Monthly Archives: March 2016

The BiG Stink: But what does Organic even mean?

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

When you hear organic, what comes to mind? Do you imagine a man in overalls lovingly tending his garden? Enormous produce stickers emblazoned with “organic”? An electric piano? Carbon-based life forms?

The word “organic” has a myriad of definitions, but let’s focus on the term when it’s used around food, specifically when applied to produce (meats and processed foods require their own articles). The straight-from-the-dictionary definition of organic is “grown or made without the use of artificial chemicals.” Pretty straightforward, right? No man-made fertilizers, no synthetic pesticides and you’ve got yourself an organic banana.

IMG_7364

Wrong! The US government (and several other countries) has stringent criteria to be met before a banana can have the “certified organic” sticker slapped on. To be certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), produce has to comply with standards for soil quality, pest control, and weed control.

Soil intended for organic crops must not have been treated with prohibited methods for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited methods include use of sewage-sludge based fertilizers (no humanure!) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Prohibited methods also include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, except ones given a USDA pass. There is a list of approved synthetics organic farmers may use under specific circumstances. A quick perusal of the list revealed chemicals such as sodium hypochlorite (street name: bleach) and neurotoxin methyl bromide (which will be removed from the list by 2017) that may be used under certain conditions on organic farms.

While most synthetic pesticides are prohibited from organic farming, organic does not mean pesticide free. Pesticides derived from natural sources are fair game according to the USDA and conventional and organic farms use many of the same pesticides. Furthermore, organic-approved and synthetic pesticides have similar relative toxicity distributions when tested by the EPA.

“While most synthetic pesticides are prohibited from organic farming, organic does not mean pesticide free.”

Don’t forget that “natural” (as in natural sources of pesticides) has no clear cut meaning according to the USDA or the FDA and the definition is up for interpretation. Because natural is relative, some surprising fungicides and pesticides can be organic approved. Also, natural does not automatically mean safe for consumers or the environment (here’s looking at you, cyanide).

Let’s recap. To receive USDA organic certification, produce must not contain GMOs, must not be treated with humanure, must not be subjected to unapproved pesticides and fungicides, and must be grown on soil that has been free of prohibited items for at least 3 years.

Certified organic does NOT mean produce is free of pesticides, suspected neurotoxins, or synthetic substances. If that’s hard to keep straight, check out this rad video with cute drawings to guide you.

So what was the point of this post? To educate consumers and lift the curtain surrounding America’s organic certification. To emphasize that organic might not mean what consumers think it does. And most importantly, to encourage consumers to always, always do their research, especially when it comes to what goes into their bodies.

The BiG Stink: The Scoop on Poop, Part 2

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Welcome back to The BiG Stink and thanks for tuning in for Part 2 of the ins and outs of composting scat. Last time I covered the merits of composting cat, dog, rodent, and bird wastes but this week is all about your fellow man. So without further ado, let’s talk about composting human poo.

IMG_7258 (2)

The story on humanure? It may kill you or it may bless your garden.

There are two reactions to composting human waste; either you think it’s gross or you think it’s awesome. For those of you on team gross, the ick-factor is warranted. Human feces may contain pathogens such as Hepatitis A, norovirus, E. coli, and roundworms to name a few. Also, food contaminated by night soil (untreated human waste) has led to major public health scares in places such as China, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Since poop can kill, a little fecophobia is justified.

Given that human feces is packed with pathogens and could be deadly, why would one want to compost it? Turns out excrement is chock-full of nutrients plants need including phosphates, potassium, and nitrogen which are the same ingredients in synthetic fertilizers. Americans are flushing 8 million pounds of poop a year, letting a major nutrient source go down the toilet.

composting toilet

An example of a composting toilet

There are in fact people collecting their waste and saving it from a watery grave. Dedicated composters are harnessing the power of their poop using specialty composting toilets or by simply collecting their waste in a bucket. Contents of the bucket are transferred to the compost pile and given a generous dose of sawdust to mask odors. After several months of curing, a humanure pile should test negative for coliform bacteria and be safe for use on edible crops. When the pile reaches high enough temperatures to kill off pathogens, it appears humanure can be perfectly safe.

That’s human waste composting at a small scale. What about large scale composting of poo? Mass quantities of human waste are composted in the form of biosolids. Biosolids are the organic materials resulting from the processing of sewage in a treatment facility. Biosolids are NOT sewage. Sewage is the untreated mush from everything we flush, throw down the kitchen sink, and wash down the bathroom shower. Biosolids are produced from a heavily regulated process overseen by the EPA and can be applied to crops. In fact, nearly 50% of biosolids produced in the U.S. are returned to farmland.

While a significant portion of human waste is being recovered for fertilizer, many people are concerned that the heavy metals, steroids, and pharmaceuticals found in human waste will make their way into soils and crops.  However, regular testing has found that soils treated with biosolids have heavy metal concentrations significantly below the maximum permissible levels. When tested, biosolids are found to have the same concentrations of pharmaceuticals and steroids as water, soil and human bodies. Which begs the question- if these contaminants already are in the environment, does it matter if they’re in biosolids?

That’s the story on humanure. It may kill you or it may bless your garden. As long as the pile reaches high temperatures and is allowed to cure, pathogens shouldn’t be an issue for home composters (or they can invest in a $960.00 composting toilet). As for biosolids, they contain no more heavy metals or pharmaceuticals than the background environment. My take? Excrement is complicated and one should take it seriously. Tackle the turds at your own risk.

Client Q&A: Sustainable Cynthia

By Igor Kharitonenkov
Co-Founder at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Have you ever wondered how you could take your sustainability game to the next level? I applaud anyone who is composting, recycling or riding their bike to work; all laudable lifestyle choices that help keep our community clean. But what about installing a Monarch Butterfly Waystation? Or only planting native species in your yard?

For years now, since “waking up” and aspiring to live a more sustainable, fulfilling and mindful life, my proverbial green thumb has been out and about, hitchhike style, ready to be taken to my next truth. I’ve always wondered what other personal measures we could take to conserve. Planting gardens? Installing rain receptacles? My curiosity was satiated when I ran into Somerville Bootstrap subscriber Cynthia Williams, who shared with me a myriad of new and exciting ideas. If you are a fan of sustainability, Bootstrap Compost or just our blog, I highly recommend you check out Sustainable Cynthia’s Guide to Green Livin’ (aka the list below). And Cynthia, you are a true EcoHero, thank you for your commitment to composting and to our environment.

for bootstrap compost (2)

EcoHero Cynthia (left), proudly showing off her Bootstrap bucket with her roommates.

1. How long have you been a client of Bootstrap Compost?
We’ve been clients for nearly one year. We started in May of 2015.

2. How did you hear about us?
When we moved to the neighborhood a year ago we saw the bucket our neighbor put out and inquired.

3. Why did you sign up for Bootstrap?
I’m concerned about putting compostable waste in the landfill, and I’m concerned about using my kitchen sink disposal because of water usage. The twice-monthly pick-up seems perfect!

4. In what other ways do you recycle, conserve and stay environmentally sound?
We can always do more, but here’s what we’re doing so far —

  • Our household of four adults has only one vehicle, and it’s a hybrid that is used maybe four times a week.
  • We’ve taken up most of the lawn because grass isn’t a good investment environmentally.
  • I’m working on making our yard a Monarch Butterfly Waystation, but we have a small property, so we may not actually qualify, but even if we don’t, we’ll be helping.
  • I water ornamentals and the little patch of lawn that’s left via a rain barrel.
  • I plant only native plants.
  • For 30 years, we’ve used only cloth napkins, no paper. We do not use paper towels or things like Swifters.
  • We use silicone lids instead of plastic wrap for food going into the fridge.
  • We have durable washable sandwich bags rather than plastic throwaways.
  • We buy larger quantities of foods to minimize packaging. And down with single-serve coffee machines!
  • We use our own cloth shopping bags.
  • We use only environmentally sound cleaning products.
  • We bought all highly-rated Energy Star appliances and prioritize gas.
  • We belong to an organic CSA.
  • We are looking into solar panels.

5. Do you have roommates? Have you influenced others to compost?
We’re a household of four adults. I don’t know whether we’ve influenced others to compost, but we’re spreading the word about Bootstrap!

6. How are you enjoying the service so far?
We love it!

The BiG Stink: The Scoop on Poop, Part 1

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Here at the Boot we accept a wide variety of undesirables. Rotten apples, moldy bread, pumpkins way past their prime and all manner of unidentifiable and rancid brown blobs make their way into our buckets. And we’re thrilled to have them! It’s amazing to watch Mother Nature turn foul ingredients into gorgeous, odor-free black gold. While we’re open to collect just about anything that can go into your mouth, Bootstrap is less keen on what comes out the other end. You know what I’m talking about- numero dos, feces, dung, night soil (that’s a term, I swear).

IMG_7011

Bootstrap’s resident pooper scoopees: Cooper and Kooskia

So why isn’t Bootstrap on the turd train? After all, human waste and animal manure have been used as fertilizer for millennia, so what gives? Well, poop is complicated. Composting food is a straightforward process: throw in some scraps and a dry carbon source, keep the pile damp, turn it now and then and voila, you’ll have compost. Composting excrement is a much more delicate subject. When handling waste, one has to be mindful of bacteria, pathogens and heavy metals. These factors vary depending on the kind of waste: cats, dogs, gerbils, birds, people, ponies. Each type seems to have its own composting quirks.

Let’s start with rodents because they get a thumbs up for composting. Bootstrap accepts the waste and bedding from rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and any other rodent friends. Since pet rodents are herbivores, there is less concern about pathogens infecting compost or plants. In addition, one can safely compost manure from chickens, horses, cows, and other herbivorous animals (even elephants!).

Unlike rodents, cat poop is a big no for composting. Felines can transmit a parasite through their feces that causes toxoplasmosis. An estimated 22% of the US population is thought to have toxoplasmosis and most recover without treatment. However, infected pregnant women can pass the infection to the fetus resulting in eye and nervous system deformities. For the sake of the children, please don’t let the cat poop out of the bag.

So what about Fido? Dogs fall into the yes-and-no category for composting. Because dog waste can be packed with parasites such as roundworms, it is recommended that finished compost be used on lawns and ornamental plants instead of the vegetable patch if you’re a home composter. In fact, there seems to be a niche market for doggy do composters.

Bird droppings get a maybe for composting. In fact, I had trouble finding any definitive answers for avian waste. Chickens seem to pass the test, but concerns were raised over transmission of Salmonella, E. coli, and parasites when I checked out parrots and pigeons. There also was apprehension about seeds in droppings surviving the composting process to become weeds. Composting of fowl scat might be strictly for the birds until I find a good answer.

I covered just about every animal on the ark. Now it’s time for the most contentious pooper of all: humans. Psych. That’s a tricky topic and you’ll have to wait until next time for the low-down on humanure. Keep your eyes peeled for post number two (zing!).