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Zero Waste and Composting: An Interview with a Local Environmentalist

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  • a tipped over compost bin, spilling various composting items onto a blue surface

Dawn, Clemens Mill | June 29, 2020

As part of our Zero Waste series, I was able to sit down and interview my friend and local environmentalist about her experiences with composting. Read on for a transcription of our interview!

Would you call yourself an environmentalist? And if so, what are some issues that are currently on your mind?
Yes, I guess you could say that. I care about the environment immensely. I can't stand when people say, "oh she's into that lifestyle" because I'm not "in" to anything, I genuinely believe that this is how people should live. As far as issues on my mind, obviously food waste, and the food supply chain is always on my mind. I'm glad to see it come to the mainstream media and that people are really starting to grasp food waste as an environmental issue. Plastic is another huge one. I'm not just talking about plastic straws, I'm talking about everything from throw away cutlery to kids toys. It really is everywhere and it’s having devastating effects on the planet.

Are there any environmental issues in particular that you feel have been brought to light during this global experience through COVID-19?
Yes! I think the pictures of reduced air pollution in major cities have been eye opening for some. Unfortunately, I don't think it will drastically change how humanity function but I think some people will wake up to how flawed our "throw away" society is - and any small change is worth it.

Great! Now, on the topic of composting - could you define/briefly explain what exactly is composting for beginners?
Composting is a biological process but don't let that word scare you! They say composting is a science and an art. I think of it like baking. You have to have the right recipe and let it cook for the right amount of time under the right conditions (ie. moisture, temperature, oxygen). I wouldn't say its 100% nature's way thought. Fruit falling off a tree and rotting is nature's way of managing food waste. While putting it into a pile and helping it decompose is a man-made idea.

What are some of the fundamentals of composting, so that newbies can understand it better?
They say the goal is 2:1 carbon to nitrogen. To simplify it, two parts wood waste for every one part food waste. If you're composting in your backyard you’ll need a lot of carbon (think wood chips and dried leaves). I think this is the biggest mistake people make; they have too much nitrogen (food waste) and their piles get smelly or attract rodents. It's okay to be lazy about composting. Start with old mulch or wood chips and leaves the first year. Add coffee grounds and eggshells the next year. Once you start to better understand how the process works you can add in more kitchen scraps. Composting is about long term success, take it slow and give it a go.

Generally speaking, what can and cannot be composted?
The Region of Waterloo provides detailed information about what can and cannot go in your green bin. For backyard composting, a general rule of thumb is:

  • Can: fruit and veggie scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells
  • Cannot: cooked or uncooked meat, weeds, bakery items

Do you compost? And if so, how? What has worked for you in the past, and/or what hasn't?
I do! I'm working on building the 3 bin system. I used it at my apartment back in the day and it was so easy to maintain. I like it because it's low maintenance and has an area dedicated to carbon storage. Did I mention how important it is to have enough carbon for your home system? I find being lazy about it works best. Make sure your nitrogen is properly covered/buried. Turn it once or twice a year.

What are some easy ways for people and households to get started?
Just do it! Take last year's mulch off your garden bed and put it in a dedicated spot in your yard. Add leaves this fall. Spend some time over the winter looking into the different systems that are available and decide which one is best for your living situation. Then install a system next summer. Check out all the resources provided through this program to help lay out a plan.

How can individuals living in apartment buildings or other shared situations compost?
This can be a bit trickier. I haven't tried an indoor system or worm composting personally, but my friends have and they can be fun. They require a lot more effort, but it's a really fun science project if you have kids! A lot of municipalities are starting to offer green bin programs to multi-residential buildings too like the Region of Waterloo does. When I lived in an apartment my landlord let me install a 3 bin system in the small yard space we had. I collected some of the neighbour’s food waste and composted it.

Why do you believe it is important to compost?
Oh gosh, there are so many reasons I don't know where to start with this one… In general, our soil is not healthy. We need to continue to reintroduce nutrients to it. While organic matter such as food waste contains those nutrients. Composting is an easy way to ensure those nutrients are reintroduced to the soil. But there are so many other biological benefits such as water holding capacity and reducing greenhouse gases. I also think the awareness that it brings is important. Once people become consciously aware of how much food they're wasting they tend to cut back. Wasting food is like throwing your money away, but there is so much more waste that happens between food being harvested, transported, sorted, put on grocery shelves and getting to your table. Composting isn't the solution to preventing all of that waste, but it can definitely help and bring awareness to the issue.

In what ways might composting contribute to a Zero Waste initiative? And/or what benefits to the environment does composting provide?
I want to clarify that I don't think "zero waste" is truly an achievable goal. There will always be waste. Focusing instead on minimizing the amount of waste we create is important and achievable. I think composting plays a critical role in the circular economy. It helps take a material out of the waste stream and turn it into a valuable resource.

Are there any interesting advancements or other new trends happening in composting that excite you?
I have to say the trend that excites me most is people and their involvement. As a millennial I'd say my perspective is this; my grandparents’ generation really understood the value of things. They knew where their garbage went and where their goods were manufactured. Somewhere along the way we've lost sight of that. But this next generation of kids not only understand, they're acting on it. I'm amazed at all of the activism, the standing up, the speaking out. It gives me so much hope! And programs like this one that are getting people out there, involved and excited to do are what excite me. 

What does the future of composting and the Zero Waste movement look like?

I think its programs like this! Programs that educate the average consumer and allow them to make informed decisions. Whether its knowing what to put in your green bin or how compost in your backyard, I think this type of education is exactly what the world needs!

Thank you very much for sharing your insights with us!