Pictured Above: Southold Town’s yard waste composting is just the tip of the iceberg of the types of composting that can be done by municipal governments.

by Mary Morgan

Keep here or truck away? Making the case for keeping our riches in the community

I’ll admit it….I’m swayed by my home gardener friends, healthy-yard advocates and pollinator-pathway champions crowing about their compost bins.

Why do they love compost so much? It’s their “black gold.” It’s the single most important thing you can do, they tell me, to put nutrients back into your soil, build biodiversity, and lower your need to water or fertilize. And they love zero waste. It’s a smart, ecological and economic use of food scraps. 

Community Composting on the Rise

I’ve now met dozens of backyard composters, neighborhood bin-sharers, and community-scale operators, like Tony Romano, Ecological Culture Initiative’s master composter, who runs a 70-family program (7 piles, 3 locations) in partnership with Good Ground Heritage Garden at St. Joseph Villa in Hampton Bays.

Community composting is on the rise, at community gardens, farms, schools, town-owned lands, managed by nonprofits, church volunteers, garden clubs, local governments, paid for by subscription fees, grants and municipal savings from lowered waste costs.

Sparked by a new awareness of the harm caused by wasting food (8 percent of US emissions, two times that of aviation), our depleting soils (we have 60 harvests left, my millennial friends remind me), not to mention the rising costs trucking waste “away,” people are looking for ways to put their food scraps to good use. 

Cities are investing in community-based aerobic composting (CAC) systems as a way to reduce waste and to remediate soil, Scott Kellogg told me. 

A Bard College professor and author of “Urban Ecosystem: Justice Strategies for Equitable Sustainability and Ecological Literacy in the City,” he said that, because CAC systems are decentralized and widely distributed, they can be carried out in multiple small vacant lots, which many cities have in abundance. Many of these vacant lots, suffering from damaged, degraded, or contaminated soils, are perfect for CAC soil remediation operations.  

Food Waste to Soil or Energy?

What about converting food waste into energy, a friend of mine asked. It’s a timely question, considering a new anaerobic digester (AD) is being built in Yaphank, the first-of-its-kind facility on Long Island. 

What are the pros and cons? I wanted to know. What’s best for us, the “farming end” of the island? Do we encourage more backyard and community composting, or do we benefit more by trucking all our waste to an anaerobic digester?

As a foodie, a farm stands-first shopper and an environmental voter (twice for our Community Preservation Fund), I’m firmly in the camp of saving what’s left — preserving our natural habitats, farms, open spaces and rural character. 

Our environment is our economy, Congressman Tim Bishop used to say. Lose our beautiful natural resources and we lose our economic generator. Protect, restore and regenerate our bioregion and our communities and businesses hum. It’s been an East End ethic to protect against “suburban sprawl,” as they used to call it, ever since Suffolk County’s first-in-the-nation 1974 Farmland Preservation Program. 

Waste, Pollution and Local Economy

So how does community composting compare with anaerobic digestion? There are several angles:

Waste: Both Community Aerobic Composting and Anaerobic Digesters  are a solution to food waste. The difference is their goals. Composting’s goal is to recover organic resources to restore soil fertility. The primary goal of an anaerobic digester is to use waste to generate electricity and fuel to sell. There’s also pollution (and cost) from trucking “away” to an anaerobic digester versus dropping your scraps into a backyard or community bin.

Jobs: Community composting is a major local job creator, according to “Pay Dirt: Composting in Maryland to Reduce Waste, Create Jobs, & Protect the Bay,” a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).  Think: food scrap collection services, site management, fertilizer sales.

Savings: Americans typically waste one third of the food we buy. Since taking the pledge of no-food-scraps-to-the-waste-stream (and setting up a compost), I find I waste less and reuse more. A participant in the Southold 30-family food-scrap-to-farm pilot told us: “I’m shocked by the amount of food we throw away, and am buying less and saving money.”

Regenerate Nature

Perhaps the biggest winner is Nature. When you choose to compost, you are activating the eco-services they provide: enriched healthier soil, increased biodiversity, increased carbon sequestration, improved soil structure and water retention, lower erosion and runoff, and increased climate resilience for gardens and farms.

Don’t think about “quick fixes,” argues Dr. Kellogg, because trucking food scraps away from farming regions takes both the “control and regenerative potential of organic waste out of the hands and soils of local communities.”  

My take: here, where our environment is our economy we benefit when we invest in ways to help nature thrive. Our households are the biggest contributor of organic waste (70 percent) to the waste stream and our food scraps are a valuable nature-regenerating resource. We can participate in an array of different composting options like Maryland does –counter-top, backyard, neighborhood bins, community sites – to reduce waste, create jobs and protect our soils and bays. SOS: Save our scraps and secure our soils. 

Former Locavore, now a Climatarian, also a sailor and beachcomber Mary Morgan’s mother’s family has lived in East Hampton for 12 generations farming and fishing. Her grandfather ran a dairy on the Fireplace Road family farm. 

Mary lives in Orient with her husband Tom, a naturalist and mushroom forager.  They are early founders of the local chapter Slow Food East End started in 2004. Two years ago Mary co-founded a grassroots East End effort inspired by the climate science analysis of Project Drawdown’s 100 solutions to reverse global warming, and dedicated to local climate solutions. 

East End Beacon
The East End Beacon is your guide to social and environmental issues, arts & culture on the East End of Long Island.

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