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April 2012
Stay In The Mix By Kim Cook

Knowledge is key to successful composting. Recognizing the lack thereof may be your first step toward improving soil conditions in your neighborhood.

Austin is known as one of the “greener” cities in the United States, offering citywide recycling, incentives for drought-tolerant landscaping and discounted water barrels. But after noticing that local homeowners weren’t exactly jumping into composting — despite the city offering one of the highest rebates in the country — Exaco Trading Co. decided to take the cause straight to the public.

Last fall the family-owned wholesale distributor began renting a booth in a local farmer’s market each weekend to hand out information on the city’s Zero Waste Plan, distribute forms for the composter rebate program and showcase the various composters it brings in from around
the world.

Grassroot Compost Campaign

Austin is one of the most environmentally-conscious cities in America, but it still needs a little help getting the word out about composting. Many of our customers don’t understand that people in other countries have seen the value of composting and been doing this for some time. They have embraced this duty when it comes to the environment.

Austin city leaders are so interested in seeing residents compost because they want to reduce waste going into its landfills, especially organic waste that creates hazardous methane gas.

As part of its Zero Waste Initiative, the Austin Resource Recovery department aims to divert 90 percent of its waste by 2040 by promoting recycling, reuse and composting. According to city officials’ estimates, about 50 percent of household waste is recyclable and 40 percent is compostable, leaving only 10 percent waste left that is considered hazardous or non recyclable.

Exaco, a 25-year-old company that specializes in hobby greenhouses, composters and other “eco-friendly” products for gardeners, has its main warehouse in Austin. It is the national distributor of more than a half dozen composter lines from around the world, including the Aerobin, an insulated composter from Australia; the vertically stacked, three-bin Earthmaker from New Zealand; and several high-quality traditional designs from Austria, Germany and Canada.

Vice president Andrew Cook, who grew up in Holland, said most Europeans use several bins and understand the basics of collecting green and brown waste to create compost for the backyard. They also see the value of “sustainable living” — favoring high-quality products that are meant for several years of use.

“My family always said, ‘buying cheap is buying twice,'” he says.

The City of Austin is offering rebates up to 75 percent (or a maximum of $75 each) on purchases of composting supplies for utility customers who agree to downsize to a 32-gallon trash can and attend a free composting class.

To promote its initiative, Austin’s Resource Recovery Department has been holding composting classes several times a week in libraries and other public meeting places — with standing-room only crowds — to help people get a successful start.

The Right Mix of Knowledge

At a February meeting, instructor Daniela Ochoa Gonzalez said adding the right materials and creating the proper balance is the key to successful composting.

The basic formula is to add one bucket of “greens” to three buckets of “browns,” then top the stack with a bucket of water. The greens come mainly from kitchen food scraps — apple peelings, leftover lettuce leaves, banana peels, as well as leaves and other yard waste, including tea bags, egg shells and leftover coffee grounds. Larger pieces, like melon rinds and cob corns, should be chopped into finer pieces so micro-organisms have an easier job of breaking down the material. Egg shells are great, but they should be crushed first. The browns consist of organic waste from leaves, shredded newspapers and cardboard.

It’s important to also leave certain waste out of the pile. Material that should not go into a composter includes meat, cheese or paper with a waxy or glossy coating.

Ochoa Gonzalez’s rule of thumb? “If it grows, it goes!”

Beside the right mix of greens and browns, the pile needs to be turned so air can get into the middle of it (or have the air funneled to its core as the Aerobin’s design does). It also needs the right amount of moisture. Gonzalez says the pile should be 50 percent moist and feel spongy. To feed the pile during dry periods or while you’re away on vacation, she suggests leaving a punctured milk jug or a soaker hose on top.

While compost piles need air and moisture to promote microbial action, a pile should not be turned every day because that will disturb the microbial organisms. If the pile smells bad, then it probably needs more browns and more air. (More tips on composting for you and your customers are available at www.austinrecycles.com.)

In any case, it will take some time for the material to sufficiently mature so that it is ready to go into the garden. Depending on the material used in the pile, it can take anywhere from several months to a year for the material
to decompose.

The compost is ready when it looks and smells like healthy soil, Gonzalez says. To test, take a jar and fill it with a handful of compost, then add enough water so that it is soggy, and seal it up. Open it in a week. It is ready to go into your garden if it smells like nice, wet earth and looks dark brown and crumbly.

Exaco hopes it can continue to spread these techniques to the Austin community — and hopes you will do the same in your locale.

The bottom line is everyone needs to be doing something with their organic waste because putting it into the trash or a landfill is not the right step for our environment. This is something that each and every customer should be made very aware of.

Kim Cook

Kim Cook is the president of Austin-based Exaco Trading Co. She can be reached at 512.407.8500 or [email protected]


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