Saturday, February 27, 2010

You Can't Throw It Away

Redworms, Eisenia andrei to be exact, used in vermicomposting

Two years ago, the City of Raleigh, North Carolina proposed a ban of in-sink garbage disposals. It was a teachable moment, though city officials ultimately failed to take advantage of the moment. The ban was rescinded after a brief but loud public outcry.

The lesson that might have been taught would have reminded us that we all live in an ecosystem and a river basin, where everything is connected eventually to nearly everything else.

Throwing something in the trash or down the sink is not really throwing it "away". In an ecosystem, there is no "away"! We may embrace the concept, and practice something we call "throw it away", but ecologists know we are fooling ourselves. Each of us must learn a little about being good ecologists.

We burn gasoline in trucks hauling the contents of our trash cans to a landfill, where they take up space that could be forest or farm. The garbage very slowly decomposes, generating methane gas, and leaching toxins into the ground.

We must capture the methane lest it contribute to global warming more powerfully per molecule than carbon dioxide. We must collect the toxins so they won't poison groundwater beneath the landfill. And a lot of that stuff in the landfill, despite our recycling efforts, is valuable raw material today, or will be years from now. So much for throwing it all away.

Liquid and some solid wastes go down a pipe in toilets, dishwashers, clotheswashers, and sinks. These wastes go to a sewage treatment plant, a wonderful invention which breaks down the pathogenic, or disease-causing bacteria and viruses that can accompany the by-products of our lives.

When you also dump food or grease down your sink with the help of that garbage disposal and lots of water to hurry it along and keep the pipes from getting clogged, the food and grease goes to the sewage treatment plant. Problem #1 today, that is a waste of water. And as wonderful as sewage treatment plants are at killing bacteria and viruses, they are not so great at breaking down the nutrients in wastes and food. That is Problem #2.

In fact, the nutrients that a sewage treatment plant is not so good at breaking down, constitute the most important sources of water pollution today. Here's why.

First, these "nutrients" are essential chemicals that plants need to grow. Like fertilizer, they stimulate rapid growth of tiny plants called algae in a river or lake.

What's wrong with algae growing in a lake? Like all plants, algae produce more oxygen than they use, and that is good. But though a little is okay, too much means trouble, and we're not talking about the oxygen. The tiny algae do not live very long. As suddenly as they blossomed in response to the excess nutrients, they die and sink to the bottom of the lake.

Dead algae make good food for bacteria, so following the die-off of the algae comes a massive growth of bacteria. Although the bacteria themselves are not pathogenic, they require a lot of oxygen to grow.

The population explosion of bacteria decomposing the dead algae uses up all the oxygen in the water. Without oxygen in the water, the fish, indeed every living thing in the river or lake, dies.

So food scraps and grease that go down your drain add to the most important water pollution problem facing America today. But put them in the trash and they go to a landfill, which has an array of problems all its own. What can you do?

This is the part an ecologist loves.

Start a compost bin in your backyard! Composting allows us to "close the loop" on a lot of things we would otherwise "throw away". All those food scraps, egg shells, indeed, everything but meat scraps (which can attract unwanted animals), along with paper napkins, paper towels, even grass clippings and those leaves you love to rake up in the fall, all can contribute to the recycling of valuable nutrients in a compost bin.

And here's the exciting finale, what to do with the compost you create? Spread it in your garden, under plants in your yard or in a "natural area", you could even sprinkle a little as a natural fertilizer in your lawn. All those nutrients left over from delicious meals and lawn care can be recycled and reused. Spread and mixed into the ground, compost enriches soil, promoting better plant growth.

As ecologists we know we can't really throw anything away. But ecologists also know how to save water, reuse nutrients, protect water quality, limit landfills, enrich soil, and promote the growth of the beautiful trees, shrubs, flowers, and vegetables that can grace yards large and small.

Find out more about composting at

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