How often do you think about decomposing plant matter? Mark King thinks about it a lot. King is an Organics Waste Specialist with the Division of Materials in the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Decomposing plant matter matters because it can cause much harm to the environment. It threatens the land, air and waterways in Maine and all over the country. King and many other Mainers are working to protect Maine from this threat.
One of the biggest culprits is food waste. Many problems happen when people throw food out with regular garbage. First, King said, food waste is heavier than regular trash such as plastics. The heavier the garbage, the higher the cost of disposal for towns, communities and individuals. The environmental cost is higher as well. Methane is over 20 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. When food waste breaks down in regular garbage without oxygen, it releases methane gas into the atmosphere. This methane is speeding up the climate crisis. Liquid leaks from food waste as well. The leaks spread dangerous chemicals called PFAS into groundwater and streams.
Mainers can avoid these problems by composting instead of throwing food away with the regular garbage. Kris Deveau is an office professional at a research facility in Maine who started a home composting project about a year ago. She said that she composts because it felt wasteful to throw things such as food scraps into a landfill. “The least I could do is give it back to the land,” she explained. Deveau also saves money by composting at home because she does not need to purchase compost for gardening.
After many years of being known as “the compost guy,” King is an expert in this area. He said that a few things need to happen for composting to work. There must be a certain amount of “green” and “brown” in the mix (meaning nitrogen rich food scraps and carbon rich dead leaves, wood scraps and similar items). There also must be a balance of air and moisture in the mix. And for best results, there should be at least a cubic yard of material. “A compost bin is not set it and forget it,” Deveau said. King also warned that “compostable plastics” are not compostable in regular piles. They might cause PFAS to leak into the mix, which would be bad. When it comes to composting these items, he said bluntly, “Just don’t. Not even paper plates, because they might have a liner containing PFAS.”
Composting at home works for some people, but not for everyone. The Maine DEP is working on a number of projects to make composting accessible to all Mainers. The DEP awards grants to Maine cities, towns and communities to fund composting initiatives. King is also a director of the Maine Compost School. The school provides training for medium-to-large composting programs.
Community composting programs are different from town to town. It all depends on what works best for each community. King mentioned that the DEP program recently awarded a grant to the town of Kennebunk. The town is testing lobster trap wire composters as a start. Other towns have curbside food waste pickup programs. Some have a specific location where community members can drop off food waste.
Whether it’s done at home or as part of a program, getting food into the compost bin instead of a landfill is important. Mainers such as King and Deveau are helping to protect Maine’s environment. King said, “I saw this on a T-shirt once: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ Ask questions. Make bold statements.”
And maybe think about decomposing plant matter a little more often.
For more information about composting at home and community programs, visit: