Composting and Where to Start

Did you know that the EPA estimates 22% of all landfilled Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) came from food waste in 2015? And only 5.3% of food waste was diverted from landfills and waste to energy facilities (mainly incinerators) to be composted.

Apart from the fact that much of this food waste was food that could have been consumed (another post for another day), this food waste is now sitting in landfills, buried, unable to break down aerobically (with the help of oxygen). Instead, it’s breaking down anaerobically (without oxygen) and producing methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas and landfills are a major contributor of it.

BUT there are things you can do to mitigate this issue. Composting is a perfect place to start. This guide won’t be all inclusive but will provide you with some good resources to choose the best method for you and how to get started.

What is composting and how is it beneficial?

Composting is a process by which organic material decomposes (breaks down) and the resulting material is used for enriching soil. The material breaks down with the help of various organisms, the right temperature and moisture, and oxygen (aerobic breakdown). The finished product is a nutrient-rich material called compost. This process allows for the nutrients of the food you eat and of your yard waste to return back to the soil. A much better option than sitting in a landfill right?
In addition to the wonderful benefits to our planet, composting can most certainly benefit your garden. You can use it in your garden to help your soil retain water and gain beneficial relationships with the organisms living there. These relationships help your plants to flourish, reducing your need for chemical-based fertilizers.

Don’t have a green thumb or live in an apartment with no green space? There are most likely members of your community who would love some compost for their yards and gardens.

Regardless, you are lowering your carbon footprint by turning your waste into something useful and diverting it from landfills. If you are looking to reduce the amount of waste you send to the landfill, composting is it. It will easily shed almost 30% of your landfill-bound waste!

What you can and cannot compost

Anything organic can be composted, but this doesn’t mean that it should be. There are also materials that can’t be composted in your typical backyard compost, only in a commercial compost facility.

Backyard compost dos

  • Veggie and fruit scraps
  • Bread and pasta (there’s some debate on this attracting unwanted pests)
  • Eggshells
  • Nuts and nut shells (except walnuts)
  • Coffee grounds and coffee filters
  • Non-plastic tea bags and loose-leaf tea
  • Hair and fur
  • House plants
  • Yard trimmings and dried leaves
  • Sawdust
  • Leaves
  • Paper and cardboard
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Vacuum dust

Backyard compost don’ts

  • Meat scraps and bones*
  • Dairy products*
  • Cooking oil and grease
  • Pet or human waste
  • Cotton/bamboo personal hygiene products
  • PLA (compostable plant derived plastic)*
  • Diseased or pesticide-treated plants
  • Walnuts (contains a chemical harmful to plants)
  • Coal or charcoal ash
  • Shiny/thermal paper
  • Glass/plastic/metal/ceramic
*Typically, should be composted in a commercial facility only (municipal or private facility)

What do I need to get started?

If you would like to compost at home, the materials you need depend on which method you choose. The method you choose honestly depends on your preference and what will work best for you in your home and whether or not you have room outside or inside. I’ll list the different composting methods here and some resources to help you get started.

Outdoor Composting

Outdoor composting bins come in all shapes and sizes and can be made of different materials like wood or plastic and if you have space, they can be the most efficient at turning your organic matter into compost. There are two major types of bins, either a tumbling bin or a traditional, stationary one. Remember that organic waste needs oxygen to properly break everything down? Tumblers are perfect for aerating your organic matter and are designed to turn/tumble to mix everything up. You’re more likely to get your compost quicker with a tumbler as opposed to a traditional bin. When I had a backyard, I used the Yimby tumbler. It worked super well and fit a lot of material. Once one chamber reaches a certain temp or is full, you let it sit and start filling up the adjacent one.

A traditional bin requires a little more attention and mixing to make sure everything is properly aerated as it doesn’t tumble. However, there are many brands that make this an easy process.

Many municipalities will actually offer either free or subsidized outdoor bins (normally stationery ones) to residents. Check out your municipality to see if this is an option where you live. There are many you can purchase online (or in store) if you don’t want to build one, but the Geobin seems to be well reviewed and pretty affordable.

If you have even more space and like to get crafty-ish, you can start a compost pile with very few, cheap materials by clearing a space in your yard, creating a barrier of wood/chicken wire. This blog/website has a great article on how to start and maintain your pile.

There are only a couple of downsides to this method; potential for unwanted pests, and weeds and plant diseases won’t be killed by the heat that gathers in an enclosed bin. But, if you maintain it properly and avoid putting weeds and diseased plants in your pile, it can yield a great product.

A Solar digester is another option for outdoor composting. Basically, it uses solar energy to break down (digest) your food scraps by creating extreme heat inside the container while still maintaining an aerobic environment through little vents on the side. You’ll have to dig down a bit in your yard, but it is a convenient way to avoid odors and pests.

Green Cone makes and sells these and provides a pretty extensive owner manual on their site. They do not recommend adding yard waste, but you can add animal waste in moderation if you don’t plan to use the compost on your growing fruits or vegetables.

Indoor composting

Composting in more urban areas can be a little tricky, especially if you don’t have any outdoor space. But don’t fret! There are options for you to compost indoors.

Vermicomposting is an awesome way to compost indoors if you’re comfortable with handling worms. Yes, worms! Red wigglers are most common and these lovely creatures are natural soil conditioners. When they consume and digest your food scraps, they produce a nice, rich compost, also known as castings.

The best part of this method is the speed at which you get your compost product. And, you can easily build your own bin using a black Rubbermaid container or other inexpensive materials. You do have to be more careful about what you put in the bin, though. You should avoid adding meat, bones, oils, dairy products, citrus, onions, and broccoli.

If you’re not into making your own bin, there are a lot of products out there you can purchase. Here are a bunch of options on Hayneedle. If you don’t have a local source of red wigglers (check your local garden supply store), you can purchase them from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm online. If vermicomposting seems right for you, Cornell provides a comprehensive guide to getting started.

The Bokashi System is a great indoor option, however, you’ll need to bury the finished product in a shallow spot in a yard away from plant roots. This poses an issue when you have no outdoor space at all, but you can perhaps contact a local community garden or friend who wouldn’t mind conditioning their soil.

The major difference between the Bokashi System and other methods of composting is that it uses anaerobic digestion to break down food scraps. It creates a rich, compost tea that needs to be drained, but it can be diluted and added to a garden. You can add your scraps to the bucket along with a mixture full of beneficial microorganisms. Find out a bit more on Bokashi’s site here and you can purchase it here at a more affordable price.

Browns vs. greens

For most composting methods (besides solar digesters, the Bokashi system, and food digesters), you’ll need the proper ratio of brown organic matter and green organic matter.

Browns provide your pile with carbon and greens provide it with nitrogen; both essential elements in composting. The proper ratio of carbon and nitrogen will ensure the ideal temperature, moisture level, and oxygen level for your bin/pile.

The general rule of thumb (without getting too technical) is to have more browns than greens. If your bin smells kind of sour, add more brown matter. This will also make sure it’s not too moist. Moisture is essential, but too much is not good either.

Brown material includes dried/dead leaves and plants, shredded newspaper (non-shiny pages), and cardboard (non-shiny). Green material is going to include your food scraps and grass clippings.

What if at-home composting is not an option?

Composting does take a bit of time, space, and attention. If composting at home is not for you and you want to still benefit the earth by doing so, here are some alternative options for you:

  • See if your city/county offers green bins for food scraps and/or yard trimmings 
  • Hire a service to pick up (https://compostnow.org/compost-services/
  • Contact your local Community Garden to see if they have a compost pile you can contribute to 
  • Some vendors at Farmers markets might take your food scraps
  • See if a neighbor or friend will take your food scraps/yard trimmings for their compost


Whichever way you decide to compost, know that you’re majorly reducing your own waste, benefiting your garden, and the earth. There are a plethora of resources out there, but don’t be afraid to reach out to me or anyone who composts. It’s not as intimidating as it seems and in my opinion, it can be a satisfying science experiment. Now get out there are start composting!

Extra Resources

Websites

Books

  • Let it Rot!: The Gardener's Guide to Composting (Storey's Down-to-Earth Guides) by Stu Campbell
  • Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System by Mary Appelhof
  • The Rodale Book of Composting: Easy Methods for Every Gardener by Grace Gershuny

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