How to return nutrients to nature |

How to return nutrients to nature

Vail, CO Colorado

While helping cook at my greenie-weenie friend’s house I got “the look” after dumping a bunch of vegetable trimmings in the trash. She composts, it seems. She says it’s wasteful to trash organic stuff, but won’t the stuff biodegrade in the dump as well as in her backyard?


Rotten in Red Cliff

Let’s step back, understand some terms and concepts, and then dive headfirst into the rotting heap.

Firstly, “the dump,” as you call it, is not … a dump, that is. Most “dumps” are actually sanitary landfills that have liners, special layers and encapsulations that resist or control ickiness getting out into surrounding soil and groundwater.

That same careful protection also prevents much air, water or light from penetrating the vast heap. And without those things, not much of anything decays as it might in a more natural environment.

Your greenie-weenie friend keeps out of the landfill food stuffs that can and should degrade and return to the land from whence they sprung. And the end product of that decay, by the way, is yummy, nutrient-rich soil that plants crave.

And so even if things might eventually ” over hundreds or thousands of years ” decay in a landfill, the end product is essentially useless goo.

Oh, and methane is the chief and most immediate byproduct of the unnatural decay that happens in landfills. Methane is an exceptionally potent greenhouse gas that contributes to the global warming that our children and grandchildren will have to deal with. Landfills are the largest human-related source of methane.

But enough downers about waste. Your letter gives me the opportunity to make happy talk about composting itself. So let’s step further back and learn more about composting.

Note that in nature there is no waste, as we define it for ourselves. “Waste” in any natural system is always nutrient for some other system. And while humans may eventually find another use for 12 billion AOL CDs, it seems a shame that we don’t use all the organic stuff that we already have a great use for.

Nature already knows how to make soil from organic and non-organic material. Composting is merely the deliberate speeding and controlling of the process. Your greenie-weenie friend might be composting to avoid the negative impacts of landfilling all that organic material, but she is also reaping compost rewards.

We have developed the interesting habit of buying soil for our plants and gardens. If you thought paying for water you could otherwise get for free was strange, go outside, look down and ponder the sense of buying what is under our feet nearly everywhere we go.

Most of that soil is not great for plants, you say? Point taken. Enter compost. Because we get to control what goes into the heap, we get to control what comes out ” namely, yummy, nutrient-rich soil that plants crave.

Too much work, you say? I’m guessing your greenie-weenie keeps her compost not more than a wall away from that trash bin you used, and possibly has a small transfer container right in the kitchen. And once you dump, nature does all the hard work.

Then when you need soil your choice is 1) get in your car (or bike?), go to the store, pick what soil you think you need, pay money for it, haul home, open and use, or 2) turn around, grab compost and use.

Live in an apartment? Special methods and bins are made just for you. Worried about bears? Don’t put in fragrant fruit.

Don’t have a garden or plants? Sell your compost.

Ahh, that feels good, doesn’t it, Rotten? So forget about “the look” your friend slung you and all the “bad things” we humans may do. Composting is just another great example of the opportunity in doing things better.



Terra Mater is the alter-ego of Matt Scherr of the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability ( If you have a question about local recycling, sustainability or other such issues, e-mail

Support Local Journalism