composting info

What Is Compost?

Compost is decayed organic matter — or, in simpler terms, it’s when anything that comes from nature decomposes. Compost can be used as a fertilizer to help grow other plants, or you could just let compost turn back to soil.

What Items Are Compostable?

The rule of thumb is that anything that comes from nature is compostable. No matter what kind of compost method you are following (more on those below), you should generally be safe to compost: any fruit or vegetable scraps, peels, pits, or rinds; any primarily plant-based food leftovers that have gone bad, like grains, bread, nuts, and cookies; coffee grounds and tea leaves; eggshells; garden clippings such as twigs, leaves, or grass; things from your body such as hair and nails (seriously); and 100 percent paper-based products including paper, cardboard, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, paper plates, and paper bags. Those items are all “backyard” compostable, meaning they can easily break down in a backyard composting environment.

There are also some items that require a little more than the basic elements to break down, meaning they need to be commercially or industrially composted. Those are usually specialty items made from bioplastic, such as single-use bioplastic cups and cutlery. Some foods are also better composted commercially, such as leftover dairy, meat, fish, or bones. In a backyard environment, those animal products can emit a nasty smell and attract maggots, rats, raccoons, or any other local critters.

How Does Composting Work?

When organic materials are added to soil and exposed to the right combination of elements (moisture, oxygen, and bacteria, according to the University of Illinois) and temperatures, they will break down and become nutrient-rich soil again. As the University of Illinois explains, green materials (food scraps, grass, etc.) provide nitrogen, while brown materials (twigs, paper, etc.) provide carbon, meaning if you are doing your own composting in your yard, a 1:1 ratio of the two materials is ideal.

How to Start Composting?

If you want to start composting your food scraps, first, you need to decide what method of composting will work best for your lifestyle. Some of the most popular methods include: backyard composting, worm composting (aka vermicomposting), Bokashi composting, and citywide composting.

Backyard Composting

If you have a backyard, your easiest option may be backyard composting. First, you’ll want to decide what kind of bin you’ll be using for your compost pile. The internet is filled with large bins and tumblers that you can buy specifically for backyard composting; however, in the spirit of reducing your environmental impact, you can also DIY your own bin out of a large plastic storage container, out of planks of wood, or out of some thin wire fencing.

With backyard composting, you’ll want to try to achieve the 1:1 ratio of greens and browns (some people advocate for a 2:1 ratio instead) as you add things to your compost pile. In order to properly break down, compost needs to be exposed to oxygen and moisture. So, remember to regularly turn the compost, which will expose every part of it to the air and keep it from smelling; also, don't forget to water your compost when it gets dry to help it stay moist, Eco-Cycle advises.

Worm Composting or Vermicomposting

Since not everyone has a yard, a great option for those living in close quarters is worm composting, more formally known as vermicomposting. To start vermicomposting at home, you’ll need to adopt a menagerie of worms, specifically red wigglers. Add them to a worm composting bin (which you can buy or DIY) and feed them your kitchen scraps, which they’ll eat and then poop out as “worm castings,” which can then be used as a fertilizer or soil conditioner, according to Planet Natural.

Bokashi Composting

While backyard composting is an aerobic process (meaning it requires air), Bokashi composting is anaerobic (meaning it does not require air). As explained by Bokashi Living, Bokashi composting works by sealing food scraps in a Bokashi bin, sprinkling it with a special Bokashi bran powder, and then once full, sealing the bin for about two weeks. In that time period, the food scraps will ferment and break down into “pre-compost,”. Once the waste is fermented, you can get empty it into a garden, plant pots, an outdoor compost pile or bin, or by burying it outside.

Composting in a City

Municipal composting is great because you don’t have to worry about managing your compost’s breakdown process — you’ll just need to collect it. Some cities offer curbside compost service, which picks compost up from houses and apartment buildings, similar to how your trash and recycling are picked up. Other cities offer compost drop off programs, which means residents can store food scraps at home, and then dump them in brown bins. For example, in New York City, brown bins can be found in public parks, at farmers markets, and outside of various apartment buildings.

Some municipalities may require you to purchase compostable bioplastic bags for taking out your compost. If yours does not, you can either dump compost straight from your container into your building’s compost bin, or you can take your compost to your neighborhood bin in a brown paper bag, which is compostable since it’s made from trees.

That said, if you’re participating in a municipal compost program, you may be wondering how to store rotting food scraps in your home without attracting unwanted creatures.

Where to Store Food Scraps

There are a few ways to store food scraps without the stink. One of the easiest (and free!) ways is by storing the scraps in your freezer. In there, your food scraps will freeze and be prevented from decomposing or stinking. In your freezer, you can set up a metal bowl, an upcycled plastic container (for instance, a large Tupperware, or a large container that came with salad greens), or a compostable bag, and simply add your food scraps as needed.

You can also purchase a countertop compost bin, which should ideally seal airtight and lock odors inside. Some countertop compost bins come with activated charcoal filters, which are designed to absorb odors, even when you open the lid to add more to the container. If you don’t want to buy anything new, you can use a Tupperware or jar that seals airtight to store food scraps on your counter.

Or, you can really commit to the whole zero-waste thing and convert your garbage can into a compost bin, and keep your trash in a teeny-tiny trash can, or even a jar.

Does Composting Produce Methane?

Some people are resistant to start composting because they’ve read that it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But let’s get one thing straight — food scraps produce way less methane in a compost bin than they do in a landfill. As explained by Grist, decomposing matter only produces methane in anaerobic conditions. So in terms of a backyard compost pile, as long as the pile gets adequate exposure to oxygen, it will not produce methane. Not to mention, composting is generally a carbon neutral process, meaning it absorbs all the CO2 it emits.

And even though Bokashi composting is anaerobic, the environment is too acidic for microorganisms to produce methane, according to The Compost Gardener.

All that being said, U.S. landfills produce 17 percent of the country’s methane emissions, according to Grist. And while a lot of that comes from plastic garbage, food and other natural items also emit methane in landfills, as the anaerobic environment does not allow them to decompose.

Why Is Composting Important and Good for the Environment?

As mentioned above, composting food scraps emits trivial amounts of greenhouse gases, while sending food to landfills emits significant amounts of greenhouse gases; that means that for every item you compost, you are conserving some landfill space. Plus, composting adds nutrients to the soil, which will keep the soil in good shape and help plants grow.

What Is a Composting Toilet?

When you’re doing your business on a composting toilet, also known as a dry toilet, it won’t feel all that different from a regular toilet with conventional plumbing. But after you do your business is when things get a little different. Instead of being flushed with water, excrement is naturally composted into soil. Sometimes, composting toilets are located directly over the soil, and excrement directly lands on the soil.

But in fancier composting toilets, such as the Nature’s Head, there are separate chambers for liquids and solids, which help prevent odors from building up. The waste will decompose in the chambers, and can then be emptied into an outdoor compost pile, or buried in the ground.

Is Composting Worth It?

If you are concerned with living a more sustainable lifestyle, composting is definitely worth it. It will greatly reduce the amount of trash you send to landfills, lowering your environmental impact and the frequency that you have to take out the trash.

In most cases, composting does not cost any money (unless you choose to buy an official composting bin or compostable bags). Not to mention, if you have a home garden, composting can also help you save money, since you can use your own homemade compost as fertilizer instead of buying one at the store.

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