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Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010 07:16 am

Composting digs deep into sustainability

How to save the planet by rejuvenating soil

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Wynne Coplea, manager of waste and recycling for the City of Springfield, drills holes into plastic storage containers to be used for the Composting Symposium’s “Build Your Own Bin” workshop. Coplea, along with Mike Rahe of the Illinois Department o
PHOTO BY DIANE IVEY

Autumn leaves, the contents of your hamster’s cage and last week’s chicken wings may not seem like a recipe for success, but together they form the perfect combination of waste for a backyard compost pile.

For Ken Dunn, founder and director of the Chicago-based Resource Center, leaves, wood shavings and food waste are essential ingredients for composting. When layered together, what was once waste will, over time, become rich, fertile topsoil.

Dunn believes composting is more than just reusing resources, improving your garden and making earthworms happy. He believes compost can save the planet.

“Composting is the main thing we have to accomplish in this century,” Dunn says. “We must return organic matters to the soil.”

Dunn shared his philosophy with fellow compost enthusiasts at the Seventh Annual Composting Symposium Feb. 8. The event, hosted by the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, was held at the University of Illinois’ extension office at the State Fairgrounds.

As the keynote speaker at the symposium, Dunn discussed his work turning vacant lots in Chicago into community gardens and agricultural spaces. He also shared his favorite methods of composting, including tips and tricks for better results.

Composting is one of the many ways individuals can undo the damage done to our planet by previous generations, he says. Dunn encouraged attendees to start small and think locally, before Earth’s resources run out.

“If we deplete our soil, we diminish our civilization,” Dunn says.

Wes King, policy coordinator for the Stewardship Alliance, said he hopes people will leave the event with a better understanding of what they can do to promote local food and agriculture, whether it’s starting their own compost pile or purchasing organic produce.

“I hope people will see how they can fit into a larger sustainable society,” King says.

The State Fairgrounds will be advancing its own composting initiatives, says Mike Rahe of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. He’ll be working this spring to expand the community garden inside the track at the fairgrounds from 121 to 200 plots.

Rahe is also developing a large-scale composting effort that will use manure from the fairgrounds’ livestock pavilions to fertilize the community garden.

“Right now, we pay someone to haul that manure to another place,” Rahe says. “If we compost it here, we can save money and enrich our soil.”

The symposium included sessions on compost quality, the use of commercial food scraps and various classes on vermicomposting (the use of earthworms to aid compost decomposition).

Jamie Wheeler, an employee of the Edgar County Soil and Water Conservation District, is known as “the worm lady” by local elementary school children. Wheeler, who lives in Paris, Ill., teaches vermicomposting in first grade classrooms, emphasizing the importance of composting and recycling at an early age.

She came to the symposium to learn more about earthworms, and to see new techniques she can use with her students. This is her first year attending the event.

“I’m looking for information on what they can or can’t add to the composting bin, and what I can do to fix problems I’ve encountered,” Wheeler says.

Wheeler, who grew up on a farm with llamas and sheep, says she wasn’t interested in worms until she saw the work her predecessors at the school district had done. Now, she says, she really enjoys working with the students.

“I love going to schools and encouraging kids to get their hands dirty,” she says.

Contact Diane Ivey at divey@illinoistimes.com.