Sustainability 101: Composting

Composting kitchen waste is one of the most well-known and easiest methods of reducing landfill space and recycling matter. If you have kids (or if you’re a kid at heart, like me), it’s rewarding to watch “waste” turn into something usable. Wasted food is one of my biggest pet peeves (and I’m such a bad cook that I end up wasting my own leftovers, so I’m not on a soapbox here), and it’s so easy to just stop doing it.

Composting basically means letting your vegetable, paper, and yard waste break down until it essentially becomes soil. When you put all of this waste together, it produces an internal heat that speeds the breaking-down process. Microorganisms get their jiggy on, turning that black banana or those coffee grounds or that old newspaper or those carrot tops you’re never going to eat into dark, nutritious soil. Purchasing the same material at a garden store can be really expensive if you maintain a lot of garden space, so the return on investment is pretty much immediate if you compost correctly.

There are a few things to remember about composting. If you’re a person that gardens their own veggies and fruits, it’s best to compost only vegetable matter, coffee grounds, and yard debris that has NOT been chemically treated. Meat and dairy products will break down, but can harbor bacteria that you don’t want back in the soil where you’re picking your own food. A compost pile that’s hot enough can break down those bacteria, but my understanding is that the average household compost pile won’t meet that need. (ClearAirGardening has a little article for more info and composting solutions.) If you just want to compost to reduce landfill space and you’re not worried about food, just be aware that rotting meat, eggs, and dairy may attract some unwanted visitors to your compost pile but can certainly go in it.

There are lots of options if you want to break into composting, depending on your intentions for the finished product.

Compost piles, whether they’re contained or just a heap in your backyard, are typically thought to be the easiest way to compost. It’s definitely the cheapest and if your end-goal isn’t to produce a delicious soil, then they’re pretty low-maintenance, too. Expect it to get raided, however, if you live in a locale with coons! (I’m pretty sure those things in the middle of the pile are old bananas…)

These composting bins are available from many states’ waste management divisions for free or low cost. The black plastic helps to heat the matter inside which is a big help. In my opinion, these things are really cumbersome, but that’s probably because I’m lazy and short and it’s hard for me to turn a pitchfork inside the thing. For such a low cost, however, they’re an awesome introduction to composting.

These things are hands-down my favorite method of composting. Called “compost tumblers” (which is actually the name for ComposTumbler’s design, not sure if it’s trademarked), they feature an off-the-ground, easy-to-spin shape. Because you can so easily turn the barrel, the composting materials inside are exposed to more oxygen and more even heat, allowing breakdown to occur faster. Some models feature a vent where you can collect compost tea (the liquid leftover from breakdown, which can be applied to plants similarly to the compost itself).

I love these things. They’re far less work than the other, cheaper methods and provide much faster results. They can be pricey but I think they’re totally worth it. Now other companies are competing with varying sizes so if you don’t produce a lot of kitchen waste, you can get a little porch-sized tumbler. They’re also making ball-shaped ones that, honestly, are just fun to spin. (Kids LOVE this kinda thing.) If you’re extra adventurous, check out this Instructables site for constructing your own tumbling composter.

So you can save money and use a more labor-intensive method (compost needs to be regularly stirred up to increase oxygen circulation), or spend a little money and drastically reduce your labor. Which means that pretty much everyone has an option for composting.

So why bother composting? As I said in the last post, landfill space is perpetually taken up with materials that could be turned into soil instead of being thrown into a giant leaky hole in the ground. It just makes sense to save our landfills for things that aren’t going to break down the same way. When landfills fill up, we obviously need to make new ones, and it’s just unnecessary waste. Nobody likes landfills, so why not reduce what you’re sending to it every week? You’d be absolutely shocked (if you eat vegetables or make coffee everyday) how much less garbage you have every week if you composted, especially if you’re conscious about your non-biodegradable waste products.

If you live in an apartment and you don’t have a backyard in which to compost, get creative. Do you have friend with yards? Do they have gardens? Consider going in with a friend for a composter. There are small kitchen-counter tubs that you can keep your weekly waste in before delivering it to a compost bin or pile. How about starting a composting club at your kid’s school?

In some cities, people are starting their own businesses picking compost up curbside. Earthgirl Composting in Vermont delivers a 5 gallon bucket that can be kept outside if you’re concerned about smell (which usually isn’t nearly as much of an issue as most people think it’s going to be) and you can pay her to retrieve it. Cascade Couriers in Oregon does the same kind of thing. If you don’t have one of these awesome services, find one of your local farms and see if they have a community composting program.

Finally, if you love all things critter, you might be interested in vermicomposting. Vermicomposting means composting with worms. Essentially, you can build or purchase a box (or tub), load it with newspaper shreds and some red wrigglers, and treat it like a compost bin. Happy worms will eat pretty much any vegetable waste (and a variety of other things you wouldn’t expect), and then – well – poop out a compost called “castings” that may seem gross to us, but seriously makes plants happy. (It doesn’t smell like poop if you’re wondering.)

In an era where at least 11% of what we put into landfills is completely biodegradable and most of the planet’s nutritious topsoil is gone forever, rebuilding the soil wherever we can is key to living sustainably. Composting is easy, rewarding, and has positive effects in a variety of ways. So get to it!

Do you compost? Let me know your experiences! :) Thanks for tuning in.

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Posted on December 11, 2010, in Connected Living and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I do want to compost for my garden. But I am both lazy and a cheapskate. I really want a tumbler. But my pocket book says no. I could do with just a pile, but my laziness kicks in. Humm. Too many excuses. It’s time to just get busy with doing ‘something’!

    • You know Wendy, this year I literally just picked a spot in my garden and threw my kitchen refuse there. It usually didn’t smell because it breaks down so quickly in the hot sun out here, and I’d just stir it up every now and then. :)

  2. Any tips for composting in really wet climates? I live in Northern Ireland and for every weeks worth of rain we might get a day or two of sun. I’d love to begin composting, even if just in a large bin at the back corner of the garden, but I’m worried that without enough sun and heat it won’t break down properly.

    • Hi Elizabeth! This is a great question, thanks! I will do some digging to find a good answer. I wonder if creating a pseudo greenhouse over the area you wish to compost in might work? It seems like retaining the heat and buffering some of the moisture would help things break down more quickly. Even better would be to look into compost tumblers in Ireland and create a structure over that – they’re black to attract more heat, and they break down organics far more quickly than a yard pile. I will get back to you!

  3. Moved to a home in NS and there is a composter in my yard it is like the first picture you have posted on your site just a big black barrel plastic with a top I opened it up and there is what looks like clean sawdust or hamster shavings (that is my best description) I have no idea how to use one of these and wondering if you can tell me how I start using this?

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