Letter to the Editor, 20 June 2019: Composting in the Modern Era

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By Frank Richichi

Let’s face it: we all produce a lot of garbage. It is a byproduct of our lives. Most of it ends up in a landfill or going up in smoke in an incinerator with the ashes ending up in the landfill.  As concerned citizens, we try to recycle as much as possible.  Unfortunately, recycling is a lot more complicated than it would seem and mileage varies.

Some things were recycled before but can’t be now (e.g., Styrofoam).   Some things can be recycled sometimes (e.g., Pizza boxes if they are not too funky with cheese and pepperoni grease). Some things where recycled before, are not now but may be in the near future (newspaper).  Many plastic items that were previously recycled are now sent to the incinerator. What is really recycled and what ends up in the incinerator anyway? It is a bit confusing, and there is no shortage of opposing beliefs and opinions.

There is a form of recycling that is effective, simple, and readily available: Composting.  If The Graduate were to be remade today, a young Dustin Hoffman might have been told that the future is not about Plastics but Composting.

Composting, of course, is not new.  My grandmother fortified her rosebushes in front of her Brooklyn house with eggshells and coffee grounds. My uncle Tony used to transport horse manure from the police stables down Flatbush Avenue to his home garden in Canarsie in a wheelbarrow. I followed their example by home composting and an occasional visit to a friend’s horse stable or Chip-In Farm’s chicken coop.  My compost bin design was straight out of Crockett’s Victory Garden.

This approach, though well-intentioned, has its downsides. A pile of chicken manure on my driveway on a hot summer day does not win points with the neighbors.  Visiting the backyard compost heap during the winter in the snow requires dressing up to make the trip to the bin.  It seems that the raccoons and deer eat most of what I put in the compost bin and empty most of the remainder on to the lawn. There also is a lot of stuff you just can’t throw in the pile without attracting rodents and flies.

I have found a solution to all these that also has additional benefits. I contracted with Black Earth Composting to collect all my compostable material. They are a commercial operation that collects all the typical stuff. They also compost a lot of what either goes into the trash or is no longer usable by the recycling companies.

[Black Earth] takes the following:

  • Pizza boxes – hardened cheese, pepperoni grease et al.
  • Newspaper – note that most of this is no longer accepted by the recycling facilities in China
  • Food – Fat, grease, meat scraps, fish scraps, bread, pasta (sauce and all), orange peels, rice, leftover take-out as well as the usual veggie scraps
  • Napkins, paper towels, tissues
  • Compostable utensils and plates – These are only compostable by a commercial operation that has a higher temperature compost pile
  • House plants – That Poinsettia that died regardless of what you did. Dirt and all.

They take all the items I would normally compost and a lot of stuff I would put in the trash.

Although a new company, commercial food refuse collection is not a new concept. A century ago, food scraps were collected in urban areas and fed to the pigs.  There were large pig farms in Lincoln and Waltham. My house in Arlington (ca 1930) had a “slop pail” next to the back door in a buried container with a heavy lid. Unfortunately, office parks, and houses have replaced the pig farms. The scrap pails are only curiosities.

Black Earth provides a modern alternative. A mini-trash container replaces the slop bucket.  It is lined with disposable, compostable plastic bags. Instead of feeding the pigs, the compost produced feeds our gardens and lawns. It is a replacement for the home compost and chicken and horse manure without the accompanying smell and subsequent wrath of the neighbors.

The good news for the environment is that the refuse becomes fertilizer rather than going up in smoke in a local incinerator. The carbon is captured and used to enrich soil rather than be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

The good news for my garden is that I grow tomatoes my uncle Tony would be proud of.

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