Composting to Save Our Oceans - Sailors for the Sea

Composting to Save Our Oceans

 January 3, 2020  | By: Tyson Bottenus

Composting is often an overlooked way to help protect the health of our oceans and waterways. While the connection might not be clear at first, composting is a triple threat when it comes to helping save our seas. First, composting diverts food waste from the landfill, where it would decompose inside a plastic bag and create methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the course of 100 years. The ocean absorbs most of the excess heat from greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, which leads to an increase in ocean temperatures, threatening the health of marine species and ecosystems. Second, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 20-30% of what we throw away at home could be composted, meaning trash would have to be transported less often to the landfill, reducing the associated CO2 emissions. Finally, composting creates nutrient-rich soil, which can be used in place of harsh fertilizers. Fertilizer contains nitrates and phosphates that can create harmful algal blooms in waterways near runoff areas. Additionally, healthy soil is better able to hold more rainwater, further limiting the amount of harmful runoff that gets into the water.

Composting can be a relatively simple process: microorganisms break down organic materials and return them to nutrient-rich, healthy soil. However, introducing “compostable bioplastics” into the waste stream has made composting a bit more complicated. Let’s break it down!

The Science of Compost

Composting, in its original form, utilizes microorganisms that need air to do their job, a process called aerobic composting. There is a very loose formula to turn food scraps into healthy soil. The general idea is to combine your “browns” in a roughly 3:1 ratio with your “greens”. Browns, which are high in carbon, include sawdust, dry lawn clippings, newspaper and cardboard. Greens are high in nitrogen and include any vegetable scraps, eggshells, banana peels, coffee grounds and tea bags. You’ll know if you’re not mixing your browns and greens correctly if you notice your compost pile starts to smell bad. Be aware that if you are composting in your own backyard, we recommend not adding any meat scraps or dairy. These items won’t break down very fast and more importantly, they’ll likely attract unwanted visitors like coyotes, foxes, and rats.

From Spoil to Soil: How to Compost Food Scraps from Your Own Kitchen

Backyard Composting 101

If you want to create your own compost (gardeners, this is for you!), there are many ways to take better advantage of your food scraps and lawn cuttings. One of the simplest methods of composting is having an unenclosed pile of food scraps and lawn cuttings at the edge of your property. Another way to construct your pile is in an enclosed bin, however, getting proper air flow to your pile in this scenario can be tricky. By layering your compost pile with coarse “brown” material and thinner layer of “greens” (the lasagna method), you will allow room for ventilation in the same way that turning your compost pile accomplishes. You could also try a tumbler, allowing you to turn the compost pile easily, speeding up the composting process. Aerating your compost pile is pivotal to creating healthy compost. Make sure you spin that tumbler or take a garden shovel to your compost pile every few weeks.

Residential Composting Programs

If composting in your own backyard is not feasible, check to see if your area has a residential composting program. There could be a curbside pick-up program, or a drop-off service at a nearby farmer’s market. Food waste from neighbors can provide the nutrients that farmers need for their plants, making it a win-win for everyone! Check with your program to see if they will accept meat and dairy products. The general rule of thumb when it comes to residential pickup is: “if it grows, it goes!”. If you are looking to enhance or start your own garden, see if the program allows you to buy back the compost.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Bioplastics

One of the biggest misconceptions we hear about composting concerns compostable plastics, also known as “bio-based plastics”, “bioplastics” or  “biodegradable plastics.” “Biopolymers” are the only truly biodegradable plastics and are made from natural substances that are chemically modified to make the material more durable, yet still designed to break down into natural elements with the help of microorganisms and only under certain conditions, such as high heat and humidity found in industrial composters. Backyard compost bins can neither produce enough heat nor humidity to break down these bioplastics. If you live an area without an industrial composter, compostable bioplastics will still end up in a landfill, incinerator or the environment like its traditional plastic counterparts.

We do not encourage the use of biodegradable plastic products. You might be wondering, “if bioplastic is made out of plants, isn’t it at least a little bit better than petroleum-based plastic?”. While this may seem like the case, if the bioplastics do not get properly handled at an industrial composting facility, then they still will not break down. Additionally, bioplastics look exactly like real plastic, causing confusion in the waste stream and often contaminating recycling efforts. If biodegradable plastic gets mixed with normal plastics, the overall quality of the recycled plastic material is significantly reduced. Ultimately, anything that gets used once before it is thrown away is unsustainable, no matter the material. We highly encourage incorporating reusable solutions into your daily lives or event planning.

A Note on PFAS

PFAS, or “Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals [that] are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.” PFAS are often found in “compostable” dinnerware and food packaging as the waxy lining on these products. When these items are added to your compost pile, they degrade the health of the soil. We highly recommend checking with the BPI certified compostable products, which as of January 1, 2020, adopted the rule that their certified products must have “no intentionally added fluorinated chemicals”.

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We are always here to answer any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to us!