The average American spends $1,500 a year on wasted food. Sadly, 90% of food scraps end up in landfills. Keeping food out of landfills is important because it takes a long time to decompose in an anaerobic environment and it produces methane. One way to reduce food waste is to compost at home. But what does that entail?
For years we had contemplated composting, but it was watching the movie Wasted! The Story of Food Waste narrated by Anthony Bourdain that finally motivated me to take action. Did you know that a head of lettuce can take up to 20 years to decompose in a landfill?
The movie provides an argument for composting that was new to me. The EPA’s food waste pyramid. Each step in the pyramid feed people, feed livestock, create energy through anaerobic digestion, then create nutrient-rich humus (compost).
You can use compost several ways:
- Used as a moisture holding mulch (use the same as any mulch)
- Added to soil of plant, flower, or vegetable gardens to replenish nutrients (dig a hole 2 to 4 inches and add compost – mix together)
- Used as a top-dressing for your lawn (add 1 to 4 inches on top of lawn – rake and water in)
Common perceived barriers to composting include not feeling that you have the space, thinking it’s expensive to get started, or not knowing how.
Space – A Lesson From Curious George
Because I have always lived in either an apartment or on a small property, I thought I didn’t have enough space to compost. Then I watched an episode of Curious George.
The curious little monkey learns about composting at his country house, and wants to do it when he gets back to his city apartment. He puts composts in every corner of the apartment he can find – even in the cooking pots and coffee cans! What a surprise to the man in the yellow hat to find that compost has overtaken the apartment!
The silly monkey soon learns that when in an apartment, you can still compost, but on a much smaller scale than at the farm. While the curious little money had to stop composting inside the apartment, he did keep a small bin on the patio and used the compost to fertilize his plants and flowers.
Regardless of your living situation, it is possible to compost. But the size of your bin will vary based on your space. Even if you don’t have a patio, it is possible to keep a small bin in your entry way – or be like George and compost inside your shoes.
Don’t worry, below we will talk about keeping foods that produce strong odors or attract animals out of the bin, so you don’t have to worry about offending your neighbors.
At the last Earth Day celebration I attended, I saw large compost bins on sale for about $100. Are you kidding me? Then I realized that you don’t need a special bin that rotates. All you need is a container with holes and a lid.
We compared costs online for “pre-made” compost bin (which ranged from $20 for a 24 gallon bin up to $140 for a 65 gallon bin) and an inexpensive garbage can ($17 for a 32 gallon can).
The advantage of the pre-made compost bin is that it can be rotated to mix up the compost. If one uses a garbage can, holes would need to be drilled into it and it would need to be mixed by hand with a shovel. A little work never hurt anyone, so we decided to DIY with a garbage can.
When we went to the store to get a garbage can, we saw that tote containers with lids cost only $7! We would need to be shoveling the compost around for air circulation, this would be easier in a horizontal tote than in a garbage can.
When we got home, we used a drill bit to make holes all over the tote.
How to Compost
Now that you have your bin ready, what do you put in it? In order to have a healthy compost bin, you will need a mixture of brown (carbon rich) and green (nitrogen rich) materials. An ideal ratio is 2:1 greens to browns. If your bin has a stinky smell to it, you need to add more browns.
TIP: I keep a pail with a tight-fitting lid on the kitchen counter to collect fruit and vegetable scraps. Make sure to empty the pail into your bin frequently and rinse it out.
Some examples of browns are:
- Dead leaves
- Paper and Cardboard
- Dryer lint
- Cotton fabric
- Tea bags
- Coffee filters
- Hair and Fur
Some examples of greens are:
- Grass clippings
- Vegetable and Fruit scraps
- Coffee grounds
- Plant trimmings (non-diseased)
- Weeds that have yet to seed
Start your bin with a layer of browns between 2 and 4 inches thick. Then a layer of greens also 2 to 4 inches thick. Continue to layer for as much material that you have.
Add moisture to the pile if it appears to dry. Your materials should resemble a sponge that has been squeezed out. Most of the moisture comes from the greens but if needed add water with a hose, but make sure it is not overly wet!
TIP: Shred materials into the smallest pieces you can to speed up the decomposition process.
Turning the Material
You will need to turn the pile at least weekly. The materials need oxygen to decompose. A shovel or pitchfork is all you need to move materials from the outside into the middle.
A compost thermometer can help you determine when to turn the material. Inserted into the middle it should read between 130F – 140F. As long as your materials are able to heat up you can turn the material as often as every 2 days.
Things Not to Compost
Not all kitchen waste should go into your compost bin. You want to avoid:
- Meat and Fish
- Oils and Fats
- Eggs (Egg shells are OK to compost)
- Citrus peels
- Onion Skins
- Breads, Pastas, Cakes (these can be composted, but I don’t compost them because they can attract pests)
Timeline to Compost
How long it will take for your materials to turn into compost will vary. A bin that heats up and is turned frequently can take as little as 20 days. A bin that is not turned at all can take from 3 months to a year.
Even if your ratios get off and your moisture is not correct, it is not the end of the world. It can always be corrected and remember everything decomposes in the end. Pile your material in your bin, turn the pile or let it sit, and eventually you will end up with compost! It couldn’t be any simpler.
Composting is so easy and inexpensive. I feel bad that it’s taken me this long to make a simple change that can have a major impact on the environment. Plus, I save money on fertilizing my grass, flowers, and vegetable garden.
What are your thoughts about composting?