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Reduce Your Food Waste by Logging It!

We’ve all heard the phrase “every little bit adds up.” Such is the case with food waste. It might not seem as if we throw away all that much food (whether it’s leftover pizza one day or lettuce scraps from the back of the refrigerator the next). However, the truth is that food waste is a significant problem in America and around the world. 

The average American household throws away about 32% of the food that it buys, according to the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. According to estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that amounts to about $1,500 in wasted food each year for a family of four. Then, there are the larger environmental costs as food waste releases harmful methane emissions. 

So how can you realistically reduce your food waste? It starts with your grocery trips. You should think carefully about how much food you typically eat each week and buy only as much as you need. Beyond that, think about keeping a food waste log. 
Consider printing out this log each week and attaching it to your refrigerator or placing it on your kitchen counter. Every time you throw food away, be sure to record what you threw away, how much you threw away, why you threw it away and how much it likely cost. 

The idea is that, as you fill out this log each week, you will gradually become more aware of how much you throw away and hopefully begin to throw away less. 

In addition to maintaining a food waste log, you should also try to keep your food fresh for as long as possible. There are a number of unique tips and tricks that you can use. For example, you should store celery in foil, not plastic, to keep it crisp for longer periods of time. As another example, you should remove the green tops of carrots, which suck the moisture out of carrots. Print out this food saver cheat sheet with strategies on storing more than 20 common foods to maximize freshness. 

Finally, you should familiarize yourself with the rules surrounding “best by” dates on products. In most cases (with the exception of infant formula), these dates are simply guidelines. They are not federal requirements. Therefore, many common foods could be safe to eat after their listed expiration dates. 

For example, applesauce could last up to 18 months past its listed date. Meanwhile, peanut butter could last up to eight months past its listed date, and yogurt could last an additional three weeks.

Everyone has at least some work to do in cutting down the amount of food that they throw away! According to the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, even the least wasteful American households throw away 9% of the food that they buy. Download all of these food waste reduction resources and reduce your food waste today. 

 

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Make a Worm Bin – a Stuck At Home Project

Now that we’re all staying home for a while it’s a great time to do some of the projects that we’ve been dreaming of.  I have wanted to start a worm bin for composting food scraps so I can have the castings (worm poo) to put on my potted plants.  Here’s the story of how I went about my project.

Vermicomposting or worm composting is easy and fun.  We all know that food scraps in the landfill are a big problem because they create the mega-greenhouse gas, methane.  Composting those scraps is the best thing to do, but if you don’t have room for a regular bin you can use worms as your garbage disposal.  You just feed your food scraps to the worms and they turn it into castings that are a wonderful odor-free fertilizer for houseplants and gardens.

Here’s what I did:

First, I got on the internet and read a bit about making and maintaining a worm bin on the NC State University’s website (https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/ ).  As I was reading I wrote up a list of questions and called Rhonda Sherman, the “Worm Lady” at NC State.  Rhonda is known worldwide for her work in vermiculture and I knew she’d have all the answers. 

Me:  Does it matter what color the bin is?  I know worms can’t see, so they don’t “care” what color the bin is, but do they tend to thrive better in one color over another?
Rhonda:  One color is not any better than another, but dark is better than clear because they’re sensitive to light.  Also, a shallow bin is better than a deep one, 14-18 gallon size is recommended

Me:  Is sawdust an ok matrix to start with?
Rhonda:  Not sure that’s a good idea since sawdust could heat up as it composts and that would not be good for the worms.  It would be better to use shredded cardboard mixed with shredded newspaper.

Me:  Do the worms do better if I run the food scraps in the blender or mash them up before I put them in the bin?
Rhonda:  Yes, smaller pieces are easier for the worms to eat, but it’s not absolutely necessary.  Be sure to drain off the liquid before putting blended food into the bin, too much water is a problem.   

Me:  What local resource do you recommend for purchasing worms?
Rhonda:  Here in the Triangle area New Soil Vermiculture and Red Hen Enterprises are great places to buy worms.

Me: I have chickens, is their soiled bedding good for the worms?
Rhonda:  No, chicken manure is too high in ammonia.

Me:  I have a wood burning fireplace, do the worms like ashes?
Rhonda:  NO wood ashes are too acidic.

Me:  What else should I know about vermiculture before I start?
Rhonda:  Overfeeding is the #1 problem of home bins, wait until the food is gone before adding more.

Armed with the information from Rhonda’s website and answers to my questions, I set about finding a suitable container.  I had several plastic bins that I’ve used for other purposes over the years, so I didn’t need to buy one.  Against Rhonda’s recommendation I chose a clear container because I will be using my worm bin to show vermicomposting at festivals and lectures that I do for the NC Composting Council.  I thought it would be best if people could look at the worms and castings through the side of the bin rather than always opening the top.  Since I don’t have a drill, I used a hammer and big nails to punch holes in the bottom of the bin so that the excess fluid can seep out.  The sides of this particular style of bin already had air holes, so I didn’t need to make more.  Time to add the bedding.

I have a regular compost bin in my backyard, and I keep a stack of newspapers to add in whenever I need more carbon material.  I leave the stack outside so it will always be soaked with rain – torn into strips, this made a perfect bedding for my worms.  Now all I needed was the worms themselves.  

There are several good sources online where you can order Red Wiggler worms for composting, but I like to support local businesses whenever possible so I called New Soil Vermiculture in Durham and Garry Lipscomb was happy to help me.  I drove to Durham and picked up a pound of worms for just under $40.

Back at home I rummaged through my kitchen scrap bin and selected the bits that worms would like, egg shells, banana peals, old bread and coffee grounds.  I put them all into an old Chinese food container and used my hand held blender to chop them into worm-bite size pieces.  I added this to the newspaper bedding and dumped the worms in, then topped it off with more moist newspaper to cover the worms, and put on the lid.  Rhonda Sherman tells me that you really don’t need to feed the worms for a day or two after moving them into a new home, they get along just fine in the wet newspaper and it gives them some time to adjust.  

Under the bin I put a stray lid from a larger bin to catch anything that would drain out.  My worm bin now resides under my deck where it’s nice and dark most of the time and the temperature is consistent.  In the winter I may move the bin into my laundry room if the winter nights are very cold.

When I checked on my worms this morning – less than 24 hours after putting the bin together – the worms had distributed themselves throughout the bedding and there are castings everywhere which means that everyone is happy and healthy and going about their composting business.  I’ll be able to harvest castings to use on my container vegetable garden in a month or so.

The NC Composting Council’s website has a page on Vermicomposting  (https://carolinacompost.com/vermicomposting/) where you can see several designs of worm bins to buy, so if you don’t want to make your own you can just order one on the web.

Happily, there are many good resources for how and why to compost with worms, here are some of our favorites for exploring the science more thoroughly and seeing various ways to make worm bins for indoors and outdoors.

Vermicomposting, NC State University – https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/raising-earthworms-successfully
https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/, https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-a-school-enrichment-curriculum

Vermicomposting For Beginners, Rodale Institute – https://rodaleinstitute.org/science/articles/vermicomposting-for-beginners/

Vermicomposting – Making Good Use Of Garbage, National Institute of Health – https://kids.niehs.nih.gov/topics/reduce/vermicomposting/index.htm

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Don’t Waste Your Yard Waste-Use It!

by Ruby Stanmyer

Spring has sprung in North Carolina meaning that weekends are full of gardening, landscaping, and yard maintenance. To some, the resulting yard waste is a nuisance. It used to be common practice to gather up this waste and burn it, while some prefer to bag it up and throw it in the trash. However, there are many regulations surrounding open burns and sending yard and household waste to landfills also may not be the best practice. Smoke from burning vegetation (such as leaves and weeds) may contain toxins such as carbon monoxide and particulate matter that can increase your risk of respiratory infection. Children and adults who have respiratory illnesses, allergies, or asthma may be disproportionately affected.

Composting could save hundreds of thousands of tons of waste from going to the landfills. Every year North Carolinians throw over 10 million tons of trash! Out of this astronomical number, the USDA Food Loss Project Analysis estimates that at least almost 1 million tons is food waste generated within residential homes in North Carolina. This remains a conservative estimate and it is likely that the actual number is far higher. Removing food waste from the trash systems would represent a success in our waste cycle. Currently, North Carolina is one of the largest exporters of waste in the country, behind only New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio. This is due to landfill limitations and high costs of disposal. The two largest urban areas in the state, Raleigh and Charlotte, are considering a pay-as-you-throw solid waste program that would charge higher prices based on how much trash you generate. In an effort to control trash, food waste, and higher prices, residential homes in North Carolina should be encouraged to participate in household composting! As well as being good environmentally and economically, the end product of compost is a useful soil addition and fertilizer for your planting needs.

Composting can be as simple as creating a pit or pile in your yard where you put food, yard waste, or most other kinds of organic matter (for more information on what to compost, visit EPA.gov and search “composting”). There are different methods of DIY containers for more secured options. Additionally, there are compost bins that you can easily purchase. Once you have a receptacle, add organic material, and mix the material weekly, until it begins to naturally decompose. If you reside in a suburban or urban area, particularly within the Triangle, there are also neighborhood compost systems. These local businesses charge a small monthly fee which provides weekly compost pick-up right to your door. Most often provide the finished compost product to their customers free of cost. Compost enriches and fertilizes soil upon application. It also helps retain moisture, improves aeration, provides essential nutrients to plants, helps balance pH, can extend the growing season by moderating the soil temperature, and can help control soil erosion.

Composting is a practical solution for yard and household waste. In many areas, burning of leaves and yard refuse is prohibited due to potential health impacts and the fear of larger scale fires. Composting remains a highly efficient way to re-use both yard and household waste. Considering the huge amount of trash that we produce every day, composting is not a hard step to take to reduce the amount of waste that we contribute to our already overburdened landfills. You also get an end product that can be used in any yard, garden, or planter to improve your soil fertility. Let’s compost y’all!

Note from the author:  I am a current graduate student in water resources management at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. I took a Soil Resources course this year and got interested in all the beneficial effects of composting. One of my assignments for this class involved writing an opinion piece, and I wanted to write about how great and easy composting can be. Since I don’t have space for a backyard compost at my apartment, it’s been great to use a neighborhood compost pick-up and there are so many options in the Triangle! I wanted to communicate that you don’t need to be a master gardener or have a lot of space in order to reap the benefits of compost.

Thanks to Compost Now for the graphic.

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A Community Composting Story

Even the Compost is Smiling at CUCC

reprinted with permission from the author, Gary Smith of CUCC

Community United Church of Christ (CUCC) in Raleigh, NC, has been working to decrease climate change and its impact on those of low income since 2007.  Their latest effort, composting, was inspired by friends at the Church of the Nativity Episcopal Church in Raleigh who have advocated carbon sequestration and composting for the last few years.

CUCC started collecting Fellowship Hour food waste and composting it with a commercial composting service in July of 2018.  They also encouraged friends and members of CUCC to bring their compostable waste (including meat, bones and pizza boxes) to the church to be composted too.  Soon some of the families began bringing theirs, and the number of people has continued to grow. The congregation had diverted 2200 pounds of organic matter (over a ton) from the landfill by February of 2019.  This generated 550 pounds of compost and prevented the production of 290 pounds of methane.  Since methane is at least a 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, this is like removing over 7000 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere (over three tons) or not driving your car 12,500 miles!!

In 2015, CUCC installed a 9.2 kW solar array on the fellowship hall roof and are very happy that the array now supplies about ½ of the electricity for the church main building and keeps about 14,000 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere every year.

Church members were surprised and elated when they realized that their new composting effort is comparable to the solar panels in CO2 equivalent prevention – 7,000 pounds in 8 months vs 14,000 pounds in 12 months!

In the spring of 2019 composting costs increased and the church was not sure it could sustain and continue their composting program.  The Justice in a Changing Climate team (JCC) saw the impact and how much the congregation was enjoying being able to compost, so they sought to raise the funds by direct appeal and advertise the work more at the same.  They held a two-week compost education and fun event and asked 11 families to contribute an additional $120 over their pledge to keep the composting going.

During the composting Ministry Moment during the worship service on March 10th, one of the JCC members and her daughters told the congregation about the value of composting and offered them the opportunity to contribute.  After church that week and the next they also offered the opportunity at tables in the Narthex and Fellowship Hall. A short and humorous play entitled, “Ani and Aeri Go to Dinner” about anaerobic and aerobic food decomposition, was performed after church on March 17.  Then three 20 minute workshops were given focusing on the how-to’s of reducing one’s carbon footprint by composting and reusing items both at CUCC and at home.  The events were well attended and appreciated, and the congregation stepped up to provide more than the funds needed to keep the church composting for the next year!  Indeed they stopped fund raising early.

CUCC has come to appreciate how much its church family wants to learn what to do and how willing they are to follow through.  

**The NC Composting Council would like to thank author, Gary Smith, of Community United Church of Christ, for allowing us to post this story in our blog.  We offer it as a shining example of the large impact a small groups of people can have on global warming by simply diverting their kitchen waste from the landfill to a composter.  We commend CUCC for their efforts and great success.

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When It Comes to School Lunch Waste, Every Tray Counts!

Every Tray Counts is a non-profit organization that aims to take the trash out of public schools and turn it to compost.  When Sue Scope and Bing Roenigk first began Every Tray Counts (ETC) in 2013 public schools all across North Carolina were serving their lunches on polystyrene trays.  Elementary schools average 4 lbs of food waste per child per month and 100% of it was going to the landfill. With over 1,000,000 K-8 students in NC’s schools, the amount of waste being landfilled is approximately a staggering 18,000 tons in the school year for those schools alone.

Every Tray Counts began with a focus on helping individual schools to use compostable or reusable products and cut back on their lunchtime waste and now is moving whole school systems over to using compostable materials in all of their lunchrooms.  Every effort has to start with information, so their strategy is to identify the unique waste disposal capacity within the community and school and develop a program of sustainability tailored to the individual school and the district.

A waste audit measures the amount and types of waste being generated

Central to what the group has to assess is the number of meals served to understand how much compostable waste could be expected, then the distance to the nearest composting facility and the logistics of having the compostables hauled there, finally, the amount of interest in the area for running a pilot program is key.  

With this information in hand ETC begins by reviewing a school district’s current solid waste contract and helps them to best utilize services like recycling that they may already have available to them.  Cost savings on dumpster rentals and the tipping side means there are funds available to spend on compostable food trays instead of the cheaper polystyrene ones.  ETC has found they can often change a school over to compostables without affecting them financially while giving them savings on their environmental impact.

Once a school within a district has been selected and evaluated, a pilot program begins.  ETC works with the school’s administrators, custodial and kitchen staff, teachers and teaching assistants, parents and, of course, the children.  Other community members are also brought in for monitoring lunch times and special events. Schools that have completed the program are seeing a fantastic return for their efforts.  After having 100% of solid waste going to a landfill, ETC schools are diverting up to 90% of that waste to recyclers and composters.

Interest in the ETC program and its benefits has blossomed and ETC was having a hard time keeping up, so in 2018 the NC Composting Council gave ETC a grant of $2500 to facilitate the expansion of ETC’s website into an interactive information source for schools and individuals wanting to lighten their student’s environmental impact.  The grant also helped with the development of a School Kit which makes the transition to composting simple and clear. The kit provides schools with the information and basic format for assessing its own waste stream and determining the course for change. The kit changes ETC’s involvement with a school from one of implementer of the waste diversion program to advisor.  

Every Tray Counts in North Carolina is just one among many organizations in states like Colorado, Maine and Vermont. According to the EPA, Americans recovered over 23 million tons through composting in 2015. This is 0.4 pounds per person per day for composting. ETC’s work significantly improves the amount of compostable waste diverted.

All these lunch leftovers and the tray are compostable.

With all of this waste being sent to composting facilities compost manufacturing near the schools is seeing a boost as well.  For example, in one school in an average month approximately 1,647 lbs of lunchroom waste becomes 412 lbs of compost. In a landfill these organic materials would have produced 214 lbs of methane; as compost, however, when applied to garden, farm or grassland they can actually serve as a carbon sink (see NCCC’s blog post Compost Combats Global Warming, 11/25/18).

Every Tray Counts is continuing its relationship with the NC Composting Council and other like-minded organizations in an effort to expand its impact in North Carolina by developing a comprehensive composting system for schools.

“Every Tray Counts is at the intersection of public schools and solid waste.” Says Executive Director, Sue Scope, “If we can incorporate a composting program in our lunch rooms and our classrooms, we can have a tremendous impact on our children’s future.”

Julie Moore

 

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Compost Combats Global Warming!

The Link Between Soil and CO2

Did you know that according to the US governments analysis of grassland ecosystems in the year 2000, only 3% of the tall grass prairie that was once in North America is still intact?  This loss has had a huge impact on the way our entire ecosystem works, but what is little known is the massive loss of soil carbon that has accompanied the loss of prairie land.  All of that carbon from the soil has been released into the atmosphere and is responsible for about one third of the increase in atmospheric CO2 over the last 150 years.  Turning Earth, LLC says more carbon has gone into the atmosphere from the soil than from fossil fuel between 1860 and 1970.  

Soil carbon and its impact on climate change is the subject of intensifying scientific research, and with good reason.  The findings of current research are expanding our knowledge of how soil sequesters carbon and how our own effort to regenerate the soil with compost can slow down the rapid rise of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Overall, the world’s soil holds about three times as much carbon as the atmosphere and recognition of its capacity to take up atmospheric CO2 is catalyzing a significant shift in the direction of the battle against global warming.  The focus thus far has been in quelling emissions from the burning of fossil fuels; however crucial that reduction may be, scientists now find that soil carbon sequestration, known as a carbon “sink”, is as a promising a weapon in the fight and one that can be utilized by everyone from large agricultural and governmental organizations to individual home owners.

The Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio conducts research on the best methods for reducing atmospheric CO2 through sustainable land management practices.

According to Rattan Lal, Director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s soils have lost between 50% and 70% of their original carbon stock, much of which oxidized when exposed to air, becoming CO2 when the soil was cultivated.  Places like the North American prairie, the North China Plan and even the arid interior of Australia are now being considered future carbon sinks based on the rapidly expanding knowledge of carbon sequestration in soils.  Researchers are studying how land restoration projects in these areas might bring back carbon, nitrogen and, thereby, the natural fertility these areas have lost.  “We cannot feed people if soil is degraded,” Lal says.

When soil is tilled or disturbed in any way the carbon in it is exposed to the air, an oxygen source.  The carbon atoms attach to the oxygen forming CO2 a potent greenhouse gas.  Conventional farming practices continuously remove plant material that has grown each season that, in the natural system, would return to the soil when the plant dies.  In countries like India farmers literally burn the dead plant material off the fields in order to clear the land for the next planting. Besides putting harmful smoke into the air, these intensive farming practices remove further carbon from the soil adding to the deterioration that has been rampant throughout the world for decades.  

Regenerative agricultural practices like no till farming, planting of “green manure” cover crops, and top dressing the field with compost can turn back the carbon clock, reducing atmospheric CO2 while raising soil fertility and decreasing vulnerability to floods and drought.

“The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself” -Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Plants pull carbon out of the air through photosynthesis forming carbon compounds that are the structure of the plant body itself or biomass.  What the plant doesn’t need for growth is secreted through the roots and becomes food for soil organisms like microbes and fungi.  This is known as the humification of carbon, a process in which the carbon is made stable in the soil. Humus, whose main component is carbon, gives soil the ability to hold water, determines its structure, and gives it fertility.

Lal estimates the potential to store carbon in the top layer of degraded and desertified soils around the world could amount to 1 – 3 billion tons of carbon annually, equal to approximately 3.5 to 11 billion tons of CO2 emissions. Active soil carbon which is located in the topsoil (generally the top 15 to 30 centimeters) is continually exchanging carbon between microbes living in the soil and the atmosphere. Bolstering soil microbiology by adding compost restores normal soil activity in places where it has been interrupted by the use of insecticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.

It is currently unknown how much carbon is stored in deep carbon pools well below the active layer of soil, it is thought that soil below the five meter depth may store carbon at much higher rates than shallower soils. Encouraging finding are coming in from scientists studying some deep rooted grasses in Australia with below-ground plant structures that plunge more than five meters deep sequestering carbon all the way down.

The Marin Carbon Project

The Marin Carbon Project was started in 2007 when local farmers concerned about the impact of global climate change on the productivity of their farms.  Located in the San Francisco Bay Area the group now includes farmers, researchers, government agencies, and nonprofits who are working to enhance soil carbon sequestration in farm land, range land, and forests.  The aim is to improve farm productivity and the health of the local ecosystem while mitigating climate change. Citing research that showed dairy farms had more carbon in their soils than the adjacent grasslands because farmers sprayed manure on fields as a way of recycling the waste.  This group believed that they could improve soil quality and offset CO2 emissions produced by agriculture by putting compost on grasslands.

Lead by researcher Whendee Silver of the University of California at Berkley, the Marin Carbon Project showed that applying composted agricultural and green waste to grasslands sequesters carbon at a rate of 1 metric ton per year.  The fields that the project treated with compost also had  higher forage production due to higher fertility and better ability to hold water in the soil.  The conclusion after nine years of steady results is that applying organic matter to soils is one of the most effective ways currently available to divert CO2 from the atmosphere.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, grasslands comprise 40.5% of the earth’s terrestrial area excluding Greenland and Antarctica.  The use of chemicals that kill soil microbes and fungi, overgrazing, erosion, fires and simple poor land management have robbed of much of this land of its carbon and carbon-storing ability.

Expanding the practices of the Marin Project to just 25% of California’s grasslands, Silver projects that the carbon sequestration rate would be 21 million metric tons of carbon per year.  Grasslands, farm lands and uninhabited lands, with the addition of compost, could return carbon to the soil, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and divert green waste from landfills.

Organics Diversion and Methane Avoidance

Besides the large scale application of compost to grasslands, small scale composting not only sequesters carbon but prevents the production of methane in landfills. Organic “green” waste in the conventional waste stream decomposes in anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions producing methane which, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, is 84x more potent as a green house gas than CO2 in the first 20 years after its release into the atmosphere because of its ability to absorb heat from the sun.

In its Basic Information About Landfil Gas, the EPA states that municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 14.1% of these emissions in 2016. Composting organic waste such as food scraps, grass clippings and paper, allows the organic materials to decompose aerobically which prevents the production of methane. The US sent 31 million tons of food waste to landfills in 2007, composting this waste would have been the equivalent of taking 8.4 million cars off the road.

Residential and commercial lawns and gardens are essentially the same as an agricultural field with low biodiversity, soil depletion and lack of soil organic carbon especially if chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are in use.  Every homeowner can impact global warming by converting their land to organic maintenance practices and by composting all biodegradable household waste and applying it to the landscape.

“Fighting global warming is not out of our reach, it’s as close as our own back yard.”

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