Encouraging Composting in the Community

This is a guest post from Legosauruses, one of our FIRST LEGO League Robotics teams:

LandfillWaste is a major and very serious issue in modern day America. Waste of one form or another seems to seep into almost all aspects of everyday life. There are many types of waste, ranging from energy waste and inefficient use of non-renewable resources to the many types of waste generated by people and businesses every day. Much of this waste could be recovered in the form of physical resources or energy but currently most of it remains untouched, in the form of trash, after its initial consumption.

One of the most pressing issues when it comes to waste is the massive amount of municipal solid waste, more commonly referred to as trash or garbage, generated every day. In 2012 Americans generated 251 million tons of trash [1]. Of the trash generated in the United States organic materials make up the majority at almost 97% [1]. The second largest contributor to the organic waste category, at 14.5%, is food waste [1]. Food waste is a problem not limited to the United States, it is a worldwide issue. It is estimated that approximately 1/3, by weight, of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted in food production and consumption [2]. This is equivalent to around $1 Trillion USD [2]. If you were to measure food by the calories it provides, instead of by weight, of all the food produced worldwide 24% is wasted [2]. In the United States it is estimated that 30%-40% of the country’s total food supply, by weight, is wasted [3]. Americans waste about 220 pounds of food per person over the course of a year [4]. According to calculations by our team- the Legosauruses- Greensboro North Carolina, with a population of 279,639 (in 2013), [5] wastes approximately 61,520,580 pounds (27,905 tons) of food per year.

GraphWasting food leads to other forms of waste and negative environmental effects as well. For example, when people dispose of unused food through a garbage disposal they waste, on average, a gallon of water per use as well the food they discard [6]. Food sent down a garbage disposal is clearly unsalvageable for eating purposes, but resources contained in the food are still wasted in this manner. This food could instead be composted and used as fertilizer in order to retain nutrients from the food and to return these nutrients to the soil to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

The Solution: Compost

Compost BinCompost is a mixture of various decaying organic substances such as food waste, dead leaves or manure which is used for fertilizing soil. As organic matter decomposes and becomes compost its nutrients are preserved in the soil that it breaks down into. Food waste is the 2nd largest contributor to landfills in the United States according to the EPA [1]. Most of the food waste that ends up in landfills could instead be composted. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency food waste is “uneaten food and food preparation wastes from residences and commercial establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants, and produce stands, institutional cafeterias and kitchens, and industrial sources like employee lunchrooms” [7]. If people compost, instead of throwing food waste away, it would greatly reduce the food waste intake in landfills. When food waste is put into landfills, its healthy nutrients are polluted by the toxic chemicals that seep out of trash rendering this compost useless. These nutrients could be preserved in soil, which could be used to allow plants to grow healthily. These food scraps are instead taking up space in landfills, producing methane, and keeping people from reaping the benefits of using compost. When people throw away food scraps which could otherwise be allowed to become useful compost we waste renewable resources which might have become part of a healthy ecosystem.

Our solution to the problem of food waste is to raise awareness on the importance and ease of composting by pooling and creating resources, such as games and information, for people as well as organizing composting hubs in Greensboro for people/households to drop off food scraps to be composted off site.

What We Did

At the beginning of the season we went on a field trip to the Greensboro recycling center as we tried to narrow down what type of trash we would try to tackle the problem of. While there are many issues associated with recycling that we could have chosen we decided to look instead at organic waste and ended up focusing on food waste because there are already city programs in place for recycling many types of organic waste as well as a program in place for composting yard scraps. By focusing on food waste we could reach out to people on an individual and household basis.

We thought that composting was the most natural and beneficial way to dispose of food scraps and so we decided that our goal would be to make composting as popular as recycling here in Greensboro. We soon realized however that anyone who does not garden at home would not benefit as much from the compost they produce and might be deterred from the idea just because they would not have a use for the compost they produce and would therefor probably not be willing to keep a compost bin in their home. This is because compost bins can be somewhat smelly and could attract unwanted attention from wildlife.

Once we settled on composting we began researching the process of composting and reaching out to experts and resources in our area. We met with Chandra Metheny the horticulturist of the Greensboro Science Center to learn more about composting and she helped us plant and maintain some kale plants in 3 different mediums: clay, sand, and compost. We then monitored these plants in order to compare the health and speed of growth between plants grown in unhealthy soil versus composted soil. We found that the plant grown in compost not only grew faster but appears to be much heartier.

In the meantime, we reached out to many resources in the area to ask about what is currently available to people as composting option. You can find a compiled list of these resources further in this packet. One popular type of organization to aid in composting are ones that collect food scraps from individuals and businesses to be composted off site and return completed nutritious compost to be used as fertilizer. Compostnow.org, The Gallins Family Farm, and Brooks Contracting are some of these organizations and we reached out them to see how they might be able to help people compost at home.

After talking to Brooks contracting it became clear that this would be too expensive of an option on an individual or household basis, and so we would need to try to organize some sort of community composting effort. We decided to try to organize composting hubs throughout Greensboro that people could use to drop off food scraps which would be collected on a weekly basis. This could be done through one of the organizations such as Brooks Contracting who would collect the food scraps regularly as well as providing the most appropriate collection bins. So we developed a Program Logic which we can distribute to any businesses that might be interested in hosting a compost hub for the local community. The idea is businesses, organizations, neighborhoods, home owners associations, community gardens, and any other interested parties could host a composting hub where people from the community could drop off food scraps along with donations so that they do not need to do all the composting at home if they do not want to.

We realized that this idea would probably not be immediately popular with everyone so we did some demographic research in order to try to determine where the hubs should be set up. We found that composting is much more likely in upper middle to upper class areas of town and were even able to use a pre-existing map of recycling success in Greensboro which gave us a pretty good idea of where in town these hubs might best catch on.

We shared our idea with Karen Neill- the county extension director and extension agent of agriculture – urban horticulture of the Greensboro Cooperative Extension. She liked our idea and said that organizations like Brooks Contracting are an ideal solution to the typical problems associated with home composting.

Making composting easy is not enough though if people do not understand the importance and the benefits of composting. From sharing our idea with Karen it became clear that if composting is going to catch on the people to start with are the children of Greensboro. If we can get children excited about composting their parents will encourage the practice and pick up on it as well. This means the best place to start is going to be trying to implement composting in schools and organizations that focus on early education. So we shared our idea with Rick Betton- vice president of visitor experience and Martha Regester- director of education at the Greensboro Science Center. They liked the idea but have not decided if they would be willing to move forward or not.

Since we will be marketing to children many of the resources and handouts we have compiled are aimed at children and we also created our own composting game to teach about composting while having fun playing a board game. The premise of the game is to collect resources- carbon, nitrogen, and water as you move across the board and turn those resources into compost while avoiding the trash truck which steals resources and takes them to the landfill if you come across its path.

By compiling so many resources, creating a fun game, and creating a program logic for composting hubs we hope to educate the residents of Greensboro about compost and persuade them to begin their own compost at home as well as to hopefully get some composting hubs set up in areas of Greensboro carefully selected by demographic and likelihood of use.

References

  1. “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012”. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2012. Published Study
  2. “Reducing Food Loss and Waste- Creating a Sustainable Food Future, Installment Two”. Brian Lipinski, Craig Hanson, Richard Waite, Tim Searchinger, James Lomax and Lisa Kitinoja. World Resources Institute. 2013. Published Study.
  3. “Food Waste: The Facts”. United Nations Environment Programme, Regional Office of North America. 2015. Published Study.
  4. “Global Food Losses and Food Waste” Gustavsson, J, Cederberg, C & Sonesson. Food And Agriculture Organization Of The United Nations. 2011. Published Study.
  5. “Greensboro Census Data- 2013” United States Census Bureau. 2013. Published Study
  6. Karen Neill- County Extension Director and Extension Agent of Agriculture – Urban Horticulture of the Greensboro Cooperative Extension. 2015. Professional Interview.
  7. “Terms of Environment: Glossary, Abbreviations and Acronyms (Glossary F)”. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2006. Published Study

Summary and Resources/Handouts

  • The problem: food waste
    • In 2012 Americans generated 251 million tons of trash [1]
    • Of the trash generated in the United States organic materials make up the majority at almost 97% [1]
    • The second largest contributor to the organic waste category, at 14.5%, is food waste [1]
    • Food waste is a problem not limited to the United States, it is a worldwide issue. It is estimated that approximately 1/3, by weight, of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted in food production and consumption [2]
      • This is equivalent to around $1 Trillion USD [2]
      • If you were to measure food by the calories it provides, instead of by weight, of all the food produced worldwide 24% is wasted [2]
    • In the United States it is estimated that 30%-40% of the country’s total food supply, by weight, is wasted [3]
    • Americans waste about 220 pounds of food per person over the course of a year [4]
    • According to calculations by our team- the Legosauruses- Greensboro North Carolina, with a population of 279,639 (in 2013), [5] wastes approximately 61,520,580 pounds (27,905 tons) of food per year
  • Our Solution:
    • Creating composting hubs throughout Greensboro
    • Raising awareness in communities about benefits of composting and the hazards of waste
      • Through innovative and fun education- such as the composting game we created!
    • Connect people with resources already available to them such as:
      • Brooks Contracting and Gallens Family farm compost collection
      • Cooperative Extension and community gardens
      • Compostnow.org
      • Greensboro Yard Scrap Collection
    • Convince people that composting is easy and very simple to implement at home in very little time
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