Biomass in the carbon cycle
image by http://cr.middlebury.edu
Biomass is a broad term that refers to all kinds of biological material that can be put to good use. When people talk about biomass on an industrial level, they usually mean organic substances that are used in energy generation or manufacturing. In this sense, the corn that goes into making ethanol and the soybeans that are used to make plastics are examples of biomass. Biomass is also available for personal use in our homes. Table scraps, grass clippings and such, which usually end up in the trash or being collected as part of municipal green waste programs, have many uses around the home. In other words, biomass is organic stuff from your home and garden made useful! Learn how to keep organic waste out of a landfill and benefiting your household.
Why use biomass?
Collect it. In addition to the bins for trash and recycling in your kitchen, get one for food waste. Then, after you're done cooking and eating, instead of throwing out the extra bits of food on your plate or the byproducts of preparing your meals (peels, shells, etc.), put them into this food waste container. Items that should not go into the container include: any product that includes a lot of fat, like meats or dairy products, since these take a long time to break down and attract pests; and any artificial materials like the packaging the food comes in. Other than that, pretty much anything organic can go in. Just make sure to break up any large pieces of food, such as bones or that half head of lettuce that you let wilt, before you throw them in there.
The other place where you can gather biomass is in your yard. Out there you'll actually need two separate bins. The first of these is for the majority of yard waste, including weeds, grass clippings, bush trimmings, flowers, etc. The second container is where you'll put stiffer, drier waste, like branches, twigs and dry grasses. It's important to keep these two separate as they biodegrade at very different rates and they have different uses. Make a habit of collecting your yard waste in these two bins each and every time you do yard work.
If you are careful to send all or the majority of your organic waste to these containers, you'll be surprised at how quickly you gather a sizable amount of biomass. But, what was once destined for a dump will now be a real asset to your home and garden.
Compost it. The best, most efficient way to make your organic waste useful is by composting it. Composting is basically allowing organic material to do what it would do anyway, which is to decompose. However, by mixing decomposing biomass with dirt and other additives, you can create a combination that's often called "black gold" because of what an amazing difference it can make in the health of your garden.
You'll need another container in order to compost your organic waste. Your compost container can be as simple as another trash can with holes cut into it for ventilation, or you can get a purpose-made compost bin at almost any hardware or lawn and garden store. You'll also need some topsoil. Composting is not a complex process. To get started, all you need to do is to combine your normal yard and food waste (dry yard waste should NOT be composted) with dirt and wait for it to biodegrade. However, exactly how much dirt to use, when it's best to make your compost and other issues all depend on a number of factors: where you live, what kind of food waste you produce, what kind of plants you have in your garden and others. Luckily, there are a number of resources in print and on the Internet that have composting details. With a little research, you can find a local composting formula that will work for you. Of course, composting isn't an exact science, so you're free to experiment and find the combination that works best in your garden.
One thing that can help you create great compost in any environment is bugs. Many types of insects and worms will help to speed up the decomposition process and enhance the quality of your compost. Find out a little bit about local bug varieties and get these species into your compost bin.
Of course, not everyone has a garden in which to use compost. Keep in mind that compost can also be used on indoor plants. If you're just not a plant person, though, chances are you have a neighbor who is. You may also live near a park, garden or school that has a composting program. Even if you can't use your biomass to compost, chances are someone else can. Look around and you may find a way to make some compost even if it isn't for your own backyard.
Use it for heat. This step is actually the oldest known use of biomass by human beings, and it's so obvious that many people overlook it. At a time when heating oil bills are rising rapidly, biomass is a great way to heat your home. A huge number of homes have a fireplace, and some even have an old wood-burning stove. This is where your dry biomass can come in handy. You'll have to give the branches and grasses you've gathered some time to dry out, generally at least two weeks after they die. Then they'll be ready to let you turn off the heater and start a roaring fire. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that many plants, notably evergreen trees and bushes, produce natural oils that are highly flammable. Make sure to follow fire safety regulations at all times.
If you don't have a fireplace, you can use biomass for heating and cooking fires at beaches or parks that allow them. It can be a great way to heat up a family outing. Furthermore, most campgrounds prohibit the collection of firewood, which means you'll have to bring your own if you want a fire on your next camping trip. Bundle up some dry biomass to take with you.
Get creative. In addition to these two steps, which should account for the majority of most people's biomass, there are a number of ways to make biomass useful in your home. Fermentation of some fruits and vegetables is one use of biomass for the cider makers and home brewers out there. Certain types of food or plant byproducts can be used outside of your home to keep unwanted animals and pests away, or attract preferred species; orange peels in the garden can deter cats from relieving themselves there, for example, while sweet-smelling biodegrading fruit can entice bats to come and clear the air of bugs in no time.
There are also more advanced uses of biomass, such as the production of gases that can be used as fuels. There are even home generators that run on biomass. These sorts of uses generally require the purchase of more advanced equipment and a little more initiative on your part. However, if you've got a lot of biomass and the inclination, looking into these activities could be a good move for you and your home.
Whichever uses of biomass you decide to go with, using your biomass rather than discarding is always the best choice. After all, organic waste will accumulate in your home no matter what you do. You might as well let it help you and keep it out of a landfill at the same time.
Dispose of it. If you find that you have biomass in your home that you just can't put to use, you should dispose of it properly. Many areas have municipal yard and food waste programs. These may involve transporting your waste to a special collection center, or you may actually have curbside pickup of biomass along with your trash and recycling. Look into your town or city's program and figure out what the guidelines are. Do your homework, though; many cities turn yard waste into compost, but a recent study has shown that some specially-collected municipal biomass ends up in landfills anyway. Chances are, somewhere near your home is a trustworthy and eco-friendly collection center where your biomass can go.