Program makes composting a group effort


AKRON, Ohio — Liam Murray will never look at garbage in the same way.

To him, it’s no longer something to throw away. It’s a resource.

Garbage — or, in his words, food waste — is an ingredient of the compost he and fellow gardener Lisa Nunn produce at the Pump House Urban Agriculture Center on the shore of Akron’s Summit Lake. So are weeds and straw and shredded newspaper, anything that will break down over time and turn into natural plant food for the center’s community garden.

Murray and Nunn are trying to get the word out about the benefits and flexibility of composting through the Community Compost Collaborative, a program that aims to demonstrate best composting practices and engage the community in composting.

Composting can be as simple or as structured as you want it to be, they say. It can also be a great project to share with neighbors and nearby businesses.

The program maintains four bins at the center — three for the composting process, and one to hold dirty straw from the center’s chicken coop until it’s needed for composting. The composting bins are fed with the straw and with waste from the community garden, along with food trimmings and other compostable items dropped off by neighbors and collected from a handful of area businesses.

“If you can use it, it’s not waste. There is no waste in nature,” insisted Murray, who doubles as head gardener and job coach at a community agricultural program for people with developmental disabilities.

He teams up on the compost collaborative with Nunn, the director of Let’s Grow Akron.

The collaborative’s composting system was built about a year ago by John Craig, who started an organization called We Compost that has since moved to California. The bins are made from wood pallets and have raised bases that let air flow underneath.

The system is an active one, which means the compost ingredients are carefully combined and monitored so they will break down quickly to form compost. In the decomposition process, enough heat is produced for a long enough period to kill weed seeds and organisms that cause plant diseases, Murray said.

But that’s not the only way to compost, he and Nunn said. Composting can be as simple as piling up yard waste and waiting a season or maybe even a year for nature to take its course.

No matter how you compost waste, “you’re keeping it out of the landfill,” Murray said. “You’re doing the right thing.”

In the collaborative’s system, carbon-rich ingredients are combined with those high in nitrogen in the first bin, arranged in layers roughly 6 inches deep. The ingredients are then allowed to rest for one to four weeks, until the volume reduces by half.

During that time, the temperature inside the pile will reach 131 to 170 degrees for at least five days and then cool back down, Murray explained. A compost thermometer measures the temperature to make sure the pile reaches and maintains that mark.

The ingredients are then flipped with a pitchfork into the next bin, a process that adds oxygen and speeds decomposition — and, Nunn pointed out, keeps the compost from getting smelly. The finished compost is then moved to the third bin and held for use.

Once it’s finished, the compost is worked with a flat shovel through a homemade sifter built from plastic bread trays, a process that separates out the bigger pieces that haven’t broken down completely and need more time in the compost bin. That step produces a finer textured compost, but it isn’t a necessary one, Murray said.

What sets the composting collaborative apart is the participation of community gardeners and the program’s partnership with area businesses, including: a brewery, a coffee bar, and smoothie and juice shops. Nunn and Murray regularly pick up spent brewer’s grain, used coffee grounds and fruit and vegetable trimmings from theses businesses.

When Craig moved away, Nunn and Murray took over Craig’s collection route and use the waste for their composting collaborative.

Nunn and Murray would like to see others follow their lead. Maybe a group of neighbors or the participants in a community garden could get together to maintain their own composting bins, Nunn said. Maybe that group could approach restaurants and coffee shops in the neighborhood and offer to take their food waste off their hands.

It’s not necessary to create a system as elaborate as theirs, they insisted.

“There’s a dozen different ways to compost,” Murray said. “You just have to find the system that works for you.”

Even if you use a passive system that takes a long time to produce compost, you’re still keeping materials out of the landfill, reducing your reliance on manufactured products and building healthier soil.

“Composting is not rocket science,” he said. “Just do it.”

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(c)2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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