A better way to handle food scraps

June 16, 2008 10:06:32 AM PDT
The black bin that many of us use to store garbage outside is on the way out itself. At least, that's the hope of two competing approaches for making compost.

Millions of us leave the food scraps in backyard compost bins like this one. It's great for the environment, great for your plants. But you have to work at it, tilling the soil. You have to maintain the temperature.

It can take as long as six months to turn into compost. And then sometimes, you have to put up with the smell. You've got two options today: You can take it inside, or leave it to the professionals.

Professionals like the companies operated by NorCal, which runs the largest composting system for urban waste in the US. Near Vacaville, it converts 400 tons (equal to two 747s) a day from households and restaurants.

"We operate modern compost facilities," says Norcal spokesman Robert Reed, "that can compost steak bones and chicken bones and spoiled lunch meat, and things that you could never compost in a backyard composter. We're able to achieve higher temperatures and compost more types of food. "

I can't begin to describe for you the smell here in the compostables pit. And that was also a challenge for the home version.

"We include a carbon filter, which also takes away any residual odors," said Russ Cohn of San Francisco speaking, the inventor of a composter called NatureMill.

Another technology adds heat to get the natural reaction started, and a small motor mixes and grinds every 4 hours. Using less energy than a refrigerator light bulb, this box reduces a 6 months wait to 2 weeks.

NatureMill was developed because Cohn was frustrated by his own experience with backyard composters.

"I was frustrated, because there are a lot of bins and buckets and tumblers, but they really aren't sophisticated, they don't work that well, and they're pretty ugly," siad Cohn.

Small inventors and big pros have their disagreements.

Some says trucking scraps is inefficient, and you shouldn't have to pay for compost. Others point out that an under-counter unit is limited in what it can process and claim its too expensive at $300-400.

Cohn even throws doggy doo and kitty poo into the debate, with a model tuned to kill all the associated pathogens. (Just not in the house.) But both sides share a belief that one day we can do away with the black bin, and go green all the way.

Related links:

  • Residential Cmpost Collection: San Francisco Composting Program
  • Commercial Compost Collection: San Francisco Recycling - Compost Collection
    Phone: (415)?330-1300
  • NatureMill
    NatureMill Pro Electric indoor composter available at Williams-Sonoma
  • U.S. Composting Council
    The USCC is a non-profit national organization committed to the advancement of the composting industry.
  • EPA Resources for Waste Education
  • Compost: A crumbly, earthy, sweet-smelling mixture of decomposing organic matter (e.g., leaves, food scraps) created in a controlled, high- temperature environment that is often used to improve the texture, water- retaining capacity, and aeration of soil.
  • Norcal Waste Systems, Inc.
    The largest urban composter in the U.S.


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