Deeper Into Jeopardy! XIII: An Eco-Category – $400

Jeopardy! category: AN ECO-CATEGORY (10-04-2014)

$400 clue: Toss your food scraps & other organic material into a bin to make this, which you can then use as fertilizer

Correct response

The gist: It’s going to happen to all of us eventually. All organic matter, given long enough, will eventually decompose – if certain steps are taken before and after, our decomposed bits can become the stuff we call compost. Basically, the composting process is the same as what happens naturally, just a little more controlled. Instead of letting nature take its course, composting is meant to result in an end product, nutrient-rich humus that can be used as fertilizer to grow more stuff that will eventually become compost.

Given the number of online guides out there that explain how to compost better than I could, I’ll limit myself here to a brief explanation of what makes it different from the natural process. The basic agents are the same. You’ve got larger critters like worms, some arthropods, and fungi, that kick-start the breakdown process. Generally, the composter helps them out by cutting the material into smaller bits, so they don’t need to work too hard to get through it – the more surface area available, the easier it is for them to get through the material. When they’re done with it, aerobic bacteria (that is, bacteria that need oxygen) take over, performing the chemical processes that convert organic material into heat, carbon dioxide, and ammonium, the latter of which is what the new plants want (and the former of which has been blamed for causing fires – keep your compost wet, please). The bacteria can be helped out, too, by mixing the compost to let air in for them to breathe. When done, go ahead and feed it to your new plants.

These days, while composting is still popular, anaerobic digestion as an energy source is another big use for organic waste, through the production and burning of the methane such bacteria produce during digestion.

Just a picture of composting leaves from Wikimedia that I found appealing

The clue: Not much going on here – the clue just describes composting at the level I suspect most people understand it, tossing garbage into a bucket and waiting. It’s sort of non-specific though – I wonder if they would have accepted other responses like mulch.

In Jeopardy!: “Compost” returns just 13 clues in the J!Archive (plus seven about Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain). Most of them are along the same lines as this clue, just giving a vague description of the process, or else they look for something related like humus or mulch specifically. One contrasts it with “compote,” a decidedly more appetizing response, unless you’re a plant.

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