Composting at home seems so difficult and it’s not a big deal to send organic matter to the landfill. It’ll just decompose, right?
Sending organic matter to the landfill almost guarantees your food won’t break down. Because there’s no room for oxygen to circulate, that organic matter just sits and mummifies.
Composting at home can seem overwhelming, but the fact is it’s a very simple process that almost everyone can use effectively. Whether you live in a tiny apartment or have space in your backyard, we’ll work together to create a simple composting option.
Why is composting so important?
I’m sure you’ve heard about the shocking food waste statistics; like how ⅓ of all food prepared for human consumption is thrown away. (Some studies put this number closer to 50%.) This section is not about that, although shopping better (week two) is a great way to reduce how much food you’ll waste.
That being said, food waste does happen. Whether it’s the skin of a vegetable you peeled or an errant cucumber you lost in the back of your fridge, we need to get rid of our organic waste in the most environmentally friendly way possible. The simple answer?
Food waste, when sent to the landfill, decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen). When this happens, methane is produced. Methane is over 20x more potent than CO2 and a dangerous greenhouse gas that is seriously affecting our atmosphere. As the Scientific American says, “landfills account for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S.—meaning that the sandwich you made and then didn’t eat yesterday is increasing your personal—and our collective—carbon footprint.”
Additionally, one study showed that “the carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated to 3.3 Gtonnes of CO2 equivalent: as such, food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after USA and China.” (source) Food waste has a huge carbon footprint.
Finally, the organic matter that goes to a landfill presents a more physical, practical problem: because it doesn’t get the oxygen it needs, the items become fossilized.
A scientist talks about guacamole he found while excavating a landfill: “Almost as good as new, it sat next to a newspaper apparently thrown out the same day. The date was 1967.”
Ew. So composting at home it is.
What kind of composting system is best for me?
Here are the four general composting solutions I suggest to those just getting started:
Exactly what it sounds like, a worm bin is a small container full of worms that process (read: eat and poop out) your food waste. And yes – you can totally buy worms online. Simple and quick to process, this is a great choice for small spaces, although the worms are fairly easy to kill if you’re not careful. Read more about worm composting here.
Pros: great for small spaces, minimal smell, can DIY
Cons: worms are fairly easy to kill, usually not good for large amounts of food waste
A specialized system in which your waste anaerobically breaks down to produce a compost “tea” and a small amount of organic waste that should be buried. It’s quick and odor free, but does require a special Bokashi powder that helps the process. Read more about Bokashi here.
Pros: almost no smell, very quick process
Cons: relatively expensive, requires place to bury excess
Perhaps the easiest of all: the compost pile. As long as you have outdoor space, a compost heap is the easiest way to compost. You simply layer greens and browns (more on that later) and mix manually every so often. Great if you produce a lot of waste, a compost pile can be open or closed, depending on where you are. Read more about general compost piles here.
Pros: very cheap to set up, can hold lots of food waste
Cons: requires outdoor space, needs manual turning, may attract animals
This is what I currently use and I really like it. It mimics a compost pile except the compost is inside a bin suspended off the ground. Instead of mixing by hand, you simply spin the tumbler around. While it can’t hold as much as a compost pile, tumblers often have two chambers so you can have compost processing at different times.
Pros: great for residential areas, doesn’t require much space or work
Cons: mid-sized capacity, difficult to use in winter
Don’t want to compost yourself?
In many major cities (and even not-so-major cities), composting pickup services or municipal drop-off locations are available. Do some research – your town may have an option for people who want to divert food waste from the landfill but can’t or don’t want to have compost at their home.
Celia of Litterless has a helpful regional break-down of composting options that may provide some answers. It’s also helpful to do a quick google search or contact your local waste management department to see what options you may have.
If no pick-up service is available or it’s out of your price range, consider making friends with a local gardener who’d take it. Community gardens also often have compost piles and would probably be willing to take compost from a conscientious citizen.
What do I include in my compost?
This is for traditional compost piles or tumblers. Worm bins and Bokashi may vary.
The general rule of composting is to have a healthy mix of green and brown matter. Green matter is your food waste or grass clippings (nitrogen). Brown matter is dried leaves, paper, or cardboard (carbon).
The microbes need the green nitrogen materials for energy and brown carbon materials for protein; if you compost has too little of one, the process breaks down. (And don’t worry, you’ll know: your compost will start to stink! If it’s well-balanced, you really shouldn’t notice a smell at all.)
While there is plenty of science behind the exact amount of each type you want, I understand most folks don’t have too much time to delve deep into the science of compost. You just want a relatively unstinky, functioning compost pile.
If you do want a more scientific explanation, be sure to read through this page for a ton of information.
To achieve an unstinky, functioning compost pile, think about adding two parts brown to one part green. If you have a small container in your kitchen to hold food scraps, this is simple. When it’s full of food scraps (green), toss it in the larger compost pile. Then pack the container full of torn up paper, cardboard, or dried leaves (brown) twice and put that in the compost pile as well.
If you follow that ratio, you should be good to go. Once you get started, it’s pretty easy to see major issues with your compost. If it stinks or is too wet, add more brown material. That’s usually the culprit, ie. too much food waste in the ratio.
As to what items you can or can’t add, this is a pretty thorough list: what goes in compost. The big items to watch out for are animal waste, meat products, colored paper (although if your compost will be used for non-edible plants, this may be OK).
I have compost – what now?
While everyone focuses on the nitty-gritty of actually making a viable compost, many people don’t actually consider what they’re going to do with the compost once it’s… compost.
From some basic internet sleuthing, I saw a number that estimated the average American would make about 200 pounds of compost per year. (This comes from the estimate that the average person makes about 1600 pounds of trash per year, with 25% of that being food waste. That 400 pounds of food waste would reduce by about 50% during the composting process.)
All that being said, if you’re serious about your zero waste path it’s likely you’re making a whole lot less trash and food waste than the average person simply by being conscious of it. So composting at home shouldn’t be such a major undertaking.
Still, with a household of two or more people, that can add up to a lot of compost! So what to do with it once your scraps have turned into nutrient-rich fertilizer?
If you have yard space…
- Use it as mulch. The easiest way to use your compost is as a mulch. Like any other mulch, you just spread it around already-existing trees or plants in a two or three inch layer. You’d be shocked how quickly you use up your compost this way.
- Add it to the soil in your flower beds. You can toss some compost in with your soil during planting time. The extra nutrients will make most new plants very happy. Most people suggest digging about two to four inches below the surface to make sure the compost is getting spread deep enough.
If you don’t have yard space…
- Use it for indoor plant growing. Even if you don’t have outdoor space (or very limited space), your compost can and should be used for indoor plant growing! Mix your compost with soil as you pot your container gardens to give your plants an extra boost of nutrients! You can continue to add compost to your plants as a way to keep them healthy.
- Give it to a local gardener. You’d be surprised at how many people want compost for their own projects! Ask friends or family if they have a garden you can spread it around. Also contact local community gardens or small farms.
And that’s that! If you get creative with the space you have, anyone can have at least a small composting system set up and make sure that compost is put to good use once it’s ready!