Ask Eartha Steward: The beauty of composting |

Ask Eartha Steward: The beauty of composting

Eartha Steward
High Country Conservation Center

Dear Eartha,

Which is better for the environment – throwing food waste down the garbage disposal or in the trash can?

-Jim Powell, Frisco

Um … how about secret choice “C” – compost it! Since I’m a huge fan of composting, I always support throwing food waste in a worm bin or outdoor tumbler. However, not everyone has the space or time to compost at home, so my second choice would be the garbage disposal.

First off, I probably should write a disclaimer for garbage disposals everywhere. I’m not a plumbing expert either so please use caution with the amount of food (and type of food) you decide to shove down the kitchen sink.

Let’s start by following the journey that our food waste takes from our plates to the landfill. After dinner, your uneaten fish bones, potato peels and carrot ends are discarded conveniently into a trash can under the sink. From there, it is a long road trip from trash can to Dumpster to trash hauler to landfill.

Once it arrives at the landfill, it is dumped into a growing heap of plastic, old furniture and millions of other trash bags. Next, a large machine smashes and compacts food waste on top of food waste into a collage of unrecognizable garbage. While a landfill “cover” is used to top off the pancake layers, the amount of oxygen and sunlight available to the food waste is pretty much nonexistent.

Over the next decade to 100 years, the food waste will break down anaerobically (without oxygen) and create a dangerous greenhouse gas – methane that has now been shown to be 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide. As you can see, food and organic waste in our landfill creates major problems for our planet.

What are the alternatives? Yes, throwing food waste down the garbage disposal is one of them. Instead of taking the sad trip to the landfill we just discussed, when thrown down the disposal, food waste travels to the wastewater treatment plant where it is filtered, collected, and termed “biosolids.” According to compost expert, Sam Johnson: “Most biosolids go to land applications and return back to the earth in one form or another.”

Sam Johnson is the compost supervisor at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park (SCRAP) at the landfill. The large-scale operation (aka High Country Compost) at SCRAP takes biosolids from the Snake River Valley and the Upper Blue. So folks in those areas can feel very comfortable that their food waste goes directly to a local compost program, when thrown down the garbage disposal. For the rest of us living in other parts of the county, our biosolids are still making a positive impact in some way or another as revegetation at the Climax mine in Leadville.

Composting in general has countless benefits for the environment. As a large-scale composting facility, High Country Compost has the ability to get temperatures hot enough to properly cook biosolids, as well as meat and bones. You might recall that meat and dairy should never be added to a backyard composting bin. According to Sam, “The biggest difference between the operations at SCRAP and back yard composting is that we compost in a much larger scale which allows for control of odors, temperatures, ingredients, and the mixing/turning process of oxygen reintroduction.”

With backyard composting, your limited by space, pile size, ingredients, and equipment (as well as high altitude cold and dryness) to get the temperatures you need to quickly break down meat and dairy. If those products were to sit overnight in an outdoor or indoor bin, you can only imagine the odor and critter problems you and your neighbors will endure.

Lastly, when you compost in the backyard or a worm bin, your food waste travels the shortest distanc and uses the least amount of energy. You’re also rewarded with dark, rich soil for your own garden use and home revegetation projects. If you have questions about how to get started, don’t hesitate to contact the Conservation Center. We’re happy to help – call (970) 668-5703 or visit

Eartha Steward is written by Carly Wier and Jennifer Santry at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Submit questions to Eartha at

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