Composting on the menu in Charlotte

SCOOTER MACMILLAN
Staff Writer

There may be something rotten in Denmark, but there’s definitely something composting in Charlotte.

The composting program at Charlotte Central School is happening every day, but on Saturday it was also happening at the Charlotte Library.

About 12 people attended a community composting course at the library and about half of them went to the Charlotte Central School afterward to tour the composting shed there.

Many were “backyard” composters but a few were “community” composters and Abby Foulk, who manages the composting program at Charlotte Central School, said there is an advantage to composting on the larger scale.

“The more mass you have, the more successful your compost is going to be,” she said.

The higher the volume of compost creates more heat and that helps in killing pathogens and bacteria.

The May 11 presentation was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Program and the goal is to help develop self-sustaining community composting sites.

The program aims to inspire composters to have open houses, share with the neighbors “and to have composters become part of that composting IQ that can help their community or town figure out organics diversion,” said Natasha Duarte, who taught the workshop. She is the director of the Composting Association of Vermont, which she runs out of her home in Hinesburg.

She was impressed when she asked for a show of hands of who had been to a dump because “a lot of people have never gone,” she said. Almost everyone present had.

Duarte said many people put something in the trash and “it disappears.”

“One of the town dumps in Concord, Mass. was directly opposite the parking lot for Walden Pond,” one of the attendees said. “I think it’s now been capped.”

Act 148 – Universal Recycling Law

Vermont’s Act 148 or the Universal Recycling Law was passed unanimously in 2012.

We’re still putting as a state about 30 percent of what’s going in our landfills is organics and that could be better managed,” she said, adding that the estimate is that around 77,000 tons of what is going into our landfills is food scraps and that waste could be a resource.

Act 148 dictates that by 2020, all Vermonters will be required to keep organic waste out of their trash because the lawmakers thinking was that “in eight years we would be able to figure it out,” Duarte said.

She pointed out that one unforeseen consequence of the Universal Recycling Law is that food donations to organizations helping those with food insecurity has tripled as businesses seek ways to reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills.

Forty percent of residential food waste is being composted or otherwise diverted to animal feed or some other way of keeping it out of a landfill.

The number of food scrap haulers has almost doubled.

Between 2015 and 2017 there was a 9 percent bump in residential composting, Duarte said, “because people are hearing about the law and trying to figure it out.”

“Forty percent of food in the U.S. is wasted,” she added. “That equates about 13 percent of carbon pollution emissions in terms of you have to grow it, the water for growing the crops, transportation, packaging, all of that to get the food to us and then we throw like 40 percent away.”

Composting builds communities

There is a key benefit of community composting. Duarte said that communities that work together on a community project like composting are much more resilient when a natural disaster hits because citizens have already built bonds and are accustomed to working together.

She gave an example, saying that some years ago, a neighbor called the police on her and her for illegal dumping because of her composting system. She explained composting to the police and to her neighbor.

“My takeaway from that is that it had never occurred to me to tell my neighbor why I was composting,” she said. “From the point of contention, we actually developed a pretty good working relationship.”

The neighbors were an elderly retired couple, and the relationship that started over a misunderstanding about composting was solidified after a large ice storm when she and her housemates helped the neighbors through those difficulties.

Optimum moisture, temperature

With a community composting system, it is a good idea to develop a “recipe” for the compost. This is what Foulk does at the Charlotte Central School composting shed where the recipe is posted on the wall.

The recipe indicates the ratios of brown material (carbon based material such as leaves or wood shavings) to green material (material that has a higher nitrogen content – although all materials are going to have some amount of carbon and nitrogen – such as kitchen scraps, fresh grass clippings, garden trimmings, manure).

Duarte said that you should experiment with your composting system to see what ratio of brown to green material works best for your system.

If your compost smells, your ratio is wrong and you might want to add more brown material.

Compost needs moisture but not too much, Duarte said.

“It should be sort of like a moist sponge,” he said. “If you take a handful of it and squeeze, you should see a little bit of water – not where it’s dripping out but not so dry that it falls apart.”

Depending on the system, the best ratio will probably be two to three times the “browns” to “greens” for your compost.

“For hot compost you want it to be reaching into the 90s or the low 100s,” Duarte said. “But 131 degrees is that magic, reducing-pathogens-and-killing-weed-seeds temperature.”

Foulk said that someone accidentally left some eggs in some chicken manure they brought to the school composting shed, and when the eggs were found, they were hardboiled.

Besides being a great way to deal with waste, composting is very rich soil amendment with a huge diversity of microorganisms.

“There’s more microorganisms in one tablespoon of compost than there are people on the planet,” she said.

If there are problems or concerns about compost, cover it with carbon, leaves or dirt.

“That’s going to slow things down,” Duarte said. “That will give you time to call people.”

For more information, contact Duarte and the Composting Association of Vermont at 802-373-6499 or at info@compostingvermont.org or visit the website at compostingvermont.org. They have personnel statewide who can visit residents directly if the problem can’t be diagnosed over the phone or by email, Duarte said.

Composting at Charlotte Central School

At the Charlotte Central School composting shed, Deidre Holmes, who helped start the program, demonstrated the tumbler. Organic waste will breakdown faster in a tumbler composting bin, but it can be a problem in winter if it freezes. It’s good to have atumbler in a shed or some sheltered area.

However, Holmes said, if it isn’t packed too full to turn, put a jar of hot water in with the scraps and tumble with that to thaw it out.

Foulk showed the charts that the sixth-graders use to record the scraps that are going into the bins. Besides learning how to do something good for the environment, the students are learning science and math skills.

Foulk has the students follow the recipe, computing the weight of the green or nitrogen-rich material they are putting in and how much brown material they need to add. They record the temperature over time and work with percentages to see how much the pile is reduced as it breaks down.

Foulk said that she distributed a food scrap survey in Charlotte and she is hoping to use those results to get the selectboard approval for two drop-off locations for food scraps.

So that’s the question for the selectboard: To have town composting or not to have town composting.

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