Dig In!

Let’s talk about composting. Everybody’s doing it, especially in Portland where we wear our earth-friendly attitudes on our sleeves. But, as composting hits peak levels of popularity, it’s important to make sure we are doing it right.

On an individual level, composting is about converting your food waste into something rich in nutrients that can be used to nurture your garden or grow more food.

According to Tony Hair, the waste management coordinator with Portland State’s Campus Sustainability Office, and Brad Melaugh, the food diversion coordinator, composting has a variety of different meanings.

At its most basic level, Melaugh defines compost itself as “the product of breaking down of biodegradable materials that can be mostly used
for agricultural production.”

Composting, on the other hand, refers to diverting food scraps and other biodegradable materials from the landfill into other, more practical uses.

“Composting is the collection of organics to compost,” Hair said, emphasizing the common misunderstanding that some people have regarding the word. “I’m sometimes guilty of it myself. I say ‘oh, we’re composting’ when in fact all we are doing is collecting the organics here to be sent somewhere to be composted and turned into compost.”

Now that we know what it means, there are several ways newbies can dig in for themselves and become acquainted with the composting process.

Both Melaugh and Hair practice vermicomposting at home. Vermicomposting refers to the usage of worm bins to break down food waste. Hair says he’s always been partial to vermicomposting not just because of its effectiveness, but also because he thinks it’s cool.

“It’s really enjoyable,” Hair said. “I like the sounds the worms make when they’re in the bin.”

For the adventurous composter looking to try their hand, vermicomposting is a relatively simple process.

“It’s a technique where you intentionally inoculate a bin with red wiggler worms…There’s a method behind the madness. It’s a little bit of a science because you are dealing with habitat creation and dealing with food, but it’s really low maintenance and accessible once you set it up,” Melaugh said.

In order to set up a worm bin, Melaugh and Hair recommend to start by laying down shredded newspaper to soak up the excess moisture, add food waste and worms to the mix, and then let the worms work their magic.
While vermicomposting is doable, Melaugh encourages anyone interested to do their own research beforehand.

For those slightly more squeamish, prospective composters might also be interested in building compost heaps in their yards. Like vermicomposting, the process is slightly scientific.

“There are certain ratios of carbonaceous materials versus nitrogen based materials, which I like to think of as brown stuff versus green stuff—leaves versus weeds,” Melaugh said.

Tom Langston, a junior mechanical engineering major and member of the PSU Environmental Club, maintains a compost heap at home in addition to using the city provided compost bins. He is very specific about what goes in the heap and what doesn’t, right down to organic and nonorganic veggies.

“Organic vegetables or vegetables that we grow on site we compost in our yard…we do a heap, but it’s in a container, not just piled up,” Langston said. “It’s in a black container with minimal ventilation. Over the winter we didn’t compost as much because in the winter it doesn’t decompose as quickly.”

“I think it’s really good that I’m not throwing all that stuff in the trash,” he continued, “because when they take that trash away, all they’re going to do is put that trash in a landfill and it’ll last for 10 times longer than it will in a compost bin.”

While not everyone can be as vigilant as Langston, there is a protocol to composting in a heap. Heaps should be turned over every few weeks and consist mostly of yard debris and not foodstuffs, as a way to avoid too many unwanted pests. However, not all pests are bad pests.

“The benefit to certain types of animals is that they’ll probably poop in your pile, and most animal scat is very high in nutrients and beneficial when broken down properly,” Melaugh said.
Both Melaugh and Hair are able to see the direct benefits of composting in their everyday lives.

“It’s really enjoyable to see the process all the way through and to see what you’re making dinner with, and see it through to the end instead of just having it end in the trashcan,” Melaugh said. “Engagement and getting people involved in their food systems is really important, and so is the recycling of nutrients trying to create zero waste in terms of beneficial nutrients for the soil.”