Let's Talk About Composting!
Updated: May 5, 2020
Composting is one of the foundational building blocks for a zero-waste life. Despite it being last in the 5-R hierarchy, there's really no way for us to avoid some level of organic waste on a daily basis. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to compost, so no matter where you live, you have options!
So what is compost, and why is it important?
Compost (n) a mixture of various decaying organic substances, as dead leaves or manure, used for fertilizing soil. (v) to make compost
So besides being amazing fertilizer for your garden or a farm, why should we compost? How is composting any better for the environment than sending your food scraps off to the landfill?
Let's break it down: you toss your food scraps in a plastic trash bag in your kitchen, which then gets tossed into your outdoor trash bag with other plastic bags of trash, which gets tossed into a garbage truck with even more plastic bags, which gets thrown in a giant heap and eventually buried under more plastic bags of trash. It then just sits there until eventually the landfill reaches capacity and is closed. Your food scraps just sit there. They suffocate in and under all of that plastic - air and bugs cannot get to them for them to break down and decompose the way nature intended. Since this material is breaking down improperly, it results in significant emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas. For more on greenhouse gases and the greenhouse-effect, check out this video. "Currently, in the US, over 60 billion pounds of mineral-rich food material go to landfills each year", touts a star-studded video called The Compost Story, by Kiss the Ground (it's a really fantastic video, by the way - totally recommend you watch it!).
In addition to reducing the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere, when applied to soil, compost helps the Earth to absorb carbon that is already in the atmosphere, which tackles climate change from multiple angles! Compost even promotes healthier food systems by providing more nutrients to crops, helping soil to hold water better, and improving overall soil quality.
So, composting helps gardens and helps the environment - all good things! But how is it done? That depends on where you live and what you're comfortable with...
Collection is the simplest way to compost: you are given a bin, you fill the bin with your scraps, and they are collected and composted at an industrial facility. More and more cities are making compost collection a standard service alongside trash and recycling pickup.
Check to see if your municipality offers compost collection services, but be sure to check the details of that service. It's very common for some cities to have yard waste collections, but not food waste, so be sure you know the details. If food waste compost collection is not available through your city, write to your local officials and make the case for it! The more residents that do it, the more likely it is to happen.
Maybe you don't have access to a municipal collection, but that doesn't mean there are no collection options in your area! Small, local composting collection companies are popping up all over, such as CompostNow Inc. (NC/GA), Vokashi (Brooklyn, NY), and RoHo Compost (NYC & Vermont). Some of these companies have programs that allow you to earn or receive compost soil for your home garden, or to donate to a community garden, and many of them provide compost collection services for events! Looking for a service in your area? Not in North Carolina, Georgia, or New York? Check out CompostNow's handy map that helps connect those outside of their service area with a local compost collection service!
One of the most common and conventional ways to compost is to have a compost pile or heap in your yard. It's exactly what it sounds like - a pile of your food scraps in your backyard, which you turn with a shovel regularly to allow aeration. Most people keep their pile in a bin or enclosement of some sort, as a pile of food scraps is likely to attract wildlife. You can purchase a pre-made bin, or build your own - just be sure there are holes for air and bugs to get in. You may even be able to purchase one through your city. Lightly burying or covering your scraps when you toss them in the pile is a good way to mask the scent from critters. You want to be sure to have a good ratio of brown and green material (food vs paper/leaves) and not let your pile get too wet or too dry.
I promise it's not as intimidating as it sounds - when I lived on Long Island, I maintained a pile in our backyard, and while it may take a little bit of trial and error, it won't take long to get the hang of it and it doesn't involve a lot of effort. We had a container in the kitchen where we collected our scraps, and when it was full I'd go out to the yard with it, turn the pile with a shovel, dig a shallow hole in the middle, dump the new scraps, then cover. If done correctly, your pile won't be smelly and gross - it'll just smell like Earth, like dirt. For more on building a backyard pile, check out Rodale's Organic Life and my Composting board on Pinterest.
Vermicomposting, or a "worm-bin", is most common if you live in an apartment where collection is not an option. It's basically what it sounds like - a bin of worms, which digest your food scraps. It's less inclusive than pile or collection composting, as worms can be picky about what they eat, and unless you have multiple bins, you will likely generate more food waste than your worms can keep up with eating. However, you can increase the variety of what your worms will eat by combining this method with the bokashi method (see next). Instead of a rich soil, this method yields a liquid fertilizer, known as "compost tea". You can purchase a worm bin or build your own. For more on how to vermicompost, click here and/or check out my Composting board on Pinterest.
Bokashi is a Japanese method of composting that can be done in an apartment, and can allow you to compost a wider range of food items, however the downside is that it generally must be combined with a second method of composting. With this method, you are essentially fermenting your food waste. It requires a bokashi bucket with a spigot and a dry mix of microorganisms that ferment and break down the organic material. Like vermicomposting, this method provides a liquid fertilizer, but it should also be used in conjunction with either vermicomposting or the pile method in order for the fermented material to be broken down and utilized. With vermicomposting, this material can be fed to your worms; since it's already broken down to a certain point, this is a way of feeding your worms things they would not otherwise eat in their initial state. With pile composting, you can bury the fermented material in your pile, or in a garden or yard, to continue decomposing in nature and fertilize the soil. This method is great for composting items that aren't ordinarily compostable at home, such as meat and dairy. For more on bokashi composting, click here.
If none of these options seem right for you or your home, you can see if you have a friend with a yard who either has a compost pile or is willing to let you maintain one in on their property. Another option is to check with local farms or community gardens to see if they have a compost that you can contribute to. There is also a machine called a Food Cycler, which is a great option in an apartment - it is a relatively small appliance (probably about the size of a bread maker or large toaster oven) that uses 1kwh/cycle and can process more items than vermicomposting but less than commercial compost collection.
Technically speaking, pet waste, specifically dog waste, can be composted, however, it must be composted separately, alone. Cat waste is not advisable to be composted, as it may contain harmful pathogens. The compost soil that results from dog waste can be used to fertilize and enhance soil for your ornamental plants, house plants, or lawn; it should never be used on or near food crops. Be sure to place your dog waste composter away from vegetable gardens and sources of water. For instructions on how to build a dog waste composter, along with tips and advisements, click here.