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Urban alchemy: turn trash into black gold.

May 8, 2010

I realise that getting really, really excited about rotting food might be a little odd, but I do, so maybe I am!  Composting seems to me like an amazing alchemy, and a lot more useful than turning straw into gold.    On average, a household in NYC discards more than 2 lbs of food waste every day, creating mountains of organic matter in landfills.  Surrounded by other trash and lacking the oxygen needed to turn into compost, the food waste instead creates methane as it decomposes, making it a major contributor to global warming.  By simply removing food waste from the general trash stream and turning it into compost we can make something really useful, and life-giving, out of ‘nothing’. 

If you aren’t yet super excited about rotting food: here are a few stories that go above and beyond the basics to get you revved up:

Douglas Adams, though better known for his (super, extra awesome) Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also co-authored a moving and powerful book called ‘Last Chance To See’ where he chronicled his experiences traveling the world and tracking down amazing animals whose species were threatened with extinction.  He describes one of the birds he studies who has learned to make great use of the heat generated by decomposing vegetation.  I’ll let Adam’s words speak for him as I could never do him justice: “the megapode has worked out a wonderful labour-saving device for itself…a conical mound of thickly packed earth and rotting vegetation…an automatic incubator. The heat generated by the chemical reactions of the rotting vegetation keeps the eggs that are buried deep inside it warm – and not merely warm. By judicious additions or subtractions of material from the mound the megapode is able to keep it at the precise temperature which the eggs require in order to incubate properly.  So all the megapode has to do to incubate its eggs is to dig three cubic yards of earth out of the ground, fill it with three cubic yards of rotting vegetation, collect a further six cubic yards of vegetation, build it into a mound, and then continually monitor the heat it is producing and run about adding bits or taking bits away.   And thus it saves itself all the bother of sitting on its eggs from time to time”

We humans, though not yet harnessing the power of rotten vegetables for child care, can also make use of the heat generated by decomposing vegetation.  At Stone Barns farm ( where I took a farm tour last year, and also enjoyed the most amazing lunch ever) they have set up a system where thin water filled tubes run through the compost pile and then snake under the trays of seedlings they are growing, the heat from the compost warming the water which in turn provides a radiant heating system for the growing seeds.  Pretty awesome right?!

On a much larger scale University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh is building a bio digester which is designed to use waste food to generate power: it will use scrap food from the university dining systems, yard waste from local residents and expired food from area supermarkets to create enough power to supply almost  5% of  university’s energy needs.   If you factor in the negative impact the food would have if disposed of in the ‘regular’ way, the benefit of the project is even more impressive.

While most of us haven’t the resources to create a  dry fermentation anaerobic bio-digester and aren’t quite handy enough to set up radiant flooring for seedling starting we can all get involved in basic compost alchemy.  Even those of us in tiny urban dwellings.

The lower east side ecology center offer loads of resources to help you start composting if you live in New York City including a compost help line, waste food drop off in the city and advice for composting inside in your small city apartment.  The NYC department of sanitation also has a city compost project and they offer highly subsidised compost bins and bi-annual free compost giveaways.

–by Talia

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2010 7:30 am

    Very informative post! Love it.

  2. May 9, 2010 6:07 pm

    We always had a compost “pile” when I was growing up- since we were rural, and there isn’t a good excuse for me not getting a proper bin for my backyard now. It’s on my list! Thanks for a great post, and that interesting bit about the UW-Oshkosh…it is staggering about the amount of food waste!

    • May 11, 2010 7:40 am

      I know how long that list of your is Rebecca but I’m going to bother you about this one every now and again 🙂

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