Los Alamos County And PEEC To Introduce Backyard Composting Program For Residents


It may sound surprising, but food waste is problematic to the environment. The easy solution—tossing out that wilted head of lettuce or stale loaf of bread—can lead to dangerous consequences.

Decomposing food in the landfill releases methane gas. This is serious. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 28 times more efficient than carbon dioxide in trapping heat.  And there is a LOT of food rotting in U.S. landfills. According to the national non-profit ReFED, nearly 30 million tons of food were landfilled in the US in 2019. The amount of methane and other greenhouse gases released is equivalent to 141 million tons of carbon dioxide.

Los Alamos isn’t immune to this problem. According to the County website, 17 percent of the waste that is trucked out of the County is food waste. On top of producing harmful greenhouse gas in the landfill, shipping food waste 90 miles away to a landfill is costly and a waste of energy, said Angelica Gurule Environmental Services Manager.

Besides the environmental consequences, there are economic and social issues. Wasted food is wasted money – a family of four spends an average $1,500 a year on food that goes uneaten. This is food that some people could really use. The amount of food the U.S. throws out could feed 120 million people each day, which is significant because one in seven Americans suffer with food insecurity.

So, what can we do? A few solutions are to plan grocery shopping trips better, eat the food, donate to food pantries, and compost. Gurule said, the Zero Waste motto about food is to Eat It, Store It, Share It, Just Don’t Waste It.

What is so great about these solutions is that they are just as easy to do as pitching food in the trashcan. Plus, with the help of Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) and a $12,300 New Mexico Clean and Beautiful grant from Keep New Mexico True, Los Alamos County is preparing to offer the equipment and information necessary for residents to start backyard composting. PEEC Adventure Programs Manager Beth Cortright is the PEEC liaison for this effort.

Cortright says that the grant, along with matching funds from the County, is going toward this backyard compost project. Its official start date is to be determined. However, all parties involved in the project are working hard to get the project running, including designing a website to register for a free compost tumbler and a kitchen countertop bin to collect scraps.

Cortright emphasized that once participants receive their compost bin, they are not on their own to figure out how to successfully compost. Participants will also get educational materials including a brochure, magnets, stickers, video tutorials, a website and other educational materials. The goal is to get people composting successfully and enjoying it.

“To get started … I would say we are going to be with people every step of the way,” Cortright said.  She added that the great thing about compost is that it is relatively easy. “A lot of the compost process is fill it, leave it and let it do its thing….”

Still, there are factors to consider such as keeping the compost away from critters and following the right “recipe” to produce composted material. These will be addressed in the educational materials provided to project participants, Cortright said. 

For instance, she said to successfully compost, a certain amount of green and brown material needs to be mixed into the bins. This includes uneaten fruits and vegetables, eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, grass clippings, leaves, and shredded paper products and wood shavings.

It does not include, however, food waste such as meat, fish, bones, oil, milk, cheese and other dairy products. Nor can the so-called compostable utensils (not the right conditions to compost), bread, rice, pasta, baked goods (attracts the critters) or pet waste be put in backyard compost bins.

Cortright reiterated that the benefits of composting are numerous. Not only is material being generated for healthy, bountiful gardens but it helps the planet.

“We’re reducing the amount of food scraps and food waste …,” she said.  “If we reduce the amount of food waste going to the landfill, we can reduce the amount of harmful gasses going into the atmosphere.”

Cortright explained the difference between the gases that are released in a compost versus a landfill. It’s more about the chemistry of the process, she said. Backyard compost bin or piles are aerated, so there is oxygen in the mix, resulting in carbon dioxide as decomposers work to break down the materials. Landfills are sealed, no oxygen enters the system, so when organics are present, the result is methane gas, which is much more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

The project hasn’t kicked off yet, but the public’s response is already positive. Cortright said people who are aware of the program are very enthusiastic about it.  She added that it is neat to watch the composting process unfold and people who participate reap the benefits of the project.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” she said. Plus, Los Alamos has an active gardening community.

“We have a pretty active gardening group or gardening community … and the people involved in those are going to be really excited about it as well,” she said. “I hope everybody is just as excited as we are.”

Environmental Services Division Manager Angelica Gurule agreed.

“The backyard composting project will greatly benefit our community by keeping food scraps out of the landfill, reducing the waste sent to the landfill and creating nutrient rich soil. It by default, this process may bring awareness to how much food waste is generated in each home and will hopefully result in behavior changes to prevent food waste,” Gurule said. “I would also like to thank Beth Cortright, Rachel Landman of PEEC, the Zero Waste Team, and Vint Miller of Los Alamos County who helped with the design and creation of the educational materials, and NNMCAB for the generous grant funding to make this project possible.

For more information on all things green, please check the County website at https://www.losalamosnm.us/cms/one.aspx?portalId=6435810&pageId=15243869