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Your Yard Waste Container: Get the Dirt on Compost

by Salt Lake Valley Landfill Compost Marketer & Recycling Specialist, Zak Breckenridge

It’s variably called the “yard waste bin,” the “brown can,” or the “compost container.”

Whatever name you give it, all Salt Lake City Waste & Recycling customers have the familiar brown can and use it to dispose of leaves, yard trimmings, small branches, grass, weeds, and other green waste.

It can also take your fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, and tea bags.

Salt Lake City’s compost container . . . aka “yard waste bin” aka “brown can.”

Today we’re taking a deep dive into the brown can. We’re (figuratively, not literally) getting down and dirty not only with what should and shouldn’t go in your bin, but also what happens to all of that “green waste” at its destination?

Welcome to the world of compost and why we’re so proud to have a commercial compost facility here in the Salt Lake Valley, which services Salt Lake City and many Salt Lake County curbside programs.

What exactly is Compost?

We all know that putting carrot tops and tomato stems in the compost is somehow better than putting them in the trash, but how do your food scraps and yard waste become a useful and valuable natural product that’s also better for the environment and better for our community?

Fresh compost
A BIG pile of Salt Lake Valley’s Certified Compost

First, let’s get into some basics: Compost is an organic product created through the controlled decomposition of biodegradable materials. As the materials decompose, they reach a high temperature of up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, which significantly reduces pathogens and occurrence of weed seeds. Compost is typically used as a soil amendment and contributes to plant nutrients.

There are many ways to make compost, such as worm bins, outdoor piles, and commercial bins, but they all follow the same basic principles. A compost heap requires a mixture of “browns” – such as branches, leaves, wood shavings, paper, and cardboard — which provide carbon, and “greens,” – such as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, fresh garden and grass trimmings — which add nitrogen.

As the compost heap grows, millions of microorganisms transform the yard waste and food scraps into useful compost. They need the right mixture of temperature, moisture, and oxygen to do their job, so making compost often involves turning and watering the pile. After a few months (depending on the climate and composting method), your organic waste becomes nutrient-rich dirt that can be spread on fields and garden beds to increase plant and soil health.

Yard Waste
Residents’ yard waste ready to undergo the magical transformation of the compost process.

Compost and Sustainability

The sustainability benefits of composting green waste are enormous. As composting programs expand, the environmental benefits will, too.

First, diverting green waste into a composting program saves landfill space, which is important because we want our landfills to stay open as long as possible. The Salt Lake Valley Landfill, for instance, is scheduled to close in 2100 and it’s unclear where our waste will go after that. Luckily, about 30% of what’s thrown away as garbage in the United States could be composted. Composting programs help landfills last longer.

Second, when organic waste is sent to the landfill, it gets crushed in with the other trash and decomposes in the absence of oxygen.

Anaerobic decomposition of organic matter releases methane into the atmosphere, which while it does not linger in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, is a much more potent greenhouse gas. In the course of a century, methane has 34 times more of a climate impact than carbon dioxide and 12 percent of global methane emissions come from landfills.

By allowing the material to decompose in the presence of plenty of oxygen, composting operations effectively eliminate methane emissions from organic and green waste disposal.

Finally, using compost in farms and gardens can stabilize soil, increase plant health, and reduce the climate impact of agriculture. As nitrogen-based artificial fertilizer degrades, it depletes the soil and releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide has 310 times the climate impact of carbon dioxide in the course of a century and three quarters of nitrous oxide emissions result from agricultural soil management practices.

Compost contributes to long-term soil health and, preliminary trials suggest, can actually draw substantial amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil

Ultimately, at a time of some skepticism about recycling, turning green waste into compost is the most local and direct form of recycling.

Just like recycling programs, using your brown compost container diverts material from landfills, but unlike recycling programs, composting transforms waste into something new in the same cities and counties that produce the waste.

Don’t have a curbside compost program? You can even compost in your apartment or backyard! It doesn’t get much more local than that!

Certified Compost Seal of Assurance
Certified Compost Seal

Composting Right

Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County jointly run a large-scale compost operation, located at the Salt Lake Valley Landfill, so now is a good time to remember what does and does not belong in your curbside compost can.

Yes: Vegetables, Fruits, Egg Shells, Coffee Grounds and Tea Bags, Lawn Clippings and Weeds, Tree Branches and Leaves. All items should be placed in the green waste can UNBAGGED. 

No: Plastic Bags, Meats/Dairy, Paper Products, Construction/Wood/Sawdust, Garbage, Animal Waste, Biodegradable/Compostable packaging, Sod and Dirt, Rocks.

Understanding what does and does not belong in the green waste bin is important because it ultimately goes to yours and your neighbors’ gardens. The Salt Lake Valley compost operation is a communal endeavor that relies on the community to succeed.

These rules apply only to the Salt Lake Valley Compost operation. If your green waste goes elsewhere, contact that operation to see what they accept. If you are making your own compost, it is up to you what you put on your pile (but remember: meat and dairy can attract animals!).

Got Compost?

Once your green waste has been collected and processed into compost, it needs a home.

Compost is available for purchase from Salt Lake Valley Compost at 6030 W California Ave, Salt Lake City, 84101.

You can fill up your own five-gallon bucket for $1 or fill a pickup bed or trailer for $15-$45.

Green waste recycling in action! You can buy certified compost for just $1 when you bring your own 5-gallon bucket.

The compost should be spread about two inches thick around new plants to support their growth and long-term health.

If you’re not making your own compost, you’ll reasonably want some assurance that the compost won’t damage your plants. The United States Composting Council developed the STA (Seal of Testing Assurance) certificate to address exactly that worry.

Salt Lake Valley Compost is tested regularly and the test results are made available to the public, which earn it STA certification. Independent testing assures that the compost is high-quality and safe.

Composting, and composting right, is one of the best ways to make your household and community more sustainable!

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Emma #

    Why no paper products (e.g., napkins), since those are “browns”?

    August 27, 2019
    • Great question. While paper products like napkins are indeed compostable, contamination in a citywide program does become a problem. It is better for our compost quality– which affects the ultimate success of the program — to eliminate this contaminate and focus on green waste, fruit & vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and tea bags. If you would like to compost paper products, we encourage you to start a home compost bin.

      August 30, 2019

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