Earth Matters

Compost and Worms Help Reduce Food Waste

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DPW's Joshua Singer provides a quick training on community composting at the Virginia Avenue Community Garden. Photo: C Plume

First it was bicycling and then it was canning, and now, suddenly, composting is cool again. Folks across the District are composting, comparing notes, and talking “brown-to-green” ratios. There was even a competition for the best homemade compost at September’s DC State Fair.

So why the composting craze?

Compost is a trifecta of goodness. Composting food and yard waste – the rotting onion, the squirrel-tooth-riddled pumpkin, and the withering tomato plants – creates a natural fertilizer that helps maintain soil quality and fertility. Compost reduces and even eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers. Finally, compost reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and incinerators where it produces greenhouse gases and pollutes our air.

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study in 2014 found that in the US, food and yard waste together account for 29 percent of waste, most of which ends up in landfills or incinerators and contributes to greenhouse gases and poor air quality.

Fortunately, there is a growing number of ways and places to compost in DC. Joshua (Josh) Singer of the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) reinvigorated composting in DC when he recognized a need for compost in DC’s network of community gardens.

In 2015, DPR began operating critter-proof/smell-proof community food and garden waste composting bins. Participate in a quick training and you can drop off your food waste at one of the 50 sites around town. Singer notes, “There are three DPR community gardens located on Capitol Hill. Currently, more than 1,000 residents are participating in this program across DC and composting some 20 tons of waste every month!”

To learn more see https://dpr.dc.gov/page/community-compost-cooperative-network. If you really want to learn about composting, a DPR Composting Master Class will be offered in spring 2018.

As the Department of Public Works (DPW) started analyzing the amount of food waste hauled to landfills and incinerators, and in line with the District’s Sustainable DC waste reduction goals, it also jumped on the composting bandwagon. In May, DPW initiated food waste dropoffs in every ward.

The Ward 6 dropoff is in front of the Rumsey Pool from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday. According to DPW’s manager of the Office of Waste Diversion, Annie White, “The program has been a huge success with an average of more than 3,300 pounds per week gathered from the program in September. The food waste gathered at these sites is trucked to the city’s community and school gardens for composting and eventual application.”

While several dropoff sites will be shutting down for the winter, the Eastern Market site will remain open. Stay tuned for information on DPW-sponsored winter compost dropoff options. DPW will be operating the full program again in the spring as the Farmers’ Markets reopen. To learn more, see https://dpw.dc.gov/foodwastedropoff.

DC Public Schools are also getting into the composting game. Twenty-five schools currently have composting programs, with the possibility that at least 60 will be participating in the program by the end of the school year. While curbside composting is still at least a few years away, a curbside composting feasibility study was undertaken earlier this year, and DC has allocated $8 million in the 2023 budget for the establishment of a composting facility.

Meanwhile, more DC residents are composting in their own backyards. Managed correctly, outdoor compost shouldn’t smell, and vermin are carefully monitored and controlled. When access to outdoor space is a limiting factor, some residents are turning to vermicomposting as an easy, efficient form of waste reduction that can literally be done in the living room. At least one DC condo association is doing vermicomposting in its parking garage.

Like good compost, vermicompost shouldn’t smell or attract vermin. Worms feed on food scraps but also junk mail, newspapers, and even dryer lint, hair, and feathers. They’re voracious eaters that can consume as much as half their body weight per day. Over time, they produce “castings” – aka worm poop – packed with nitrates, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and calcium that are essential for plant growth. Your plants will love you.

In October, Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced the DC Residential Composting Incentives Act. Under this act, after attending a short composting training, a DC resident would be eligible for a discount toward the purchase of a composter. So, along with biking and canning, consider getting on the composting bandwagon. There are plenty of opportunities to jump on board!

 

Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and a blogger for the DC Recycler: www.DCRecycler.blogspot.com; Twitter @DC_Recycler. She is also a board member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club and of Green America, but her perspectives are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of either organization.