U.S. generates 190 million tons of solid waste a year —
enough to fill a bumper-to-bumper convoy of garbage trucks
halfway to the moon. So why aren't we up to our necks in garbage?
Nature recycles garbage all the time, and this recycling
is essential to the availability of nutrients for living things.
are tiny bacteria and fungi, which break down plant and animal
waste, making nutrients available for other living things
in the process. This is known as decomposition.
Decomposition involves a whole community of large and small
organisms that serve as food for each other, clean up each
other's debris, control each other's populations and convert
materials to forms that others can use. The bacteria and fungi
that initiate the recycling process, for example, become food
for other microbes, earthworms, snails, slugs, flies, beetles
and mites, all of which in turn feed larger insects and birds.
You can think of the Decomposition Column as a miniature compost
pile or landfill, or as leaf litter on a forest floor. Through
the sides of the bottle you can observe different substances
decompose and explore how moisture, air, temperature and light
affect the process.
Many landfills seal garbage in the earth, excluding air and
moisture. How might this affect decomposition? Will a foam
cup ever rot? What happens to a
fruit pie, or tea bag? Which do you think decomposes faster,
banana peels or leaves? If you add layers of soil to the column,
how might they affect the decomposition process? What would
you like to watch decompose?