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Composting

KEEP OUT OF THE GARBAGE CAN: Spoiled fruits and vegetables along with eggshells, coffee grounds and used tea bags make wonderful garden soil if composted. Pixabay photo

By John L. Turner

Pretend for a minute that you’ve just bought five spiffy new shirts and, pleased with your purchase, proudly place the shirts on the closet shelf. Three days later you visit the closet, pull two of the never-worn shirts off the shelf, walk outside and throw them into the garbage can. Sounds odd, strange, and disturbing, no? Well, welcome to the world of food waste, a huge, yet little recognized environmental problem. 

To put numbers around the problem, the average American family throws away roughly 240 pounds of food annually, between one-third and two-fifths of the food they buy, costing them about $1,800. That’s 50% of the seafood they bought, about 40% of the fruits and vegetables, 25% of the meat and 20% of the milk, and one-third of the grain. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, enough food is wasted nationally to annually fill 450,000 Statue of Libertys!

Why should we care about food waste? Because food production, consumption, and associated waste has relevance and is connected to so many important and interrelated issues: environmental degradation, hunger and food insecurity, economic inequality, and ethical use of animals, to name just a few.

Let’s take environmental degradation as one example. The environmental impacts resulting from the foods we eat (and waste) are nothing short of enormous: water depletion and water quality impacts, methane (a potent greenhouse gas) production from landfilled food items, loss of habitat (including wetlands) due to lands being converted to agriculture, widespread use of energy intensive fertilizers and agricultural poisons from pesticides, and a decline in abundance of marine life are several of the many results stemming from food production.  

If we reduce the amount of food we waste we proportionately reduce these impacts because we would not need to produce as much food as we do. That could mean more parks, forests, wetlands, grasslands and prairies and more food for the 57 million Americans who are food insecure.

Food waste constitutes a large fraction of garbage (about 24% of the garbage in a landfill is food). As it decomposes in landfills, food wastes generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas (according to the Environmental Protection Agency methane has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during its first several decades of circulating in the atmosphere). Rotting food in landfills is estimated to generate about 8% of the annual greenhouse gases released into the global atmosphere.

Water use stands out as another significant environmental impact made worse by food waste: fifty-six million acres of crops are irrigated in the United States, making agricultural water use the single largest consumer of water with eight out of every ten gallons of water used in the United States directed to agriculture for growing food — a total of more than 27 trillion gallons of water used annually. Unfortunately, pumping this amount of water to irrigate crops is depleting groundwater aquifers and drying reservoirs, rivers and streams.

And we could, of course talk about the amount of chemicals in the form of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides — and their impact to human and wildlife health — applied to our centralized food production system, but you get the picture.

Food waste occurs throughout the food production process from the point of harvest to consumption by consumers, from “farm to fork,” as the saying goes. For example, crops are often left unharvested due to changing market conditions, weather events, etc. This result was brought to bear with the COVID pandemic as millions of tons of various produce rotted on farms due to changes in the national food chain.

More food is wasted at the retail level, a fact made clear to me on a recent trip to a local Setauket supermarket. I was walking along the frozen/refrigerated food aisle and watched as an employee took packages out of the cabinets, gently tossing them into a shopping cart. Curious, I asked what he was doing. “I’m tossing them,” he said, “They’re past the expiration date.” While there’s no evidence that a food item a few days past the “expiration date” is not safe, I suspect the employee was simply following company direction.

Food waste is, of late, being addressed as lawmakers nationwide have started to grapple with the significance of the problem. New York State has already responded with the adoption of a law which becomes effective in January of 2022: the New York State Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling Law. This law requires large producers of food waste (averaging more than two tons of food weekly) to donate edible food and to compost food that has perished. These efforts can have a very positive result. For example, in the United Kingdom food waste has dropped by about 21% due to a similar coordinated public-private effort.

And now to the stage where most food is wasted — at the family or consumer level caused by throwing out leftovers or unused foods that are past their “sell-by or best-used-by” dates. If you’ve read this far in the article you’re probably thinking of ways you might be able to reduce the amount of food waste you and family members throw in the garbage. There are many ideas to reduce the amount of food waste and to be part of the solution. Here are five to get started:

Love your leftovers ­— Save uneaten food and once in a while, consciously and specifically, plan your dinner by “loving your leftovers.” For dinner target various leftover dishes that are patiently biding their time on your refrigerator’s shelves.

Your nose knows — As one website notes: “Expiration dates are misleading and nonstandardized, leading many to toss out perfectly good food.” Foods generally don’t go bad instantly and you have a very sensitive and accurate tool to determine if food is still edible and its conveniently located in the middle of your face. Your nose is quite adept at picking up scents or whiffs of food that’s gone or going bad- don’t hesitate to use it. Trust your sense of smell!

Buy “ugly” fruits and vegetables —Consumers want the perfect apple with no spots or blemishes, yet that imperfect, slightly-spotted apple is perfectly fine to eat. Purchasing imperfect but healthy and safe produce is a sure way to prevent food from being deep-sixed in the supermarket’s garbage dumpster.

Say no to the garbage can, yes to the compost bin — If food has gone bad, compost that spoiled salad lettuce rather than disposing of it in the trash. This same lettuce, which in the landfill generates dangerous methane, makes wonderful garden soil if composted.

Buy a smaller turkey at Thanksgiving — one-third of turkey meat (that’s 204 million pounds) is thrown away each year, created by a mismatch between the size of the store-bought turkey and peoples’ appetites for it. The solution is simple: buy a smaller turkey.

Food waste is a significant problem. The good news is that each of us can play a role in solving it.

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

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Hydrangea macrophylla. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

In many of my previous columns, I’ve talked about the benefits of using compost and compost tea on your plants. Let’s start with some basic information on what compost is and how to make it.

Compost is decayed organic matter. It’s full of nutrients and makes a great fertilizer for plants. Compost aerates clay soil and helps to hold moisture in sandy soil, so it improves soil structure. Making your own compost keeps waste out of the land fill. It also ensures that you can keep pesticides and other chemicals out of the compost and therefore out of your soil.

There are two types of compost piles, hot and cold. The hot pile raises the temperature of the ingredients to at least 135 degrees. There are several benefits of a hot compost pile. One is that many damaging organisms, like plant bacteria, are killed in a hot pile. Another is that the hot pile decomposes more quickly. Add equal parts green and brown matter, grass clippings and dry leaves, for example, all finely chopped and mixed together. Smaller pieces will decompose more quickly than larger ones. Add some manure in the ratio of 1/3 to 2/3 plant matter for a hot pile or add some blood and bone fertilizer.

A cold compost pile takes longer to decompose, but you need to be less concerned with ratios, manure, etc. Never put diseased leaves in a cold pile. You’re just saving the disease organisms for the next season. Actually, I never put diseased plant parts in any compost pile, just to be on the safe side. Make sure that you keep the compost pile moist or the plant matter will not decompose. Think about the Egyptian mummies, in the desert for thousands of years, yet not decomposed. Periodically turn the pile over. If you use one of the rotating composters on a stand, this step is very easy.

What goes in the compost pile? Any healthy green plant matter, but not woody as it takes too long to decompose, and lawn clippings; coffee grounds and used tea bags; paper towels; and kitchen peelings including apple cores, orange peels, etc. — keep a closed container in the kitchen to collect them and then periodically bring them out to the garden — crushed eggshells and manure from herbivores, such as cows and horses.

Do not add protein, such as leftover meat, which draws critters and is slow to decompose; fatty substances; manure from carnivores, such as dogs and cats, as it can transmit disease; and diseased plant parts.

Compost can be applied as a top dressing or lightly dug into the soil, being careful to avoid surface roots of plants. It can also be mixed into the soil when you transplant or add a new plant to the garden.

If you choose not to make your own compost, but acquire it from other sources, remember that you don’t know what has been used to make that compost. It may be exactly as you would make yourself or not. If you are keeping a strictly organic garden, this can be a problem. For example, whoever made the compost may have used insecticides on the plant matter or weed killers. I used to get compost from a local free source only to find pieces of broken glass in it along with pieces of wire. So, always wear your gardening gloves to protect your hands.

Next week, making compost tea.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.