Daily Chronicle

Srygler: Returning nutrients to our food supply by composting

Editor’s note: This is the June installment of a monthly column written by the city of DeKalb’s Citizens Environmental Commission that focuses on increased awareness of issues such as promoting projects and ordinance changes involved in recycling, reducing energy consumption and planting native habitat.

Why do we need to eat? All living things need nutrients and energy. Our energy, what we call calories, starts as sunlight captured by plants that is sent up the food chain. We rely on the sun for a constant source of energy. But where do nutrients come from?

Nutrients also travel up the food chain. But unlike energy, there is no input of new nutrients. Decomposers are organisms that break down dead things and return those nutrients back to the base of the food chain. Nature relies on decomposers to keep this cycle of nutrients available for all species.

Why Compost?

When we throw away food, those nutrients end up in a landfill. This is a dead end. Those nutrients are taken out of the food chain. Some of that food in the landfill then breaks down and produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

If we instead compost food waste, the nutrients locked in our food scraps become available again, flowing back into our food supply. As the USDA composting website states, “composting is nature’s way of recycling.”

Types of Composting

There are different ways you can compost. I chose the cheap and easy method. Yard waste is picked up April 1 to November 30 in the city of DeKalb. Our food scraps can go in with the yard waste. It is as easy as placing your food scraps in the yard waste bags (or X-marked cans). Your banana peels, corn husks, and forgotten fruit can be placed with your leaves, weeds & sticks! Don’t want to run out to the yard waste bag after every meal? Small containers can store for the short-term. Worried about smell? Store food scraps in the freezer between trips outside.

Want to compost in your back yard? You can build bins made of wood (environmental bonus points if it is reclaimed wood!). Adding chicken wire will keep animals out of your compost pile. The contents will need to be turned occasionally to promote composting. Have extra money to spend? Tumbling compost containers can be purchased that help with turning the compost. Turning the contents promotes conditions necessary for decomposing organisms to thrive.

Is composting in your yard not an option? You can try the more expensive option of a counter-top composter. Countertop composters starting around $250 can break down food scraps overnight. This is a physical process that is different from the chemical breakdown provided by decomposers like microbes and worms.

What can be composted?

What can be composted depends on which method you choose. The EPA Composting website has detailed information. But a good general rule is no animal products except eggshells. Are you seeing utensils, cups, etc. labeled “compostable”? Those won’t break down in the landfill. But they can compost with your food scraps! Want to learn more about local composting? Two recent NIU STEAM blogs share more details about the science behind composting and composting examples.

  • Rob Srygler earned his PhD at Northern Illinois University and is a tenured biology faculty member at Rock Valley College.