Despite Vermont’s law, backyard piles a bad spot for turkey bones, scraps

  • Chickens peck at food scraps in a compost pile at Black Dirt Farm, in Greensboro Bend, Vt., on Nov. 22, 2019. The farm uses food waste as feed for their chickens. (VtDigger - Justin Trombly)

Published: 11/26/2020 7:17:03 PM
Modified: 11/26/2020 8:17:53 PM

The Universal Recycling Law says Vermonters should compost food scraps to keep them away from the landfill. When it comes to turkey leftovers, however, experts say the average backyard composter should leave disposing of bones and scraps to the professionals.

“Backyard piles don’t usually have enough decomposition happening to get hot enough to reach a temperature threshold that breaks everything down really well, and also kills any pathogens,” said Emma Stuhl, an environmental analyst with Vermont’s Solid Waste Program.

Larger “hot” compost systems allow heat to build in the pile’s center, and that heat helps food scraps break down quickly. Placing meat and bones in a cold system can cause harmful bacteria to grow — and the smell often attracts pests, including bears.

Stuhl said Vermont’s bear population has grown in recent years. Abnormally dry and drought conditions in the spring and summer reduced access to wild food, and Vermonters began composting; the alignment of those events prompted more interactions with humans.

“We have been receiving lots of reports of bears on decks, tearing down bird feeders, wrecking beehives, killing chickens, and getting into trash, compost and garbage containers,” Forrest Hammond, a bear biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, said in a press release on July 2, the day after the ban went into effect.

Fish and Wildlife had advice for those who compost in their backyards.

“No meat or bones,” the release reads. “They do not break down quickly and are strong wildlife attractants.”

Those with simple backyard compost systems — bins, tumblers and less-maintained piles — can consider a few other options.

Compost haulers often accept meat and bones, but those services aren’t yet accessible across the state.

Because there yet isn’t an easy or widespread alternative, state officials say it’s OK for people with backyard compost systems to throw meat and bones in the regular trash. But composting advocates say there’s good reason not to — when meat decomposes in the anaerobic conditions of a landfill, like other food scraps, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

On a global scale, eliminating 50% to 75% of food waste from the landfill could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by between 10 and 18 gigatons, according to Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization that seeks to limit the production of greenhouse gases.

“I’d definitely rather those bits get cycled through the local nutrient system,” said Cat Buxton, of Sharon, the founder of Grow More, Waste Less, an organization that offers compost consultations to public and private businesses.

As a first step, Buxton suggests reducing the amount of leftovers.

“I hope folks save those turkey bits to make stock,” she said. “ ‘Waste not, want not,’ my gram always said.”

From there, residents can bring leftover meat and bones to local certified composting facilities or to transfer stations, which are now required to accept food scraps, sometimes for a fee.

Residents can also install green cones, plastic bins with mesh bottoms that, when half-buried and placed in full sun, allow food scraps to heat up and dissolve into the soil. Because they’re closed and secured, materials that don’t decompose properly in backyard composts, like meat and pet waste, can be placed in green cones.

Those set on a backyard disposal system for their meat leftovers can bury bones and scraps deep. Experts suggest digging a hole 2 feet down and covering the scraps well with soil.

Zach Cavacas, owner of the newly minted Music Mountain Compost in Rutland County, said that with his 230 customers, his compost piles are so large that whole poultry carcasses will decompose quickly.

For other experienced composters with large piles, Cavacas recommends breaking leftover turkey down into small pieces, placing them in the center of the pile, and turning the compost often.

But Stuhl says it’s best to leave it to the experts.

“Keep it simple,” she said, “and send meat and bones to places that are better set up to handle it.”

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