There are lots of good reasons to compost your food waste, but here’s one I hadn’t thought of: a dearth of dirt.
“Topsoil is getting harder and harder to find,” said Marc Morgan, solid waste manager for the city of Lebanon, who needs topsoil to cover the city landfill as it fills up. The problem, he said, is a decline in businesses that need to get rid of their dirt: “Gravel pits are fewer – used to be hundreds of them, now you can count the number of active gravel pits and soil production facilities in New Hampshire.”
The solution to soil shortage? Roll your own!
“Instead of using virgin topsoil, I said, look at all this organic waste. Let’s pull it out and manufacture our own topsoil,” he said.
Morgan, a former state recycling director who would be the odds-on favorite to be New Hampshire Compost Monarch if that title existed, helped Lebanon start taking food waste a dozen years ago from two gigantic customers: Dartmouth College and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, which is so big, he told me, that it has its own ZIP code.
The city gets 350 to 400 tons of food waste a year from these facilities that can become perfectly good soil as long as it is occasionally turned to keep aerated, the temperature is monitored (not too hot or cold, or else the bacteria die) and they add enough leaves, ash and other carbon-rich material to balance the nitrogen load.
Lebanon accepts anything, including food items that compost bins warn about, like citrus and meat and so-called “compostable” utensils that often don’t break down. It even takes road-kill carcasses from the Department of Transportation because a deer skeleton is reduced to nothing after a few weeks in a steaming compost pile.
“We’re not producing a high-quality compost product; all I’m trying to do is grow grass. That allows us to accept far more products. … If a Dartmouth College student accidentally throws a fork in the material, that’s not the end of the world for us. For some of the smaller composters, that could be a problem,” he said.
The big news in 2021 is that the facility has begun accepting food waste from homes in 23 towns around Lebanon.
“For years we’ve been asked, when are you going to start taking food scraps … by people who don’t have land to do it themselves, to do backyard composting,” he said. Under the new program people buy a $15 punch card, then can drop off a 5-gallon bucket of food scraps every week for the next year. It goes into a self-tip dumpster and will be added to the commercial waste.
Lebanon is probably the best place in New Hampshire to launch this program. It already has a private company, Nordic Waste, that picks up food waste from homes (a predecessor tried to expand this service to Concord in 2018 but quickly went out of business). It’s also next to Vermont, which has the nation’s strictest food-composting laws, requiring all residents to separate most food scraps and all transfer stations to accept them.
So the idea of composting your food scraps is already in the air. But that’s no guarantee of success.
“How many will we get? I’m uncertain. I’m thinking we might get 100 households to participate but I could be very wrong. I really don’t know,” Morgan said.
There are plenty of reasons to compost food waste, as a New Hampshire legislative committee noted in a 2019 report on the issue.
There’s the waste-not-want-not argument: It’s stupid to lock away useful organic material in the sealed pit of landfill. Separately composting food scraps makes it obvious how much you’re tossing out, providing an incentive to cut down on waste.
There’s the environmental argument involving soil depletion and reduction of methane emissions from rotting landfill food, although Morgan says that last one is more complicated than you’d think.
And there’s a financial argument: Landfill space is expensive and we shouldn’t fill it unnecessarily. New Hampshire long ago banned throwing leaves and yard waste into the landfill for that reason.
By some estimates, as much as one-fifth of household trash is food waste. Turning that into usable compost would be, as they say, a win-win.
But not easy. Lebanon’s landfill gets about 40,000 tons of waste a year, Morgan said, which means its well-established program with Dartmouth and the Medical Center is diverting at most 1% of the total. It’s got a long, long way to go.
I have composted at my house for decades, mostly because it means the trash doesn’t stink if I skip this week’s trip to the dump. Fortunately, I have enough land that it’s easy. I heave everything in a pile behind the barn and ignore it for a couple of years, unless the crows get a little too excited with my offering and scatter egg shells all over the place.
Morgan has a similarly lazy approach at his house: He built a compost bit out of “three old box-spring mattresses nailed together” and throws food and leaves into it.
“To me, it’s about wasted resources,” said Morgan. “If you put it in a landfill, a hole in the ground, then that’s where it sits for a very, very long time. It’s definitely something better we could be doing with it.”
If you want more geek in your week, subscribe to David Brooks’ free weekly newsletter at GraniteGeek.org. You can also listen to his weekly chat with Chris Ryan on WKXL radio at soundcloud.com/wkxl.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)