The Treasure in Your Trashcan

Many of us can recall a time where someone we knew (or even ourselves) threw a banana peel out a car window.  They’re biodegradable, so what’s the harm? I’ll never forget the time my mom did not dispose of that peel in a proper way… My family and I were driving through Yellowstone National Park, and we had each eaten one of these tasty fruits.  One by one, my mom threw the peels out the car window and onto the dirt path, not even batting an eye. Unfortunately, a park ranger was following us, and after turning on his lights and pulling us over, we quickly learned that it was not the appropriate time or place to freely whisk away our peels.  Although many of us probably aren’t tossing our leftover produce in the middle of National Parks, there is still a lot that we don’t often consider when we carelessly chuck our organic waste.

Environment is Key

Depending on where you throw that banana peel, it can actually take up to two years to fully decompose. Rather than letting that banana peel slowly disintegrate in the wild, composting is the better option.  Composting, in itself, will help speed up the degradation of that banana peel, and cutting it into smaller pieces will make that process even faster.  Having a specific place in your yard or a bin on your porch isn’t enough to have a well-working compost, though.  You’ll need all the right conditions– a pH of 6.5-8.0, 40-60% moisture, and a temperature range between 80º-150º F, with higher temperatures being preferred since pathogens are destroyed.  Add in some earthworms if you need further assistance breaking down your scraps into smaller pieces. 

The Science of Composting

So what exactly is going on in that backyard compost box?  Composting is the process by which solid organic waste is turned into an environmentally-useful material.  But it doesn’t just happen as soon as an orange peel hits the ground. They key is having helpful microbes such as bacteria, actinomyces, and fungi, which assist in converting organic waste into smaller substances- namely carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium.  There are two types of degradation- aerobic, requiring oxygen, and anaerobic, having no oxygen requirement.  Aerobic degradation occurs much more frequently. The newly converted material can be used to boost the soil fertility of a garden or as a renewable energy source.  So what happens when you don’t properly compost food waste? Annually, every American throws out roughly 1,200 lbs of organic waste that could have been composted.  Sadly, when that leftover produce falls into a landfill, the biodegradation process doesn’t typically happen.  Due to their dry and oxygen-poor conditions, organic matter will most likely “mummify” rather than decompose.  


One Athens resident in particular saw a need for increased compost efforts when she decided to create her own composting business in 2012.  Kristen Baskin started LetUsCompost, a company that provided roadside compost pickup and compost-enhanced soil delivery service, in addition to compostable plates, cups, and silverware.  Over the seven years that they operated, they paved the way for Athens compost culture, getting several local businesses to hop on board. Hendershots, Collective Harvest, and The Hub Bicycles all worked with LetUsCompost to properly dispose of their food waste.  Although the company recently announced it is ending operations, Kristen and her crew have made a great impact on Athens compost culture that can still be seen today.

Kristen Baskin of LetUsCompost. Join Kristen and I to learn more about the science behind composting and how you can help turn your trash into treasure at this week’s Science Cafe! -Little Kings Shuffle Club, Thursday January 23rd at 7pm. (Photo used with permission)

About the Author

Hallie Wright studies host plant resistance and fungal avirulence of finger millet blast in Katrien Devos’s lab.  She’s passionate about enhancing agricultural literacy and helps middle schoolers conduct agricultural science experiments.  You can find her at local punk shows or eating jalapeño pineapple pizza at Fully Loaded.