Santa Fe County gets its hands dirty to make composting easier with a new pilot residential composting program. For the 35 households in the initial program, it means not only physical assistance getting started, but ongoing education and help so that it really takes off.

Composting is an often-neglected component of sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint. According to stats cited by the county, one-fourth of a landfill's mass is comprised of compostable waste—more than all plastics combined—and methane released from trash in the landfill is the third largest contributor in the US. Moreover, garbage collection services produce a significant amount of emissions from garbage trucks.

For people who are interested in composting and living a more eco-friendly life, the barrier for entry might seem too high. Doing it right is significantly more complex than piling up your waste in the sun: You have to build a whole ecosystem that breaks waste down into nutrient-rich soil.

Applicants approved for the program receive a free compost system installed by Reunity Resources, a local nonprofit that's already collecting food waste from city restaurants for large-scale compost.

Residents who are part of the county pilot get a small fortress made of straw bales, in the center of which they deposit food waste. Worms wiggle about in the mess, "organically recycling" and producing nutrient-rich soil with their digestive systems. After installation, the county makes routine checkups, and hopes participants will stick with it for at least a year.

"We've developed this to help people get over the initial barrier and get started," says Neal Denton, a county sustainability specialist partially responsible for the program. "We're hoping that they see how easy and straightforward it is, and to tell their friends and help them start composting."

Denton says the county expects to provide the program for more households later; but for now, installation has only just begun, and it will take some time for to roll it out. "This is a pilot program for us to work out any kinks," says Denton, "so we're prepared for any potential expansion."

Participant Virginia King tells SFR she never tried composting before the program, but always wanted to. Growing up, gardening had always been a part of life; her dad had a compost pile, but she hadn't yet followed in his footsteps. "Absolutely it would help get me into it," she says. "I hate the idea of throwing things away that don't have to go into a landfill. … It's wonderful that the county is making these programs available. Compost is a beautiful thing."

Another participant, Stefan Rauch, says likewise. "I'm hoping to learn from this experience. I'm figuring I'll have a working knowledge and a working system after they show me how to use it."

Rauch lives in a rural area, where private curbside trash pickup is costly, if available at all. Instead, he hauls trash himself to the transfer station. "I feel like I was kind of forced into it," says of starting to compost. "We had to change our lifestyle in regards to waste. It costs money to deliver waste to the transfer station."

Rebecca Baran-Rees and Dylan Weller are a couple living outside the Santa Fe city limits. They have two children and a house with a big backyard. They were approved for the program because they cook most meals at home, have lots of food waste on account of their kids and there's a good bit of vegetation on their property. Prior to enrolling, they already had a compost pile—some food waste on a mound of manure—but didn't have the know-how to make use of it.

"We have a great garden that we've building on, so the soil is really everything," Baran-Rees tells SFR. Weller pipes in: "We want to get to the end result of composting and be able to use it in our garden." Their existing compost pile is respectable, but feels amateur compared to the new system the county is helping them build. "We're exceedingly grateful," Baran-Rees says. "We're excited to get to learn about it. We're excited for the kids too, who also get to learn."

Sarah Schiros, project coordinator for Santa Fe County compost installations, works with Reunity Resources to educate people and build the simple systems. At a recent check-in, she showed the gawking kids a cup full of squirming worms and told the couple they need to keep the compost moist due to the dry climate.

"It tolerates a lot of neglect," she tells them. "Sometimes you need to adjust things, but not all is lost."