February 22, 2021

EPSTEIN | Sort Your Ort

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Ort is defined in the Oxford dictionary as, “a scrap or remainder of food from a meal.” You might not recognize the word as it doesn’t come up often in conversation — once we’re done with food, most of the time ort is headed for the garbage and rarely given a second thought.

With classes still largely online and dining halls empty this semester, many Cornellians will be responsible for their own meals, and accordingly, will be given more responsibility and flexibility over how they manage their ort. While there are cons to eating outside dining halls — for example eating less meals with your friends — there’s one potential upside that could really help the environment: managing ort in a way that can reduce your carbon footprint. One of the best ways of being responsible about ort is cheap, easy and possible in virtually every living situation – composting.

Composting is the process of recycling organic waste into an end product, aptly called “compost,” and works by decomposing organic material, like ort, within the presence of air. The process is great for the environment because compost takes organic waste that would otherwise be sent to a landfill, repurposes it as fertilizer and introduces important organisms to the soil such as certain fungi and bacteria. 

The classic compost pile involves just food waste (excluding meat, dairy and processed foods), and can take as long as four weeks to a full year to decompose depending on whether you expedite the decomposition process by adding heat, more organic material such as fallen leaves or grass trimmings or decomposers such as fungi or worms, and how often you turn the pile to supply more air to the process. Essentially, all it takes for an optimum outdoor compost setup is an enclosed pile around three feet high, three feet wide and three feet deep, with regular maintenance. 

For Cornellians living in dorms, in places where cold winters may inhibit the outdoor process, or in urban settings without access to space and soil, indoor composting is a solid option. Perhaps the easiest way to accomplish this is vermicomposting; composting with the assistance of worms. Worms provide a much appreciated service of expediting decomposition in indoor compost setups, and can be purchased online easily or found locally through most bait shops. Even Walmart has them! The rest of the materials are general household items such as plastic bins, paper and a drill. In terms of setup, the Environmental Protection Agency actually has a thorough guide on how to vermicompost which makes the process easy. Generally, the total cost for all materials involved including worms costs around $50. If you already have a drill and bins, the price is less than $15.

Say you’re interested in getting involved in compost, but you don’t have access to an outdoor setting for a compost pile and/or the thought of housing and feeding a few dozen worms in your dorm is seriously off-putting. For Cornellians living on campus this semester, the easiest method to get around that hurdle would be to take your ort to one of Tompkins County’s many “food scraps recycling drop spots,” with a number of locations conveniently close to campus. This is a great option for Cornellians off-campus this semester who want to compost their ort as well, as long as there are local programs in the area that can be accessed without too much trouble. Otherwise, there are ample, albeit more expensive, alternatives.

 One such method is buying and setting up a “tumbler,” an easily rotated barrel that speeds up the compost process through increasing airflow to aid the anaerobic process of decomposition. The entire composting process takes place within the barrel, is set up rather easily and can be small and compact as tumbler barrels come in all kinds of shapes and sizes

Another option is buying a piece of equipment usually referred to as an “electric composter,” which works by first supplying artificial heat to dry organic material, which then cools to produce an airy, mulch-like product. While all the previously mentioned forms of food recycling result in the final product of compost, using an electric composter doesn’t technically yield compost, as the end product of the process is a drier, less fertile substance. That being said, using an electric composter to recycle food scraps is still better than throwing away scraps to be sent to a landfill, as the end product can still nourish a garden and be repurposed. 

In terms of costs, tumblers are usually between $50 and $300, while electric composters are generally more expensive with prices ranging between $150 and $600. The more expensive products usually have useful but not vital add-ons, such as built-in tech that minimizes odor. That being said, without add-ons, the food-recycling methods outlined above all have the benefit of being able to be done indoors, year-round.

So, whether you’re cooking up food while taking courses from home, ordering in to your dorm or picking up something to eat later, all involve the extra step in deciding how food waste is disposed of — so consider taking up composting. It’s an easy way to make a big difference in reducing your carbon footprint.

Joshua Dov Epstein is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, and can be reached at jde74@cornell.edu. His column, Heterodox, appears every other Tuesday this semester.