Apr 08, 2013
THEME: Sustainability

One Man’s Trash is Another Planet’s Treasure

Let’s face it: trash is not something people enjoy talking about, looking at, or generally interacting with.  If we did, we’d keep it around us longer instead of quickly disposing of it. 

Today, a common knee-jerk reaction to something seemingly useless is to put it out of site and out of mind, but this was not always the case.  Prior to the development of contemporary human civilization, there was no such thing as “trash.”  Waste was simply (and quite beautifully) the incubator for new life.  In modern society, much of our waste cannot promote new life, and sometimes takes hundreds of years to decompose.  Fortunately, there is still some waste that can contribute to our ecosystems, as long as we reintroduce it appropriately.  

Two years ago, I decided to try my hand at composting.  Our household of three in an urban environment wasn’t the most welcome place for an unrestricted compost heap, so I purchased a manufactured compost bin and strategically located it as far from the house as possible.  An unscientific experiment began: I wanted to see how much “trash” I could divert from our normal weekly haul.  Over the course of the spring and summer of 2011, we composted vegetarian kitchen scraps, small amounts of paper, raked leaves, grass clippings, and the occasional piece of cardboard.  By mid-summer, we were down to a single bag of trash per week (in lieu of our usual two), and our earthy mix was decomposing nicely.  The following spring, we re-started the process after emptying the previous summer’s contents into our home vegetable planting bed.  Not only was no additional fertilizer needed in 2012, we had more home-grown tomatoes and eggplant than we knew what to do with.  Our experiment had definitely succeeded.

Separately in 2012, the DC office of Perkins+Will was exploring ways to reduce our waste stream.  On top of our aggressive in-house recycling program, we found out that our building participated in a local farm share, which included donating compost to the farmers in exchange for fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  In June, our staff began collecting coffee grounds, filters, and tea bags – the only materials accepted for this particular program, as it simplifies the overall process and reduces the risk of invalidating the entire donation.  In the winter months, when our building’s farm share is dormant, we brought our compost to a local community garden, which started to smell an awful lot like dark roast coffee.  Naturally curious about the overall impact of our effort, we weighed our waste weekly.  Since architects tend to drink quite a lot of coffee, we averaged about 56 pounds per month in 2012. As the pattern continues and we drink more coffee, we anticipate diverting about 700 pounds of waste from the landfill this calendar year through composting alone. Plus, the “trash” that results from creating a wonderful brew in our office is now assisting the growth of fruits and vegetables in the community and beyond.

Can composting work on an even larger scale?  Washington DC is hoping to find out soon.  With the official announcement of the Sustainable DC plan earlier this year, the city has taken on the ambitious goal of sending zero solid waste to landfills by the year 2032.  This is no small task for a city that currently generates 800,000 tons of waste annually.  One of the strategies for encouraging waste stream reduction will be to provide every household with a three-track waste collection process, which follows in the footsteps of San Francisco’s similar policy.  This new third bin is for organic waste, and it will be placed next to the solid waste and mixed recyclables bins we already have.  DC also is reviewing the option of having small businesses share their waste bins, which would reduce the cost to the businesses and consolidate collections (which has the added long-term bonus of decreasing emissions). I’m looking forward to seeing if our city can keep up with the impressive pace of the San Franciscans, who are currently keeping 600 tons of food scraps, grass clippings, and coffee filters out of the waste stream every day via composting. 

Cities have the ability to use the composted matter in a variety of ways.  In planting beds and parks, compost can replace harsh chemical fertilizers, both saving us the cost of these products and keeping storm water that much more free of chemicals.  Local gardens can also receive the compost in order to grow food for their schools, residents, and other community members.

Imagine the potential (energy, cost savings, and more) in that next pot of coffee or banana peel…

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