Everything you need to know about composting; what it is and why you really should be doing it.
Say this gorgeous Sage Bamboo Fiber and Coffee Grounds Compost Bin from World Market catches your eye… now what? You may have heard of composting, you may know someone who you vaguely remember told you about their dabbling in trash collection, or even just feel a small pang of guilt each time you find yourself throwing away any assortment of food items.
Here’s the scoop: According to the EPA, more than 30% of what we throw away could be composted. Instead, these kitchen scraps, leftovers and pieces of yard waste (i.e., organic materials) end up in our landfills. You could say composting is kind of a big deal. But, how do you even get started and what are the rules to composting? Well, you’ve come to the right place.
Below, our roundup of tips, tricks, and tools to help you get started on your composting journey.
First of All, What is Composting?
Basically, composting is the process of turning organic matter–like food scraps–into fertilizer for soil and plants. It’s actually pretty cool. During the composting process, microorganisms work together to break down organic materials, like eggshells, avocado skins and coffee grounds, to create a rich soil that provides a ton of nutrients to the earth.
You might be wondering, can't these materials just compost in the landfill? Well...yes and no.
Since the compostable material that is thrown away ends up being buried under a mountain of garbage, they don't get the oxygen they need in order to properly decompose. Instead of turning into delicious compost, they release methane as they decompose–which is called anaerobic composting, meaning “without oxygen”. This is bad for a few reasons, but mainly because methane is a greenhouse gas estimated to be about 28-36 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 100 years. Yikes.
In addition to that, when we send food scraps right to the landfill, we lose out on all of the nutrients they can provide once decomposed.
Fondly referred to as "black gold," farmers love compost soil because it's extremely rich in nutrients, and can be used for a variety of things, like sustainable gardening and agriculture.
What Are the Benefits of Composting?
Making compost out of your food waste and other organic waste has a lot of environmental benefits: improving soil health, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, recycling nutrients, and even preventing droughts. Still need some more inspiration to get started?
Here are some additional benefits of composting:
Reduces Food Waste
Composting is an excellent way to reduce food waste, starting in your own kitchen. According to research, approximately 95% of food scraps in the U.S. are just sent to the landfill. Not only is this a burden on the environment, but it’s also very expensive to maintain; the cost of processing this waste was around $55 per ton in 2019. With the United States generating more than 267 million tons of waste in 2017, we spend billions of dollars on waste management every year. Starting a compost bin at home allows us to divert some of that waste from landfills and turn it into something practical and beneficial for our yards.
Improves Soil Health and Reduces Erosion
Compost contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are the three main nutrients garden crops need. It also contains trace amounts of calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. As an alternative to synthetic fertilizers with harmful chemicals, composting offers an organic solution. Research shows that compost increases soil's resiliency, productivity, and water retention.
Keeps Our Oceans Clean
A lot of ocean pollution comes from farming chemicals, like acidifying fertilizers. Using compost decreases the chemical run-off that ends up in the ocean, and reduces the need for artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides in the first place.
Food Waste Becomes Food Safety
In the United States, we waste between 30-40% of our food supply. A TON of food is wasted every year, 40 million tons in fact, resulting in $161 billion in food waste annually! What would otherwise have ended up in the landfill is turned into a valuable resource, one that provides more food and revenue. In this way, garbage literally becomes black gold.
Clearly, starting a compost pile at home is important, but how do you get started?
How to Start Composting at Home; The Basics
According to the experts, learning how to compost is all about setting up a system that works for you. “Composting is a whole system, and everyone needs to figure out what works for them,” says Rick Carr, farm director at the Rodale Institute.
That doesn’t mean that composting as a whole has to be difficult, though. With the right setup, the process can be almost entirely hands-off. And once you get used to sorting your food scraps for composting, it will feel like you’ve always done it.
Here are a few tips to help you get started:
What Can You Compost?
You've probably read about what you can compost before. Like when you toss out your lunch and stare at the recycle, compost, and trash bins for five minutes trying to figure out what goes where. So, here's a refresher of what you should (and shouldn't) put in your compost pile.
The best compost piles contain a mix of both brown and green materials. What does that mean? We're so glad you asked. Here's what it means:
Greens are materials that are rich in nitrogen or protein. They are the discarded items that tend to heat a compost pile, as they help the microorganisms in the compost pile grow and multiply more rapidly.
Browns are carbon or carbohydrate-rich materials. Browns are mostly in charge of providing food for the soil-dwelling organisms that work with microbes to break down the contents of your compost pile. Additionally, brown materials adds a little bulkiness, helping air to pass through the pile and preventing mold/odors.
"Brown" Materials to Compost:
chipped tree branches
non-bleached paper (newspaper, paper plates, napkins)
corrugated cardboard (without waxy/slick coatings)
hair and fur
"Green" Materials to Compost:
trimmings from plants/succulents
eggshells (rinsed out)
animal manures (excluding dogs and cats)
Things You Shouldn't Compost:
dairy products (milk, cheese, butter, sour cream, yogurt, ice cream)
fats and greases
meat or fish scraps
dog and cat waste
trimmings treated with chemicals
black walnut tree leaves or branches
Two Main Composting Approaches: Active and Passive
Passive composting: the "compost happens" camp. All you need to do is pile up your organic matter and wait. It can take months, or even a few years, to fully decompose, but eventually, it will.
Active composting requires varying degrees of effort. Truly active composting involves somewhat precise layering and regular turning to provide the oxygen necessary for the proper decomposition process. It also require active monitoring to make sure your compost pile is damp but never soggy.
Here are some helpful links to get you started–whether you're using a large plot in your backyard or a small compost bin in your kitchen:
Additional Tips and Tricks for Composting
Use the Right Tools
The good news is that there are dozens of tools you can use to speed up the rate of your compost pile while saving you time and space. And, they're also pretty fun to use. Find a comprehensive list here.
Keep it Dry
The problem with too much fruit and veggie compost is that it's going to get really slimy really fast…and then it won't decompose as well. This is why browns–also known as dry carbon sources–should be added throughout the composting process. You can use brown items like brown paper bags, old newspapers, cardboard egg cartons, leaves, and coffee grounds, but you don't want to use bleached or waxy items (like white paper towels). For every handful of fruit and veggie scraps, you should add two handfuls of dry scraps.
Layer it Like Lasagna
Lasagna layering is the recommended method when it comes to starting your compost pile. It’s similar to making lasagna, as you add thin, uniform layers of repeating compost. Once the compost pile is active, you can incorporate new material into the center of the pile or you can mix it in when turning the pile.
Remove Labels and Plastics
If you're composting fruits and vegetables, make sure to remove the labels and tags that might be attached to the skins. These will not decompose.
For more ways to make a difference starting in your kitchen, check out these posts:
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