Feature story: Turning garbage into gold

Residents spread the passion of 'compost culture'

They might not have names, but the worms in Kristen and John Anderson's College Terrace worm composter are still the family's pets. Eight-year-old Sophie loves to play with the wriggly critters and John says they do seem to have their own personalities.

"We've kind of grown attached to the worms," said Kristen, a 10-year-plus composter who is so enthusiastic about the hobby that she took time out from her vacation for a phone interview.

At the annual College Terrace Residents' Association meeting in March, Anderson brought along her worms and gave a demonstration as part of the neighborhood association's "green team," she said.

Throughout Palo Alto, a movement has been brewing. People serious about helping the environment are turning to composting in its many forms to reduce how much trash they send to landfills, cut down on the amount of carbon-dioxide they produce and improve their gardens.

They hot compost, cold compost, worm wrangle, ferment and even brew compost and worm tea.

What they're really doing is transforming household food scraps and yard waste into a substance that fertilizes soil. At the end of a couple of months' time, those kitchen scraps that stink up the garbage become the sweet smell of success: a fine, dark-brown, granular soil amendment that makes home gardens bloom with fragrant flowers and a bounty of vegetables.

The infinite ways these residents turn their garbage and yard waste into black gold are slowly finding their way into the neighborhood consciousness and backyards throughout the city.

Some lean over the backyard fence, encouraging neighbors and friends to start their own compost pile; others spread the word at farmers markets and neighborhood picnics, raffling off a bag of worm castings or crumbly compost in hopes of sparking interest.

They meet in garden groups and through neighborhood "green teams" to share tidbits on how to keep a bin from smelling or to talk about optimal temperatures for keeping compost-creating microorganisms alive.

For some, there is an almost mission-like devotion to their craft. Volunteer teams of "master composters" take 12-week, in-depth classes on the science of compost, including compost biology and integrated pest management and host demonstrations at farmers markets and garden events, intent on getting the word out, they said.

"There's a culture of people who are adamant about this," said Sarah Smith, coordinator of the home-composting program for Santa Clara County's Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission, which offers composting classes through its Bay-Friendly Gardening classes.

Gone are the days of lugging an overflowing trash can to the curb in the middle of the night.

"It's rather pathetic. We're down to the smallest trash can they have," said 30-year compost veteran Ann Burrell of Barron Park. Nearly everything that can be composted is composted in her backyard.

"And we put absolutely nothing into the landfill," she said.

Instead, she tends to eight composting bins, layering them with leaves, grass clippings and other vegetative matter, often donated by friends and neighbors who offer a steady supply.

Burrell's father was a professional market gardener in England, where she grew up with the principles of composting, she said.

"It's amazing to take this largely yucky stuff and absolutely wonderful stuff comes out the other end," she said.

Sometimes, she shares the bounty.

"I have a friend who gives me oak leaves, so I gave her bags of compost," she said. Her friend has since started composting, too.

Burrell also hosted a gathering on compost for her neighbors.

"We're slowly getting people on our street interested. I got my neighbor doing it again. It's a slow process of exposing people," she said.

On a nearby street, friends of Mark and Romola Georgia might be offered worm or compost "tea."

The Georgias' front-yard garden is a gathering spot for strolling neighbors, who often come to sit among the flowers and vegetables raised in beds layered homemade compost.

Worm and compost "teas" are made by soaking compost or worm castings (aka, worm poop) placed in a special bag in water. The resulting nutrient-rich brew is sprayed on leaves and soil and is said to help eliminate pests and fertilize plants.

Georgia makes compost from his vegetable vines, stems and leaves. Neighbors donate their scraps and the Georgias have a compost-sharing arrangement with the son of a neighbor, who also gardens, he said.

Georgia used to be a "turner," compost parlance for people who subscribe to the "hot compost" method of getting the temperature in the pile to rise to 120 to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. The piles are turned frequently to keep them aerated, release ammonia and to help the microorganisms that break down organic materials to do their jobs.

Hot composting was much work, so now he does "cold" composting. He layers pruned woody stems and stalks with other materials from the garden, including tomato vines and sunflower stalks. Nature pretty much does the rest.

Georgia also keeps a worm bin for household food scraps. The permeable floor of the worm bin is layered with corrugated cardboard and filled one-third with moistened newspaper strips. The recipe is simple: Add a layer of food scraps and a pound or two of red wriggly worms -- a type of worm that lives in the top duff of forests -- and let the critters do the work.

Microorganisms eat the food and the worms devour the microorganisms. After a month or two, the castings, which are dark brown, granular and somewhat sweet smelling, are ready for harvesting.

A space beneath the bin catches nutrient-rich liquid, which Mark Georgia drains through a spigot and uses in the garden, he said.

One turn-off for many people is the idea that flies, vermin and foul odors will accompany the piles of decomposing materials, but Georgia said if done correctly, there isn't any odor. And vermin don't like scraps covered in dirt.

Georgia especially likes that compost has helped turn his garden's naturally high-clay content into a "living soil" full of beneficial creatures. After years of adding compost, Georgia no longer needs to double-dig his soil, a practice he followed to loosen the earth. Plant roots no longer have to struggle through the hard soil and are healthier and more productive with compost. The soil is loose and weeds are also easy to pull, he said.

The world of composting is colored by two hues: greens and browns. Greens, such as grass clippings, kitchen scraps and other moist materials, provide nitrogen. Browns, such as dried leaves, cardboard and shredded newspaper, provide carbon. Both are used by microorganisms, which break down the materials into rich compost.

"It's just a matter of balance," said Carolyn Dorsch, a master composter and volunteer teacher with San Mateo County RecycleWorks.

Composting gets into the blood -- it's a little bit of alchemy, where a balance of three "browns" to one "green" and a little water gets the microorganisms going, Dorsch said.

When the proper mix is assembled, things begin to heat up, as the microorganisms give off heat and start breaking matter down in the first few days.

The lifecycle of a pile is about two-and-a-half to three months, and then it's ready for the garden. Compost contains micro- and macronutrients often missing from synthetic fertilizers and releases nutrients more slowly, often over months or years, according to research at the University of Washington.

"It holds water better than mulch and reduces evaporation better," Dorsch said.

Composting doesn't need fancy equipment, although some advocates fork over hundreds of dollars for fancy bins and tea-making equipment.

Robyn Duby of College Terrace recently purchased her first pound of worms. At first, she looked skeptically at the mass of wriggling creatures.

"It cost 30 bucks. You can buy a lot of filet mignon or crabs for that," she said.

Duby began composting 10 years ago, after she and a neighbor went to a class.

"It's so neat to see it break down and how healthy the soil becomes," she said. She plans to raffle off a bag of compost at the neighborhood annual picnic in May, she said.

Duby's family of three produces enough compost to cover about one-tenth of her garden. Anderson said it takes a year of her family's fruit and vegetable scraps to fill up an 18-gallon bin with compost.

Composting can even be done in the home, proponents said. Dorsch said she knows a woman who kept a worm bin in her dorm room at college.

Since making her own compost, Dorsch doesn't buy fertilizer anymore, she said. The compost provides everything her garden needs, except water.

She showed off her Wriggly Wranch worm bin, a series of black plastic tubs with perforated bottoms so the worms can crawl up and down.

"When I started making worm compost I got so excited I'd start shopping at the store and think: 'What would the worms like?'" she said. Their favorite edible is watermelon, she added.

Dorsch is so dedicated to composting that she has taken her habit on the road as well. On a recent vacation to Hawaii with another composting friend, the women shared a cottage and did their own food preparation.

"We had a big pile of food scraps," she said, noting they could find no compost pile. But they couldn't bear to toss the peelings into the trash.

"We finally carefully dug a hole in the garden and buried them," she said.

Related story:

Learning to compost

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Like this comment
Posted by Relative numbers for CO2
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm

I am kind of worried when reporters/editors/journalists lose track of relative numbers of CO2 production. Household composting even if the entire bay area resident does it - is just a tiny - tiny fraction of what is produced by industries.

I am awaiting the day of hysterical laughter when folks slow down their breathing to reduce the amount of CO2 they produce.

We need to look at relative numbers before we make a big deal out of events like these.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2010 at 6:49 am

If only Starbucks and Peets would save their coffee grounds instead of throwing them out, it would make great compost or food for a worm farm.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 25, 2010 at 9:39 pm

There was an article and website years ago about a company called "Changing World Technolgies" ... Web Link ... who claimed it could build plants that would eat up garbage and turn them into oil and raw materials through a process they called "thermal depolymerization".

If this is not just hype, I don't see why we could not set up a local industry to process garbage into energy and raw materials.

What I have been wondering about in the compost thing is ... what is someone puts something either knowingly or unknowingly in the compost, like something toxic, chemical, bioagent or something, how does that get found out?

It would be great if all people were just normal altruistic citizens trying to do good, but there seem to be a lot of toxic people too. The first article I saw when I logged into here was an article by someone who called suicide victims losers. I flagged the article and it disappeared fast ... but we'll never know what drives such subhumans to spend time and energy to do stuff like that or worse.

So ... how do we know that compost and the stuff that goes into it is safe?

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 25, 2010 at 9:41 pm

I agree composting is not so wonderful to reduce global warming, but think of the volume of stuff we throw out and concern ourselves with that could be recycled into compost.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 26, 2010 at 8:16 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Any processing of garbage and waste requires an industrial site of the sort we have been vigorously closing since I have lived here. Haul the stuff away to a location unlikely to disturb neighbors and then do any processing that yields benefit and profit.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2010 at 10:12 am

This type of lifestyle goes in and out of fashion. I recall many, many people doing this in the 70s and 80s. It's a lot of work to reduce waste in families. It may not do much to C02 levels, but it can reduce waste and instills the values of reuse and recyle, puts people in closer touch with the earth, the cycles of life and where our food comes from. What gets tiresome is the hyper-Palo Alto focus of these articles, even though I understand it's a Palo Alto-based publication. But really - people all over the peninsula are composting, so what's news is that it's a trend again.

Like this comment
Posted by BornHere
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 26, 2010 at 12:18 pm

BTW, Anonymous - Peet's does make its coffee grounds available for composters. Just ask them. They used to post notices in their shops, but I haven't seen them for awhile.

Like this comment
Posted by Creighton Beryl
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2010 at 12:49 pm

"People serious about helping the environment are turning to composting in its many forms to reduce how much trash they send to landfills, cut down on the amount of carbon-dioxide they produce..."

How can people who are serious about cutting down the amount of CO2 they produce be turning to composting? Decaying compost returns 100% of the carbon-dioxide the plants had removed from the air back into the atmosphere. If it produces free methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, as an intermediate product then the environmental damage is even worse. If you're concerned about global warming, bury your yard waste deep and keep it there until it locks its carbon up in coal.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Creighton, I've wondered about the methane effects of composting, but not enough to really pursue answers. How serious is it? Does it depend on how much composting one is doing?

The compost perspective I was always exposed to had to do w/reducing waste and creating great soil for gardens, pretty manageable goals. Composters weren't told they were combatting climate change when I was a kid and surrounded by them. It was more a matter of getting back into contact w/the earth, organic gardening, that sort of thing.

Here's an interesing article from Mother Jones last year, which talks about a study that has pertinent info:

Web Link

I guess I better read it to answer my own questions!

Like this comment
Posted by Creighton Beryl
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2010 at 5:16 pm

"The compost perspective I was always exposed to had to do w/reducing waste and creating great soil for gardens..."

Those are indulgences we can no longer afford in this CO2-driven climate change era. Compost becomes compost because various living organisms feed on its constituent hydrocarbons, and they in turn release a diversity of metabolic waste products including carbon dioxide and methane. Both are greenhouise gases, so neither is good news for the warming climate.

Burning methane to produce energy converts its carbon (75% by weight) directly into carbon dioxide. By the way, a methane-fired electric generator converts only about 25-30% of the carbon combustion energy into electric power. 70-75% of the CO2 it produces goes uselessly out the exhaust.

Ultimately all the carbon in composted material is returned to the atmosphere as CO2. Composting is antithetical to preventing global warming; in fact, it hastens the process.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Creighton, thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions and address this issue. I will take the initiative to educate myself on the subject. Did you happen to read the article in Mother Jones I sent the link for? If so, what do you think?

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2010 at 8:29 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Our sewerage treatment plant has to be near the bay, but the waste handling can occur almost anywhere. EPA is celebrating closing one industrial site, how long before t charge of environmental racism hits a garbage processing plant?

Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2010 at 9:18 am

We've composted pretty aggressively (90% of possible waste?) the last few years. We fill up our ~2 gallon kitchen compost container about once a week. That's for a family of 5. So the amount we divert from landfill seems pretty trivial - if we threw it in the trash, our trash volume would be about the same (1 trash can per week).

So while my wife likes the compost for the garden, I don't get the big ecological benefit. And to the point of the poster above, it may actually have offsetting negative consequences. Can anyone explain why composting is actually environmentally important?

Like this comment
Posted by Creighton Beryl
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 27, 2010 at 4:48 pm

"Did you happen to read the article in Mother Jones I sent the link for? If so, what do you think?"

I read it. As often happens in advocacy, it only considers the favored aspect of an alternative and neglects to think through the full situation. For example, let's take their word that compost is better on farm fields than manure. However, the manure exists, and what's to be done with it instead of putting it on the strawberries? Like compost, manure returns 100% of its carbon to the atmosphere as CO2 as it decays, generating its share of intermediary methane in the process.

The only sustainable carbon-aware solution is to bury both of them deep and make what use we can of what methane inevitably comes back up.

Like this comment
Posted by zachary
a resident of another community
on May 1, 2010 at 10:31 am

I live in hawaii and have a worm farm.check out

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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