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News / Clark County News

Clark County composting guru: Keeping food waste out of landfills an easy way to fight climate change

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 29, 2023, 6:04am
11 Photos
Pete DuBois, a Clark County Public Health senior environmental outreach specialist and compost guru, begins aerating composting piles, a key part of maintaining a healthy pile, at the 78th Street Heritage Farm in Hazel Dell.
Pete DuBois, a Clark County Public Health senior environmental outreach specialist and compost guru, begins aerating composting piles, a key part of maintaining a healthy pile, at the 78th Street Heritage Farm in Hazel Dell. (Photos by Allison Barr for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

For Pete DuBois, fighting climate change on a personal level is as simple as dirt and worms.

DuBois, fondly nicknamed “Composting Pete” by his colleagues, is Clark County’s senior environmental outreach specialist and compost guru. He says keeping food waste and yard trimmings out of landfills and returning them to the earth is just as worthwhile as — and a lot less expensive than — buying an electric vehicle or installing solar panels on a roof.

“We need to leave the world a little better than we found it, and there are many ways to do that,” DuBois said. “But if you’re not doing something that you’re feeling good about right now, this is a great entry point.”

In 2021, the Washington Department of Ecology reported that food entering the state’s waste stream surpassed 732,000 tons a year. Clark County alone sends 88 million pounds, or 44,000 tons, of fruits and vegetables to the landfill every year, according to Clark County.

Workshops

  • Backyard composting: Virtual meeting 7-8 p.m. on Oct. 11. Participants will be eligible for a free compost bin.
  • Red worm composting: Virtual meeting 7-8 p.m. on Oct. 18. Participants will be eligible for a free worm bin and worms.
  • Composting and field training: In-person meeting 9-11 a.m. on Oct. 21 at the Center for Agriculture, Science and Environmental Education, 11104 N.E. 149th St., Brush Prairie. An additional in-person training will occur 9-11 a.m. on Nov. 1 at the 78th Street Heritage Farm, 1919 N.E. 78th St., Vancouver.
  • Lasagna garden composting: Virtual meeting 7-8 p.m. on Oct. 25.
  • Advanced composting techniques: Virtual meeting 7-8 p.m. on Nov. 1.

Workshop registration and previous webinar recordings can be found on Clark County Public Health’s Composter Recycler website at clarkcountycomposts.org/classes-and-workshops/current-offerings.

When this organic matter breaks down, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Roughly 2.4 percent of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions is methane, according to a 2021 Department of Ecology report.

State lawmakers announced rules in 2022 to control methane from escaping landfills into the atmosphere by burning it in a flare system or converting it into energy.

Better yet, says DuBois, prevent the creation of landfill methane altogether by turning the organic waste into compost.

Heaps of techniques

Early Monday morning, DuBois bounced between multiple composting bins at the 78th Street Heritage Farm, where he maintains a demonstration garden with volunteers.

Upon lifting lids, heat steamed from the compost bins and suffused the air with a faint aroma of sweet soil. DuBois grabbed his hand fork and sifted through the dark and loose material, exposing a whole ecosystem. Hundreds of red worms squirmed in the compost while pill bugs, springtails and various invertebrates scurried between chunks of green and orange feedstock.

“What you put in is pretty much what you’re going to get out,” he smiled, scooping a handful of the mixture in his hands.

Discarded apple cores, half used onions and other organic scraps contain nutrients that plants need to grow — calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.

The recipe isn’t complex.

A compost bin or garden needs an equal ratio of greens — wet nitrogen-dense material like cut grass, tea bags and produce scraps – and browns — carbon-rich dry leaves, sawdust and cardboard. All this mixture needs to flourish is moisture and aeration once a week for a month before it can sit and “cure.”

There are many methods of composting, each with its own perks. Wire mesh bins and wood bins can be inexpensive to make and are good at breaking down large material. Plastic bins or tumblers are manufactured, long-lasting and don’t take up much space. Lasagna compost gardening doesn’t require walls, just layering of green and brown material.

DuBois got his fruit and vegetable pulp from a juice bar down the street; it would have otherwise gone to a landfill. The same goes for local cafe’s coffee grounds. He said shops may discard thousands of pounds of perfectly good compost feed a year, something he said is “symptomatic of the entire county.”

No matter where they live or their capacity to host dirt and worms, people can still contribute to composting — even if it’s just donating food scraps to someone else to compost. DuBois suggested using ShareWaste, a listing site where waste producers can connect with composters.

Now what?

State lawmakers established a goal to reduce Washington’s organic waste to 75 percent of 2015 levels by 2030. Investing in food rescue and organics management, such as the Clark County Composter Recycler Program, is a large component in achieving this goal, DuBois said.

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As autumn decay settles across the landscape, yielding plenty of leaf litter for composting, the Composter Recycler Program is offering free composting workshops. Beginning in October and extending through early December, the program will touch on backyard, red worm and lasagna garden composting.

Depending on the workshop, participants will become eligible for a free worm bin — and worms — or compost bin.

Companies have also begun spearheading efforts to meet Washington’s waste reduction goal, such as Divert, which anticipates opening a Longview food waste diversion and energy plant in 2024. This operation will process up to 100,000 tons of food waste, offsetting 23,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

While navigating composting can seem overwhelming, DuBois said, everyone is capable of it.

“In terms in what we can do individually day to day to have a positive effect, this is something we can do.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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