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Blog/Opinion: The trash that's a treasure

Here's the wrong way to compost: Just toss your fruit and veggie peels in the yard. Yet, until I moved into my own home, this was my tactic of choice. I am not proud of my sloppy plan, but I will say I did have a very lush yard. I lived in a carriage house behind a mansion on what was affectionately known as "the compound." It was so easy to tuck banana peels and decaying tomatoes under the bushes. Now? Not so much.


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I now live on what is affectionately known as a double lot. It is both exciting and daunting to grapple with this soil, sod and space. Exciting, because I will finally have the opportunity to actualize my own suburban oasis and grow food—instead of grass. Daunting, because my skills in the yard start and end with raking. I have never mowed a lawn or planted a seed but am up for the challenge ... I think.

My coming posts will be dedicated to getting my hands in the dirt with the help of beloved local farmers with whom I am doing a yard-share, and committed local citizens intent on populating our town with fruit trees. But first, I'm starting with something each and every one of us can manage solo: composting the correct way.

In gardening circles, compost is often referred to as black gold. It's a rich, dark, earthy substance that's created when organic matter such as yard trimmings, coffee grounds and select food scraps break down. Compost nourishes the soil, improves water infiltration and increases crop yields. Roughly one-third of what ends up in landfills—more than 30 million tons of organic waste—can actually be composted if the material returns to the earth. But most landfill waste decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen), breaks down at glacial pace and generates the highly concentrated greenhouse gas methane in the process. In waste management circles, you hear of "mummified" orange peels and hot dog buns.

If we divert these materials, we can generate amazing nutrients for our gardens, reduce some of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, and save landfill space. California's leading the pack in terms of mandating composting, but you can turn trash into treasure no matter where you live.


Before you start tossing cucumber peelings off your front porch (as I once did), take note: In order for substances to break down, you need to layer nitrogen-rich green materials—such as grass and fruit or vegetable clippings—with brown materials high in carbon ... including leaves, twigs and hay.

Some composters will break down a number of materials, but, in general, avoid composting bones, meat, fish or any oily or fatty food. That's the kind of material that will break down slowly and attract unwanted visitors such as mice and rats.

Once you've struck the balance between brown and green, make sure the compost is slightly moist so it doesn't dry out, and also well-aerated. The easiest way to keep the air circulating is to stir your compost or try a tumbler composter. Because of my mouse debacle, I've become a little rodent-phobic, so I am trying out the fully enclosed Solarcone Green Johanna composter. It comes with a winter jacket and will break down materials at a moderate pace all year long.

If you don't have a yard, never fear. Some community gardens will accept your compostable materials. You can also assemble worm boxes, called vermicomposting, which let red worms do the work. My first exposure to a worm box was in a television executive's office in New York City. There wasn't one hippie thing about him, and he kept the worms under his desk. If he can do it, we all can.


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The trash that's a treasure:  Created on April 14th, 2010.  Last Modified on December 27th, 2010

About Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi is the founding host/writer of Sundance Channel's environmental programming The Green and the creator of the Sundance Web series The Good Fight, highlighting global environmental justice efforts and grassroots activism. She is also an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where she teaches courses on sustainability and environmental communications. She is currently writing a book on psychological barriers to environmental engagement. Simran is the contributing author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, winner of the bronze 2008 Axiom Award for Best Business Ethics book.

Named one of the top ten eco-heroes of the planet by the UK’s Independent and lauded as the “environmental messenger” by Vanity Fair, Simran has contributed numerous segments to Nightly News with Brian Williams, CNBC, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Today Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Martha Stewart Show and History Channel. She is committed to a redefinition of environmentalism that includes voices from the prairie, the inner city and the global community.

Simran blogs about sustainability and life cycle analysis for The Huffington Post and Alternet and is currently writing a year-long series about making her first home more resource efficient for Oprah Winfrey’s Web site She has been a featured guest on NPR and is the host of the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary, “A School in the Woods.” She has lectured at institutions ranging from the Commonwealth Club to Cornell University; keynoted conferences including Bioneers by the Bay, the Green Business Conference and the North American Association For Environmental Education; and moderated panels for the Clinton Global Initiative University, Demos and the Climate Group.

Simran is an associate fellow at the Asia Society and serves on the Sustainability Advisory Board for the city of Lawrence, Kansas.  She holds an M.B.A. in sustainable business from the Presidio Graduate School and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Smith College.  She is the 2009 recipient of the Smith College Medal, awarded to alumnae demonstrating extraordinary professional achievements and outstanding service to their communities and the 2009 recipient of the University of Kansas award for Leadership in Sustainability.


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