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Composting: The Whys and the Hows

San Francisco does it. Portland does it. Vermont does it. NYC is doing it next. Composting is coming to a bin near you. Are you ready?

Composting is serious business. We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton. Our country is throwing out 40% of the food we grow. Poof, gone, all that hard labor, time and money into the trash.

And all this garbage could be helping us. That wilted lettuce in the back of your fridge could be working for you. There is good reason it’s called “black gold.” Time to get over the ick-factor, be a responsible adult and give back to the soil.

How exactly does composting work and what are the real benefits?

I sought out expertise from Rebecca Louie, the self-proclaimed Compostess. I first saw her speak at an alternative energy event in the city and I have never met someone so jazzed about compost. Her enthusiasm was palatable and I think she convinced every person in the room to begin a home composting program.


WHY COMPOST?

Rebecca says, “About ⅓ of what goes to landfills can be composted. However, instead of being transformed into something useful, most of it sits tightly squeezed under junk in landfills releasing methane and CO2 into the atmosphere and leaching ammonia into the soil and water streams. The effects of pollution and climate change we all know: it’s not good, and it touches every aspect of our daily lives.”

Our food scraps are full of energy to harvest. Rebecca proclaims, “Imagine if we could eliminate that burden on the planet and instead create an amazing soil amendment to grow things in. Imagine if we harnessed some of the byproducts of composting and decomposition as energy and heat sources. The beneficial ripple effect — an alternative to fossil fuels, an increase in healthy soil/green-space/agriculture, a general shift in how we define resources vs. waste…this is all very powerful stuff that can heal the health of many social, political and economic ills!” I’m right there with her. Composting has the potential to be an abundant energy source considering the annual food waste rate of 1.2 million tons.

Composting also leads to healthier soil. Years and years of poor soil management has led to stripping of the earth and we’re actually losing top soil at an alarming rate. And without top soil we are unable to grow nutritious food. Soil contains key nutrients like magnesium, zinc, and copper that are absorbed by the plant as they grow. Composting adds these nutrients back to the soil, producing better quality food.

And to bring composting back to the smaller scale, it will impact the health of your home. Throwing food matter into the garbage makes for a smelly trash can and multiple trips to the outside receptacle. I remember having to take out my trash a few times every week. Now it’s maybe once every two weeks. Composting cuts down on smell, indoor air quality, and trips to the trash can.

Composting: The Whys and the Hows

HOW TO COMPOST

Composting can be as simple as dropping your food scraps in a designated bin or as complex as a large-scale science project. Rebecca says, “I think there is a lot of understandable fear surrounding composting…. (but) the surprising reality is that when following best practices, composting can be an easy, pest and odor-free activity that is largely unobtrusive in a person or work place’s day-to-day life.” In Rebecca’s book, Compost City, she “demystifies and fun-nifies” composting for eco-curious people.Compost City by Rebecca Louie

Here are some options to get a system going in your home. I’ve categorized them from Easy to Advanced.

EASY

  • Collect your food scraps in a small plastic bag. Store it in your freezer and drop it off once a week at a designated drop-off area. This is what I do and I’m fortunate to have a year-round farmers market drop-off spot.
  • Community gardens also offer compost drop-offs year round.
  • Use an air-tight composting bin like the Epica Bin or the Norpro Keeper in your kitchen. These keep it out of your freezer. You’ll still have to drop-off the compost at a local bin or garden.
  • Curbside Pick-ups. All you do is drop the compost into an outdoor bin, and the city collects it for you. This is the convenience winner. The con: It’s only available in select cities like San Francisco, Seattle and limited areas of New York City right now.   
  • Compost pick-up services like Vokashi Kitchen Waste Services or Earth Mamma Compost. These services provide you with a compost bin and then pick-up from you weekly.

Wondering what to compost? Check out this handy graphic created by my friend Elizabeth of The Note Passer by clicking here.


INTERMEDIATE

Now we get into the science projects.

  • Vermicomposting involves earth worms converting food waste into compost. Yes, that does mean worms in your house. If you’re at all squeamish about this, then move on to another option. In vermicomposting you need a sturdy container filled with shredded newspaper, worms and food scrapes. Then you just top it with a lid with holes for ventilation. Worms eat their own weight in soil and organic matter every day, so this system is super efficient. You can even keep it right in your kitchen. Check out this Vermicomposting 101 Guide to get started.
  • Bokashi is a the process of fermenting food scraps to prepare them for composting. Rebecca explains, “using wheat bran inoculated with three specific types of microbes, you can ferment all your food waste — including meat, dairy, cooked and oily foods — in an air tight container. (Those foods are usually excluded from aerobic composting because they raise several maintenance issues.) I use 5-gallon lidded buckets both in my home and at my workspace, where we bokashi everything from our fridge-cleanouts as well as coffee, tea and fruit/veg peels. Once the bucket is full and its contents have fermented, it needs to be buried in soil to complete its transformation. My office partners with a community garden to do this; I bury my personal scraps in my window boxes, in the yard of my apartment building, and in containers/planters that I will eventually grow plants in. However, if you don’t have a place to bury your scraps, bokashi won’t work for you.” Read Rebecca’s article on Bokashi to learn more


ADVANCED

  • Backyard Bin System. This one is for the dedicated gardener and takes some construction skills. Build your own three-bin composting system with wood, chicken wire and good ol’ man power. Click here for a handy how-to guide with photos.
  • Take matter into your own hands (pun intended!) and begin a composting system at your community garden or a local park. You can work with a team to build a compost bin and the garden/park may have funds to put towards the project.


The “easy” methods work best for me. I like the convenience of keeping the compost in my freezer and simply handing it over to the drop-off location. So then they can make the actually compost magic and I stay dirt-free.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the Compostess Rebecca advises beginning where you’re comfortable, “even if it is just composting one teabag or banana peel at a time.” Gradually build up as you get more familiar with the system. Composting is a habit and a new habit takes repetition to make stick.

The Compostress - Rebecca Louie

Rebecca Louie is a certified NYC Master Composter, Catskills beekeeper, playful gardener and all-around green girl. As the Compostess she helps New Yorkers get down to earth with a range of home composting strategies and delightful eco-taining events. Her new guide is Compost City: Practical Composting Know-How for Small Space Living!


RESOURCES:

Bloomberg Plan Aims to Require Food Composting
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/17/nyregion/bloombergs-final-recycling-frontier-food-waste.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2

Why Compost? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/food-politic/why-compost_b_3567964.html

Composting At Home, 
http://www2.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home

Make Fertilizer Faster By Building The Ultimate Compost Bin
http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/make-fertilizer-faster-building-ultimate-compost-bin


5 Comments Composting: The Whys and the Hows

  1. Mel

    Very nice. Composting really is so easy. You can get “fancy” with it (compost teas, etc.) if you want to, but I know many people who have a simple outdoor garbage can w/drainage holes setup. Start somewhere, but start. 🙂 Mel at catesgarden

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  3. Pingback: All the Ways You Can Compost in New York City | Ecocult

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