I can easily say that the single most intimidating thing to me about Zero Waste used to be compost. I don’t know what it was exactly…My parents composted at home when I was growing up and it always seemed to turn out just fine for them.
I think part of it was this idea that compost just happens which, to my more process-oriented mind, sounded like magic in a weird way.
Today, I’m a lot less freaked out by composting. I’ve learned what it takes to make it happen at home, in a small space, and in an urban setting – all things I didn’t know were possible when I started!
Why Compost is So Great
Yesterday, you learned about the difference between linear and a cyclical types of production: the first goes in one direction, leaving waste in its wake, while the second operates within a beautiful closed loop, keeping everything around it safe from negative effects.
Composting is a cyclical process – one in which food and nutrients go in and food and nutrients come out. It blows my mind.
Here’s what that cycle looks like:
The Basics of Composting (For the Newbie)
What is compost?
Compost is an organic material that can be added back into any soil to help plants grow. It’s terrific because it takes organic matter that we usually throw away (think food scraps and yard waste) and turns it into something beautiful and enriching to the earth!
There is a reason a lot of people call compost “black gold.”
Making compost is actually an extremely important process. Food waste and yard waste currently make up something like 20-30% of everything we throw away. And it turns into a stinking, methane-producing mess if it goes to landfill.
Composting your own excess material at home means your food scraps never go to waste, but contribute to the enrichment of the soil right where you are!
What are the benefits of composting?
Here are a few!
- Enriches soil and helps retain moisture in the earth.
- Suppresses plant diseases and keeps pests at bay.
- Reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.
- Encourages the production of beneficial bacterias that break down organic matter.
- Creates humus (not hummus), a nutrient-rich material that encourages growth.
- And it reduces methane emissions in landfills!
What materials can be composted?
Compost is made up of a combination of two primary ingredients, plus moisture content:
- Browns (Carbon-based materials like dead leaves, branches, twigs, brown paper, newspaper)
- Greens (Nitrogen-based materials like grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, coffee grounds)
While any amount of organic material will eventually decompose, most pros recommend you cultivate a 2:1 ratio between the two (slightly more browns than greens) and layer each type in alternation to help the breakdown process. This just makes it all go faster.
Here’s a nice long list of things you can compost:
- Fruit and veggie scraps
- Coffee grounds and paper filters
- Tea bags
- Nut shells
- Shredded newspaper (not whole)
- Old bills, envelopes (minus the plastic window), sticky notes
- Pencil shavings
- Yard trimmings
- Grass clippings
- Houseplants and dead flowers
- Hay and straw
- Hay or pellets
- Used paper napkins
- Natural holiday wreaths
- Crepe paper streamers
- Dry/stale cereals or crusts
- Wood chips
- Cotton and wool rags
- Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
- Hair (yes, from your hairbrush) and fur
- Fireplace wood ashes
Here’s a list of things you should avoid:
- Coal or charcoal ash
- Dairy products
- Diseased plants
- Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
- Fats, grease, lard or oils
- Meat or fish bones and scraps (they attract pests)
- Pet waste
- Yard trimmings treated with herbicides/chemicals
- Labeled “compostable” paper cups, etc. These are meant for industrial facilities.
How to Compost at Home
If you own a home and have some yard space to work with:
Theoretically, if you lived in an area with lots of open yard space, you could just toss your compostables on the ground in a trench and all would be well. If you want to do that, go for it! The worms will get busy and create beautiful compost for you. And as long as you bury additions deep enough, critters won’t be a problem.
However, I’d recommend something a little more organized. Here’s how to do it:
- Select a dry, shady spot for your homemade aerobic compost bin or pile, ideally near a water source.
- Set up a simple container to hold your compost together. Google terms like “wire composter” or “high-rise composter” to get ideas.
- Add “browns” and “greens” as they are collected, making sure that larger items are chopped or shredded to aid the breakdown process.
- Moisten dry materials as they are added and bury wet materials like fruit approximately ten inches under the compost pile’s surface. It should feel moist (not soggy) to the touch.
- Turn occasionally with a pitchfork or shovel.
If you live in an apartment or urban-living situation:
As renters living within the city limits, we are adopting a strategy that many urban dwellers use: it’s called a worm bin!
Worm bin systems (or vermicomposting) has many advantages for people with limited space and no garden or yard space to speak of. They’re well-contained, don’t require contact with the earth, and (if managed properly) won’t attract pests or rodents or smell bad.
Here’s how to do it:
- Prepare your container. You can buy a specialized worm bin or make one yourself! Just make sure it has a lid on both the top and the bottom-side and that it is well-ventilated.
- Shred some newspaper into one inch strips, soak in water till moist but not dripping, then line your container with half. You’ll want to fill it approximately 1/3 of the way full with this paper.
- Get some red wriggler worms and add them to the bin with a little bit of soil. Set the bin in the sunlight. They will soon begin to burrow into the paper to avoid the sun – crazy!
- Add small chopped up food scraps from daily life and bury them under your remaining damp paper strips. Don’t mix too heavily or you’ll disturb the worms. Just gently burying is fine.
- Place your worm bin in a cool place without a lot of sunshine and continue to add scraps until you have more soil than scraps. Let it sit till the mixture has turned to compost, scoop it out for use, and start over. Just don’t scoop out your worms!
Worm bin not your style? Check out some of these other indoor composting options:
- Bokashi, a Japanese method that uses microbes to decompose food
- NatureMill, a mechanical composter that can accept over 100lbs of organic waste a month
There are lots of ways to use your compost even if you don’t have a garden! Use it to fertilize house plants and make them happy, gift it to a friend or community garden, or sprinkle it over your lawn. Enjoy!
Want to see some tutorials? Check out my Pinterest board for all sorts of composting ideas!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I compost meat scraps and bones?
This is a controversial subject. One side advocates for the fact that any organic material (living beings included) will compost. Technically, that’s just decomposition, right? However, the other side suggests avoiding composting meat scraps and bones due to the smell and potential for attracting unwanted critters.
There’s a reason why it’s easier to be a vegetarian/vegan Zero Waster than it is to be an omnivore one. There just isn’t a simple solution for disposal!
That said, here’s what I suggest you consider when making the decision:
- Are you using curbside city compost? If so, check their guidelines to see if it’s even allowed.
- Are you composting in an open backyard pile? If so, you may actually have critters to worry about.
- Can you bury your compost in a backyard trench? If yes, you may be able to bury deep enough to avoid the issue of pests altogether.
- Can you freeze for a while, then send the scraps to a friend who does have a trench?
- If you’re using a closed container (away from pests) can you tolerate the added time it takes to compost these products?
Can I compost paper towels?
Totally! These fall under the “browns” category in your compost and can be a welcome addition if you’re in need of some dryer material. I would just recommend shredding them up a bit before adding.
If you plan to add your compost to your garden, don’t add paper towels or napkins that have been bleached. They are full of chlorine, which isn’t something you want in your grown produce.
How can I avoid mold and fruit flies?
Mold naturally occurs during the composting process and fruit flies are just a pest. To prevent both, keep your food scraps in the refrigerator or freezer until you empty it into your collection container. We empty ours every 1-2 days.
Sound doable? Let me know what you think of composting in the comments! Or if you’re experienced, do you have any tips?
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