Composting Plays a Large Role in a Zero-Waste Future

One of the key findings of ecology is that natural systems produce very little of what we call “waste.” Materials are constantly recycled and repurposed, in a closed-loop system. The resources needed for life are not depleted, but, in a sense, borrowed and then returned in a usable form.

Human systems, especially in the modern industrial age, consistently violate this principle. We consume rather than borrow resources, and after more or less brief usage, return them to the environment in more or less toxic forms. Perversely, our economic thinking treats this as a great achievement, measuring consumption while externalizing the costs.

The result is seen in degraded soil, depleted or polluted groundwater, toxic algae blooms and islands of plastic in the oceans, high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mountainous landfills, and so on. This is obviously not sustainable. We might enjoy our luxuries for a few generations, but if we continue on this path a very dismal future is in store.

Recycling, then, is not just hip or politically correct, but part of a serious effort to realign human with natural systems. Approaches like biomimicry and “cradle to cradle design” teach us how to conserve resources as efficiently as nature does.

The state of Vermont is now committed to full scale recycling with Act 148, meant to drastically reduce the amount of material sent to languish in landfills. Materials easier to separate and repurpose, such as paper, glass and metals, must now be recycled. By 2020, the goal is to keep organic materials, such as yard and food “waste,” out of the trash.

Nature’s process for recycling organic matter is essentially what we call composting. Bacteria break down dead animal and vegetable matter into basic elements, which are then available as nutrients for the next generation of life. Adding compost to the soil rejuvenates it for future crops.

Sustainable Woodstock aims to encourage understanding and adoption of composting as a routine practice in our lives. One way we do this is to demonstrate composting at large public events. At the recent “Celebrate Our Town” dinner on the Green, our consultant Ana DiNatale and a team of volunteers from Change the World Kids set up and monitored collection bins, explaining compost to anyone interested.

Thanks to Foley Distributing Co., the event used compostable plates and dinnerware, so that diners could simply deposit the entire remains of their meal in one place. More than “recyclable,” these utensils were not intended to be reshaped into other paper or plastic items, but were made of materials that break down organically, like food leftovers, into soil nutrients.

Systems for turning food and yard scraps into usable compost are not yet fully in place, so we had to truck the seven large bags of compost to a distant facility. Ana is exploring the possibility of launching a compost processing operation in the Woodstock area. She says that it’s a viable business model, because there is no cost for raw materials and compost can be sold.

Ana points out that “we’re degrading our agricultural soil, while throwing away nutrients the soil needs,” and comments that “a ridiculous amount” of food scraps generated by restaurants could be composted once a system is in place. Composting can address other environmental issues too, such as reducing carbon emissions and generating heat without burning fuels.

Ana encourages homeowners to consider composting yard and food waste at home. “Most people don’t, even though it’s easy,” she says. In addition, some farms in the area will take organic materials for composting; see “How to Recycle Almost Everything” on this page.

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