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Romancing the garbage: composting 101 from Nancy Swenson
WRITTEN BY :   Lars Clutterham

Nature has an interesting way of dealing with garbage. It very patiently turns waste back into something as useful in its own way as the original. You could call this the “circle of life” or an aspect of God’s master plan for creation, but no matter how you describe it, the process in all its variety is quite remarkable–even awe inspiring. And we humans have benefited greatly from all of nature’s recycled waste products down through the millennia going even farther back than when the early hominids discovered fire. From diamonds to diesel fuel to diatomaceous earth, all this recycled garbage has enriched and powered our lives from time immemorial.
Humans, on the other hand, have not done so well with waste management. Ever since we started congregating in large groups, garbage has been a problem. From the Valley of Hinnom, ancient Jerusalem’s unofficial city dump, the image of which later morphed into the idea of Hell, to the first official municipal garbage facility in Athens, Greece, around 500 B.C., humankind has pretty much mucked it up.
Cut to present day and a recent full page newspaper ad from the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, which details the development of a new Waste-by-Rail trash system to emanate from the Puente Hills Materials Recovery Facility, next door to the Puente Hills Landfill. That landfill will be closing by law next year, and the plan is to transport up to 20,000 tons per day 200 miles southeast to the Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County. (By comparison, Athenians in 500 B.C. reportedly were required to take their trash only one mile outside the city limits.) Incidentally, that 20,000 tons per day constitutes only two-thirds of L.A. County’s daily disposal rate.
While it might be tempting to sit back and pontificate over the grand dilemma of humankind’s losing battle with trash, what if there were some immediate, down-home personal way to take advantage of Mother Nature’s remarkable recycling capability?
Well there is, and it’s called composting, as practiced by current DUSD School Board President, Nancy Swenson, among others. Here’s how Nancy does it, responding to a series of questions from this writer:
1. Do you compost with worms, chemicals, or backyard bins? “When I first started composting a few years ago I was very eager and started with a backyard bin and worm composting. I didn’t do too well with the worm composting and they all died, so I decided to focus on a single composting technique using a 75-gallon tumbler that I purchased at Costco. I have recently bought a new batch of worms. I hope I do better this time.”
2. Do you do any indoor composting? “No”
3. Do you compost both food waste and yard waste? “Yes, I do compost yard and food waste which includes celery, fruit leftovers, lettuce, shredded newspaper, some junk mail (stay away from the glossy stuff), cardboard, etc.”
4. What kind of food waste do you compost? “Vegetables such as celery hearts, wilted/brown lettuce, broccoli stems, artichoke leaves and any leftover vegetables from meals after rinsing thoroughly. For fruit I use Asian pears, grapes, and plums that fall from the trees in the yard and any leftover fruit from the kitchen.”
5. What kind of yard waste do you compost? “Grass clippings, plant and tree leaves, grape vines at end of season, vegetable garden leftovers.”
6. Describe the process, including how you collect composting indoors and outdoors, how often indoor composting materials get moved outside, and so on.
“I start with grass clippings and any dried leaves. I then add shredded paper, kitchen scraps and water and spin every weekend. Since I do occasionally have potted plants die on me, I’ll throw the plant and soil from the pots back into the tumbler. I keep a metal canister under my sink for easy access to discard small amounts of compost material. I take it out every few days or when it gets full. Some say that you are not supposed to add to the tumbler once you have started the compost. I don’t have a second tumbler so the scraps from my kitchen would end up being discarded with the trash. Therefore, I continue to add to the tumbler and when I need compost I use a tray with holes in it to filter out the big chunks. Then I add the chunks back into the tumbler to finish decomposing. Now that I have taken up worm composting again, I should be able to give some of the kitchen scraps to them and not interrupt the decomposing cycle in the tumbler as often.”
(Nancy responded to a dozen questions. We’ll offer her answers to the remaining six next week.)

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Published: June 07, 2012 – Volume 11 – Issue 08



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