Ask Umbra on trash, toxics, and tots
Q. Dear Umbra,
Municipal and individual composting operations are gaining steam nationwide. Some obvious benefits include space-saving in landfills, and cheaper and (hopefully) “greener” fertilizer. While I am an avid supporter of composting, I am curious if municipalities with composting facilities could see decreased decomposition rates in their landfills. Do yard and plant scraps even play an integral role in landfill decomposition? Thank you.
A. Dearest Todd,
Since this is Thanksgiving week here in the U.S., a time when we are at our most gluttonous, composting is a timely issue. In fact, I’m putting together a video with tips for getting started — keep an eye out for it.
In the meantime, your question is an interesting one. Are yard and food scraps the key to quicker decomposition in landfills? The answer is no. In fact, such organic waste is the bane of a landfill operator’s existence; it takes up a quarter of the space and is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. Paper is also a problem: it’s another major source of methane, and accounts for about a third of our municipal solid waste.
This is why composting and recycling are so important. Here in the U.S., we are better about “recovering” paper and yard waste than food waste: In 2007, according to the EPA, we recycled 54 percent of our paper and composted 62 percent of yard waste. When it comes to food waste, however, we compost only about 2-3 percent. In fact, we flat-out throw away more than 25 percent of the food we buy. Pigs.
Composting, as you say, frees up space and creates a nice rich fertilizer. Because it reduces methane, it’s also a tool in the climate fight. In short, it’s a win all around, and we’d be turkeys not to participate.
Q. Dear Umbra,
We typically try to minimize the impact of our buying decisions. We carefully considered buying some Thai mats, handcrafted by a family the shopkeeper knows. Then she told us that all textiles and furniture, whether organic or not, are all fumigated with methyl bromide before entering the States. It seems no one is talking about this issue — is it a problem? Are my mats messed up? What about all the cool hemp clothing, is it all contaminated?
San Francisco, Calif.
A. Dearest (m)Ethyl,
This here is one of those good news, bad news situations. The good news is, methyl bromide has been banned under the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that seeks to stop the destruction of the ozone layer. The bad news is, the U.S. keeps getting exemptions that allow it to continue spraying the stuff, though it uses far less than in the past.
Methyl bromide, used primarily as a soil fumigant and on food imports, is toxic and will, as the EPA delicately puts it, “affect not only the target pests it is used against, but non-target organisms as well.” That’s us! The greatest danger, the agency says, is at the fumigation site itself. After that, the stuff wafts up and gets busy eating ozone.
I cannot say for sure whether your Thai mats and hemp pants have been sprayed with methyl bromide or one of the “safer” alternatives, because imports are subject to a labyrinth of federal regulations that depends upon where they come from, what they’re made of, and whether the inspector got a good night’s sleep. Sometimes a visual inspection is enough, and finished products are often treated less suspiciously than raw materials. I can tell you that the good people at the Pesticide Action Network are doing consistent, thorough, obsessive work on this topic, and you should definitely check them out.
Q. Dear Umbra,
I am planning to reuse my boyfriend’s old melamine chest of drawers for our baby’s nursery. But since it’s a bit low, I would like to build an additional module on top of it to make a changing table of the correct height. My in-laws are currently remodeling their kitchen and have dozens of cabinets I could reuse to build the changing table top. Now I know melamine and particleboard are evil, but is older melamine OK? If their kitchen cabinets are 20 years old, can we assume they have already off-gassed most or all of the formaldehyde they had to off-gas? It makes no sense to throw it all out in the garbage!
A. Dearest Raphaëlle,
Congratulations on your impending arrival and your commitment to reuse. I can tell already that you are going to raise a wise child.
You’re right that melamine, which combines with formaldehyde to make the plastic resin we know, is — well, tricky, if not outright evil. For a long time it was hailed as the key to a sort of miracle plastic, even an eco-friendly-ish choice, and then it got into our pet food and our baby formula and some of our Halloween candy and it started to seem dangerous and creepy. And then we realized that, like any plastic, melamine could leach chemicals when heated — in the microwave, for instance. More creepy.
Having said all that, however, I think your particular reuse is a fine idea. We know that you and your boyfriend and your baby are not going to heat or eat the chest of drawers. You are relieving your in-laws, and your landfill, of at least some of the waste from their kitchen-remodeling project. And you are being crafty! Any offgassing should have happened long ago — it is generally most intense in the first year, and dwindles from there. I say go forth and modul-ify — and let me know how it goes.