Trek Magazine - - Sorting It Out -

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.”

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