Talking Dirt: Tales From the Composters Among Us
By: Julian Brenman ‘20 5-9-18
Editor’s Note: This article is one in a two-part series in which FOCUS will interview different composters at Friends’ Central and beyond. There are many composters at our school, so check back for the second part of this series to learn about different composters’ approaches.
When we finish our meals, most of us are left with unwanted leftovers, such as carrot tops, potato skins, eggshells, and more. While the majority of people simply put these items in the trash can or garbage disposal, many people in the more environmentally-conscience category make use for this waste. This is accomplished by a four-step system known as “composting.” The first step in composting entails collecting kitchen waste in a box in the kitchen and letting it accumulate. The second step is to take the accumulated waste from the kitchen into a larger box in the backyard. Once the waste is in a large box in the backyard, it needs to be dumped on top of other layers of waste and periodically watered. After about a month or two of this regimen, the waste put into the box transforms into soil. That soil, produced simply by unwanted leftovers, can be used for vegetable gardens, shrubs, and flowers, among other things.
In addition to being a remarkable upper school science teacher and the devoted coordinator of senior projects, Phyllis Hanson, Ph.D., is a veteran composter. With the intention of debunking any myths about composting, Dr. Hanson provides a basic definition: “Composting is putting organic material through the carbon cycle. You start with your carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide gets into the plants. The plant makes the fruit, converts that C02 into some sugars and starches.” She continues, “All of our leftovers have nutrients. Composting allows you to put these nutrients back into a form a plant can take up again instead of just wasting them.”
Dr. Hanson explains her personal approach to composting: “I compost in my backyard. I get big boxes of leaf materials from various grocery stores. I have three trash buckets that I got from Home Depot. I drilled in a million holes into the sides of all three of them, and so I have it on a three-week cycle. I’ll layer the first one with a box or two, and I layer it up with leaf material or soil. I let it sit, and every couple of days I’ll turn it. Then the next week, I’ll do the next bucket. Meanwhile, this one is cooking. Then I’ll do another one. By the time I’m ready to do the furth one, the first one is just about ready. I can turn it over pretty quickly, most of the time. It’s amazing that after a month, usually everything is gone. It turns into soil. I can’t even tell that it’s my old food or leftovers. When I then go to plant my tomatoes, I’ll dig the hole in my tomato plant. I’ll take a scoop of this soil and put it in there. Composting means I don’t have to buy any soil!”
Besides producing soil, compost piles produce liquids. Dr. Hanson elaborates about the liquids provided by compost piles: “Not everybody does, but I do collect the moisture. I call it ‘compost tea.’ I save that and that’s what I use to water my plants. In addition to the liquid it provides, it also provides additional nutrition to the plants.”
Composting no doubt gives Dr. Hanson nutrient-filled soil and liquids with which to nourish her plants. However, she claims that the activity offers additional benefits, benefits which are intangible: “I enjoy composting because I like to let nature slow me down. I like to know that this process, I can’t speed up. That gives me a lot of pleasure. Though it may sound creepy, I watch my compost piles, and I love seeing how they evolve. I take a lot of pride in saying, ‘I’m going to let nature do what it’s going to do.’”
While Dr. Hanson maintains an impressive composting operation, she emphasizes that one need not compost as much as she does to reduce one’s environmental footprint. She boasts that even at the high level at which she composts, she only spends about an hour per week on the project. Another advantage of composting, Dr. Hanson states, is the lack of money one needs to spend to participate in it. She affirms, “It costs nothing. You don’t need any materials. All you need is something in the kitchen to collect your waste. It could be an old piece of tupperware. Then, in the backyard, you need a little trash can. Just drill holes in it, and you’re good to go! One should never spend money to do this. The goal is to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on buying anything. You look around your house, and find what you need.” Dr. Hanson also notes that abundant outdoor space isn’t a requirement for being an effective composter: “I know people who have apartments, and they compost on their balconies. You don’t need a lot of space. All you need is a desire to use your wasted nutrition to grow beautiful things.”
When asked which type of person would be an ideal composter, Dr. Hanson replies, “If you’re interested in growing good vegetables, you’re interested in sustainability, and you’re interested in the natural cycle nature of environment. You realize that composting is the best way to give your plants nutrition. Everybody wastes a whole lot of food, and people don’t realize how much food is wasted behind-the-scenes before it gets on our grocery shelf, or even the amount [wasted] before it gets into our dining hall. The amount of food that’s not really sold for us to eat is astounding. Even if you don’t grow food, composting limits your contributions to landfills. People should be interested in realizing that we all generate waste, and there is a relatively easy way to have this waste go somewhere that makes the next generation of food be better for you. It should be on everybody’s mind. It’s tragic how much food we waste.”
One need not know every detail about composting to be successful, yet Dr. Hanson makes perspective composters aware of some tips she’s found helpful: “First, you really shouldn’t compost meat. Second, if you do it right, your compost pile will not smell one bit. In fact, to me, it smells good. I like that earthy, musty smell. Especially after a rainstorm, it smells really nice. If your compost stinks, it probably has too much moisture. Also, the animals will love you if you just put a pile in your backyard, especially if you have racoons or possums nearby. Though these animals can get in the buckets, it’s better to have them in a bucket than just having it in a pile. Finally, your compost pile doesn’t need sun, but it does need to be watered and collect what comes out the bottom.” Perhaps Dr. Hanson’s most inspiring piece of advice, however, is as follows: “Give composting a try, and don’t be afraid of it. Nature has been composting things forever. It is a beautiful process. It’s also great for little children to see this, if you have little brothers or sisters.”
Dr. Hanson is truly making a positive change in this world through her efforts, and there are indeed other composters in our midst. Mr. Chris Rosenbaum, our director of dining services, composts as well. He exclaims, “I compost. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve been composting since I could walk. It’s very easy. I live in the woods, so I take all of the leaves that come down, take lots of wood pilings, take out my pitch fork, toss it around, and it turns into mulch in about two months. I’ll start with a pile about two feet high, and it will get down to about a foot and a half. If you want to start composting, start small, though.” Mr. Rosenbaum later hints at some exciting plans to increase the composting efforts on the Friends’ Central campus, with the hope of eventually having students compost after every meal. Ms. Miriam Fisher Schaefer is also a composter, but wasn’t able to be interviewed in time for this article.
While it surely is easy to grow overwhelmed by all of the logistics that go into composting, the big picture is really what matters: with a little bit of elbow grease, some basic household items, and a passion for reducing waste, we can make a tremendous difference in this world.