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Developing a Sense of Humus

June 27, 1993|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Dardick is a free-lance writer who maintains a compost pile at her home in Eagle Rock. and

Compost happens, says a current bumpersticker.

And it may happen to you. Sooner than you think.

No longer just the pursuit of organic gardeners and environmentalists, composting--the naturally occurring decomposition of yard and kitchen waste collected in backyard piles or bins--is becoming public policy as Southland cities seek to comply with a state law aimed at defusing a looming landfill crisis.

Under the 1989 law, cities are required to reduce landfill trash by 25% by 1995 and 50% by 2000, and a growing number of municipalities see composting as a way to cut waste.

Los Angeles County residents generate and dispose of about 50,000 tons of waste each day, or enough to fill Dodger Stadium every nine days, the Department of Public Works says. About 30% of that waste consists of grass clippings, leaves and other yard materials and could be eliminated if homeowners composted it and used it in their yards, experts believe.

Some Eastern cities virtually ban grass clippings and other yard residue from landfills because it can be easily composted into earthy-smelling humus--"brown gold," as some gardeners call it--and mixed into flower beds or simply spread under plants.

In the past year, the cities of Glendale, Burbank and Ventura have begun compost programs by sponsoring workshops on the do's and don'ts of composting and providing compost bins at a reduced price to interested residents. Long Beach and Thousand Oaks will conduct similar programs soon. In Orange County, the cities of Fullerton, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach offer composting classes.

In Glendale, more than 1,000 households are participating in a composting program.

"Our surveys show we've already diverted more than 20% of single-family household yard materials and kitchen scraps from landfills," said Tom Brady, senior planner for Glendale's integrated waste management section. Glendale hopes to add 1,000 new households each year until about half of its 23,000 single-family homes are participating.

The city of Los Angeles is sponsoring composting workshops throughout the city and will install a demonstration compost site in Griffith Park later this year.

The city had planned to offer compost bins to residents at low cost, but budget constraints forced a change of plans. Residents can buy compost devices at reduced prices through the Los Angeles Conservation Corps (See accompanying story).

Last year, Jerry Christopher was one of hundreds of Santa Monica residents who attended a city-sponsored workshop on composting. Christopher spread the word to his neighbors, who several times a week present him with bags of leftover lettuce leaves and other kitchen scraps for his compost bin.

For the past year Christopher has not thrown any yard trimmings or grass clippings in his trash, which is just what city officials want.

Christopher is a garden hobbyist with a special knack for growing begonias. He admitted that his motivation initially was to produce a top-quality potting soil for his plants. But he's also pleased that he has significantly reduced the amount of trash generated by his household.

"It's easy to do, doesn't take much time and saves me money, because I use the finished compost in place of commercial potting soil," Christopher said.

Besides the Smith & Hawken Biostack bin he bought at the workshop, Christopher also converted several old plastic trash containers into compost bins by cutting small triangular holes in the sides and bottom of the cans to let in air.

"There are 8,000 single-family houses in Santa Monica and we're targeting them, plus duplex and triplex owners," said Jon Root, the city's waste reduction coordinator. "The people who attended the first workshops were mainly garden hobbyists but now a lot more people are composting."

Composting is not complicated, although avid composters exchange methods as eagerly as gourmet cooks swap recipes.

"Composting is a simple, natural process that occurs everywhere, even in your refrigerator," said Joseph M. Keyser, an official with the American Horticultural Society in Alexandria, Va.

"Microorganisms are always at work breaking down biological materials. That slimy lettuce in a forgotten corner of the fridge is the result of anaerobic composting"--a process that occurs without the presence of oxygen.

"When you put the proper ingredients together, add moisture and air, in effect you're hiring public works organisms that turn the trash into treasure," said Bill Roley Jr. of Laguna Beach, who conducts composting workshops for cities, including Los Angeles. "It's the next crucial step in recycling," he said.

There are two types of composting: "active," also called hot composting, and "passive" or cold composting.

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