In conjunction with scientists in UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Science, Recycling Alternative is experimenting with a revolutionary composting system that harnesses the energy and digestive ability of a microbe harvested from hydrothermal deep-sea vents off the coast of Japan. One of the most dramatic attributes of this microbial system is its ability to decompose waste extremely fast.
If, on a Sunday morning, you were to feed the contents of 10 large green bins into one of these microbial composting systems, by Monday you would have zero food waste remaining. Instead, you would have about two totes-worth of pasteurized material that looks a lot like everyday garden soil and smells exactly like fresh chicory coffee. That’s an 80 per cent reduction in volume alone, achieved overnight, plus the remaining product is clean. Any human pathogens that were growing the night before, on what was then rotting meat and bones and other stench-ridden food waste, will have been destroyed, and all traces of pest infestation will be gone.
Not surprisingly, the earthy substance these composters produce so rapidly from organic waste is more microbially active than the substance typically generated over the long haul in backyard composting bins. One potential issue with high microbial activity is that active microbes may hog the available nitrogen for their own metabolism, leaving too little for the plants.
But graduate student Zineb Bazza at UBC’s Center for Sustainable Food Systems, working under the supervision of assistant professor Sean Smukler, has been testing this product for its value as a soil amendment – which is a way of getting things such as nutrients back into the soil – and so far Bazza has found that its microbial activity does not seem to negatively impact plant performance.
UBC Instructor Dr. Will Valley has had the opportunity to field-test this material in his personal farming business, and his anecdotal observations coincide with Bazza and Smukler’s findings. If you’re working with established plants, such as perennials, “you can use it right away in the soil as an amendment,” he says, “and you can add it as mulch and it’ll bring nutrients back into the soil.” He believes the material holds promise, as well, for use in ecosystem restoration. When a road is being built, for example, the material could be used to re-establish banks at the edges of the road. “So it’s beyond just agriculture.”
Smukler feels the same way. “There are a lot of exciting opportunities for using this material. We just need to know a bit more about it.”