Aerobes vs. Anaerobes

Positive change is not dependent on legislative and public policy reforms. While it is true that legislative and public policy reforms at all levels of government can instigate positive change, it ultimately begins with an individual. Further trash reduction is one of the changes I aspire to make at the personal level.

Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were avid gardeners. My maternal grandparents in particular had also mastered the art of canning. They actively planted and maintained a large backyard garden and canned its surplus to satisfy dietary and culinary needs during the winter. Through my older sister’s high school honors biology course, my parents returned to their gardening roots that had been neglected prior to that time. Her project, which my younger sister and I subsequently undertook later in the same course, required the planting and care of vegetables, herbs, and annuals and/or perennials. As time wore on, my frugal father was not overly anxious to purchase fertilizer and potting mix. That being said, I brainstormed ways to offset those costs.

 

garden
Maternal Grandmother (Nonna) and her garden, April 1992

 

That brainstorming, combined with my passion for sustainability and desire to change at a personal level, inspired me to purchase a backyard compost tumbler for my family as a Christmas gift in 2014. Though some relatives and  family friends initially considered this gift atypical, I regret not thinking about and advocating for acquiring one earlier. Regardless, it’s never too late for a fresh start! The model I selected was a single drum with deep grooves to allow for easy one or two-person tumbling. Upon assembly, we staked out two possible locations for it: out in the garden itself or in the landscaping rocks alongside the house. We initially placed it in the garden.

A general routine soon developed in the kitchen. During food and meal preparation, there is a black covered pot that sits in its dedicated spot on the island (central counter) and acts as a repository for organic wastes. Shortly afterwards, these wastes are shredded in the food processor. processorCare was taken to mix and aerate wastes in this pot for odor control. Once the pot was about three-quarters full, it was emptied into the compost tumbler. We stirred it with a pitchfork and then tumbled. The carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is important in the decomposition process. Since organic wastes from the kitchen largely constitute so-called “green” materials rich in nitrogen, it wasn’t long before a foul odor festered. The odor is exacerbated by the absence of so-called “brown” materials rich in carbon and under excess moisture. Excess moisture displaces oxygen and contributes to an anoxic tumbler environment. Anaerobes thrive under these anoxic conditions and the anaerobic decomposition in which they engage contributes to bad odors.

 

tumbler

 

Initially, we added shredded newspapers as the “brown” materials. They also absorb excess moisture from precipitation events and that which occurs naturally in organic wastes to help maintain oxic conditions. When the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is adequately maintained, the pungent odor is under control. We never compost any bones or meat fat trimmings, although industrial and commercial composting operations have this capability.

The majority of our organic wastes are trim wastes (melon rinds, fruit/vegetable ends, cores, & peelings, and egg/nut shells). In a perfect world, all organic wastes are trim waste. Despite the best of intentions, there is an occasional food item that molds or goes bad before we eat it. My sisters and I were taught at a young age never to waste food. If we put it on our plate or if it was placed there for us, we ate it. Leftovers from meal preparation, baking, and cooking are refrigerated in glass food storage bowls (with reusable, washable lids!) and are consumed as lunch the following days(s). The quantity of our trim waste reflects our healthy eating habits, or slacking thereof.

 

pyrex

 

For my family’s situation, the compost’s seeds negates the need to purchase individual seed packets. As time wore on, my mother’s disability and my father’s more time-consuming career responsibilities prevented the dedicated gardening they envisioned.

After a few months, we modified three components of the composting routine. The first component entailed the relocation of the compost tumbler to the landscaping rocks alongside the house. Out in the open garden, it was completely exposed to the elements and further from the porch light. sawdustThe second component was the switch from shredded newspapers to sawdust as the “brown” carbon-rich material and excess moisture absorber. Sawdust, obtained from a home improvement retailer, is more finely ground than shredded newspapers and is ready to use. We often fell behind with shredding newspapers, which returned to our household waste stream to the Paper Retriever. To protect our respiratory and ocular health, we don clear goggles and a face mask. The third component entailed adding spoonfuls of sawdust to the black pot in the kitchen to control odors.

Composting is nature’s way of recycling, as necessary nutrients are released back into the environment where they fuel the growth of new biota. In our case, the compost acts as an insulator that retains water and moisture and functions as a reservoir of nutrients necessary for plant, flower, and vegetable growth. It is truly unfortunate how much food waste we as a society generate. Food waste consumes valuable landfill space and its decomposition under anaerobic conditions present in a landfill generates methane gas. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As the saying goes, “Be the change you hope to see in the world.”

…In other waste management news, my township has updated their residential recycling carts!

 

cart

 

~by Angelo Teachout

photo credit of featured image (License)

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