With more and more local programs and educational initiatives popping up, composting is clearly taking a larger role in Iowa City’s waste infrastructure.
Composting, by definition, is the controlled breakdown of biodegradable yard and kitchen waste. As organic matter decomposes, nutrients are converted into usable forms that can then be absorbed by roots. According to Kristi Cooper, a Family Life Specialist with Iowa State University’s Linn County Extension Office who specializes in sustainable living practices, interest in composting is at an all-time high.
“Most people I talk to are interested in learning about composting,” Cooper said. “People are really concerned about the environment and the waste we produce and want to learn what they can do about it.”
Cooper has had an outdoor compost pile at her home for many years. Four years ago she decided to try indoor composting. It was so successful that Cooper set up a composting bin at her Linn County office, and in just one year the office diverted 300 gallons of food waste by collecting lunch scraps.
Local organizations that have launched composting efforts include New Pioneer Food Co-op, Bluebird Diner, Regina High School, Elizabeth Tate Alternative High School, Hiawatha Elementary School and West High School. All have incorporated some level of composting, whether it’s just diverting food waste from landfills or also converting it to compost. Residents of several Iowa City neighborhoods have also started composting cooperatives where one residence hosts the compost pile and other residents contribute to it.
It’s true that many Iowa City residents are putting a concerted effort towards composting, but before trash talking other communities for their lack of composting efforts, Scott Koepke has some other statistics. Koepke is the Education Outreach Coordinator for New Pioneer Food Co-op’s Soilmates program. He can often be found in classrooms teaching children about the value of composting. Not surprisingly, Koepke serves as his neighborhood composter, and he often finds donated buckets of food on his porch.
“Iowa City is actually behind the curve,” Koepke said. “And I say that to be motivational, not critical.”
Cities like Portland, Oregon have really embraced urban composting programs. Since October 2011, the city provided all residences with weekly curbside compost collection. A year into the new curbside collection system, 38 percent less residential waste was headed to the landfill and three times more yard debris and food scraps were turned into compost, according to the City’s website.
In Manhattan, the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s Community Compost Program has offered dropoff locations for food waste since 1990. In the Bay Area, the cities of San Francisco and Oakland have adopted zero-waste initiatives that emphasize a closed-loop system of production and consumption, promoting the best use of materials and eliminating waste and pollution, moving incrementally toward the goal of producing no waste at all.
“[In Iowa City] the momentum has really blossomed, but there is still a lot that we could do to take it to the next level,” Koepke said.
Step 1: Education
The first step in taking Iowa City’s composting to the next level. The first is educating people. The first lesson: It’s not garbage; it’s compost. According to Koepke, half of what currently goes into the Iowa City landfill could be composted. Organics, paper and cardboard account for 52.9 percent of the Iowa City Landfill.
“That’s a really staggering statistic,” he said. “And [the waste] is not doing anything there except creating methane.”
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas—the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency—and one of the greatest contributors to global warming.
Along these same lines is the misconception that compost piles “stink.” They don’t, if done correctly by keeping a ratio of greens to browns. Greens are the food products (i.e. fruit peels, vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds and tea leaves) that contribute nitrogen to the soil. Combined, greens should only account for 30 percent of what is in the compost pile. The rest should be browns (i.e. shredded newspaper, leaves, paper towels and wrapping paper rolls), which contribute carbon. Items such as meat, fish, milk products, eggs, oils, walnuts and heavily coated paper such as magazines cannot go into backyard urban compost piles because they attract maggots.
The second lesson: It’s not dirt; it’s soil.
When Cooper talks about the nutrient-rich soil produced by her worms she gets giddy with excitement.
“It is the perfect fertilizer,” she said. “It’s like liquid gold.”
Soil, at least that which can sustain plant, vegetable and fruit growth, is not something people frequently think of conserving, but Koepke says it should be.
“[Soil] is really a finite resource that we take for granted, and I want people to start to respect it more,” Koepke said. “We pollute it, we erode it, and that’s just not smart in the long term. It’s the basis on which our food and our plants are linked.”
Step 2: Funding
The second step towards increasing composting programs is the financial component. For those who don’t choose to purchase a composting bin, composting at home can be completely free. Wriggler worms—they expedite the process, but are not necessary—are another cost, but again, it is possible to obtain these without spending money (Cooper says she is happy to share hers once they reproduce.)
Incorporating composting programs in schools or throughout the county could be costly, but the costs are not formidable or prohibitive, Koepke said. The most expensive component could be hauling the food scraps and compostable waste to compost facilities. Currently, only Johnson County Refuse provides this hauling service.
Purchasing a shredder is also necessary in order to dehydrate all of the waste—a vital part of reducing the plague of urban composting: maggots.
Ideally, as a long-term goal, Koepke said he’d like Iowa City to have a comprehensive system to divert food waste from businesses (especially restaurants and grocery stores) to a composting facility. In the short term, he’d like to see more neighborhoods and individual homes adopt their own composting programs.
Cooper thinks composting will continue to gain momentum as more and more people learn about its benefits.
“The lesson of composting is that nothing is wasted because everything can be transformed into something else,” Cooper said.
Jill Bodach is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is an adjunct professor of English at Kirkwood Community College.