food scraps to enrich soil and reduce carbon footprints.

Cathy DeShambo, the City of East Lansing’s Environmental Services Administrator, describes composting as “nature’s recycling system.” Instead of placing leaves, lawn and yard trimmings, and food waste scraps into the trash, sending it all to landfills, you can compost, even if you’re not a gardener.

Through composting, over the course of the year organic materials will decompose, producing “a dark, rich, organic soil-like substance” that “improves soil structure, retains water, encourages root growth, aerates the soil, slowly releases nutrients, and supports beneficial organisms such as earthworms,” DeShambo explains.

Free soil conditioner is an obvious benefit to gardeners from composting. But the impact is larger than that. According to DeShambo, food and yard waste account for 30 to 40 percent of all trash hauled away by trucks. In landfills, waste releases methane, a major contributor to greenhouse gas.

And DeShambo has previously noted that many people probably don’t know that it’s illegal to put yard waste in the trash in Michigan, unless you’re dealing with an invasive species or a toxic species like poison ivy.

In an interview with ELi, Bill Lovis, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at MSU and longtime composter, seconded DeShambo’s view that composing represents an easy way for households to reduce waste and create a cycle of sustainability.

Drawing upon his knowledge as an archeologist, Lovis explained that the concept of using waste products to replenish soil is not new to the Great Lakes region. While indigenous peoples did not compost as we do today, they planted charcoal and animal bones with their crops to provide additional nourishment.

Alice Dreger, East Lansing Info’s Managing Editor, says that composting and recycling has significantly reduced the landfill waste that her household produces.

In East Lansing, the Department of Public Works’ collection of leaves is handy for many but leaves a large carbon footprint. Dreger’s household prefers composing leaves to having the City collect them at the street using big trucks. Composting yard waste in her yard also prevents leaves from blocking storm drains in the street, she explained.

In contrast to municipal yard waste collection, composting actually aids carbon sequestration, capturing carbon dioxide from the environment and reducing greenhouse gases.

So, how can those interested get started? Today, it is easy to find expensive equipment and dump money into composting. But DeShambo, Lovis, and Dreger all emphasized that composting is easy and does not demand much in the way of money or scientific know-how.

DeShambo explained that, “Generally you will want equal amounts of brown and green material. A dry, shady location with a nearby water source will work well.”

Dreger advocates for keeping it simple. Her household has been composting since she and her spouse Aron Sousa moved into her home over 20 years ago. The yard already had a compost pile, and Sousa discovered that underneath the big pile were three bins and stalls. Sousa rebuilt the rotted-out stalls and the family has been using them since.

That said, the family tends to compost simply, basically using piles in the backyard. According to Dreger, “If you don’t test the pH of the pile, the world goes on.”

Her household, in fact, does not test pH. Sousa rakes and turns the pile rarely and adds water during the unusual occasions when East Lansing is dry for a very long stretch. Dreger noted that food scraps rot quicker than yard waste.

In the winter months, Dreger and her family leave a five-gallon plastic bucket near the back kitchen door for food scraps, to prevent the need for frequent treks across the yard. The bucket can freeze up, but hot water solves that problem. Occasionally, squirrels, chipmunks, bluejays, and opossum visit to steal this and that, and Dreger’s household enjoys watching them.

An East Lansing black squirrel with a hunk of stale bread swiped from the compost bucket outside Alice Dreger’s kitchen door.

Lovis and DeShambo both advocate for doing some research before beginning to find the composting system that meets your needs and lifestyle.

DeShambo also mentioned that you should make plans for how you will use your compost. If you will not use it, where will it go? She suggested working with a neighbor or friend if you don’t have a use for the extra dirt.

She also recommended knowing what can and cannot be composted before beginning. For example, while meat will eventually rot, it is bad for composting since bacteria like E. coli are often found in meat products and can spread in your yard. It’s okay to compost egg shells, but you should avoid composting anything containing meat.

DeShambo also recommends looking into bins and finding the right spot in your yard. Covered bins can keep raccoons and opossum away. To hasten rot, you will need to turn or mix up the contents and sometimes add water.

Lovis also recommends adding nitrogen-rich products, such as manure from a garden store, to reduce carbon levels.

East Lansing’s apartment dwellers can also take up composting by purchasing small, apartment-sized bins or working with a farmers’ market or community garden to drop off scraps. Check out this guide to composting as an apartment-dweller.

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