I had an epiphany when I realized that I was a devastating part of the cycle.
Plant the food. Grow the food. Cook the food. Eat the food. Throw the food in the trash and bury that plastic bag in the ground.
Despite all my efforts to support farms, eat organic, and generally be “green,” I was ruining the earth. I was contributing to the depletion of soil by eating those nutrient-rich fruits and veggies, and I wasn’t giving anything back. I loved the planet, but I didn’t think about the dirt.
It was only then that composting clicked for me.
Almost 150,000 tons of food are tossed out every day in American households. Composting will change your life because it’s the most practical, satisfying way to see a return on your efforts to live a sustainable life. Below, I’m sharing how anyone, anywhere can learn how to do it.
What exactly is composting?
Compost is decomposition. It’s the same thing that happens in nature on a forest floor: the breakdown of organic matter to replenish soil nutrients so that new organic matter can grow.
The food you throw in a trash can is going to decompose one way or another — all at-home composting does is aide that process along in a climate positive way.
Do I need a backyard to compost?
Nope! A common misconception is that apartment-dwellers can’t compost. No matter where you live, rest assured that you can. The only difference between having, say, a giant plot of land or a galley-size kitchen is the amount of research required before you start. You’ll need to know where your scraps will end up or have access to some earth to work with. (More on that later.)
Large cities are increasingly making it easier to compost, either by offering pick-up services or hosting collection stalls at Farmer’s Markets. You can even call your zip code’s waste management department to see what organic matter they take in green bins and if they compost on a commercial level.
Don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel and ask for solutions — yours could be the first step in sparking a local revolution.
How do I build a compost pile?
Think of composting in two parts: the collection point (inside) and the dumping point (outside). Whether you live in a house or an apartment, the inside bin can look the same: a plastic or stainless steel (recommended) collection pail designated for composting. This is easy to find in almost any home supply store.
Look for one that’s easy to wash, doesn’t absorb odor, and allows for air flow. This will be where you’ll place your scraps after cooking or at the end of a meal. You’ll transfer your inside bin to your outside bin every 3-4 days, depending on how full it gets.
The outside bin can be any size, though it’s recommended not to go any smaller than 3′ x 3′. I’ve had two different outdoor bins for two very different living situations and both have worked well. When I was living in a house with a backyard, I had an old plastic grain bin slightly elevated off the ground, open on top, and with several drainage holes drilled in the bottom. Today, I live in an apartment with only a narrow walkway of dirt next to the building. I’ve made my own outdoor bin by stacking three wooden apple crates (removing the bottoms from each), lining the interior of the stack with chicken wire, and using one of the removed bottoms as a lid for the top.
The most important consideration for your outdoor bin is to construct it in a way that allows for constant air flow. This is why the apple crates work well, due to the slight gaps in the wood. Recycled pallets would also work, as would a container with several small holes. (Worried about pests? Keep reading.)
If you’re not into DIY, you can also buy one ready-made.
A tip if you live in a large apartment building: unless someone is coming to pick up your compost directly, you will need access to some sort of outdoor space. If you’re worried about taking up a tiny portion of your complex’s common area, talk to your neighbors about making this a community compost that anyone can add to (once they understand the rules). It’s a great opportunity to educate and provide a service. If your management has any concerns, let them know this is akin to gardening and something you are willing to take responsibility for.
What can I compost?
Remember your browns and greens. Most people who have a negative connotation of compost picture a smelly, fly-ridden trash can. This is not what a compost bin should be. The key to successful compost is the ratio of browns (carbon sources such as dried leaves, flowers, sticks, shredded newspaper, and uncoated cardboard) to greens (nitrogen sources such as fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grinds, and egg shells).
You’ll want to the ratio of your bin to be two or three part browns for every one part of greens. This is important for keeping pests away and to ensure there is enough material to break down without turning to smelly sludge. Every time you add your inside greens to your outdoor bin, get in the habit of adding more browns and stirring everything together to aerate, bringing what’s near the bottom up to the top.
After doing this for several weeks, you’ll start to notice that what’s on the bottom of your bin should look like crumbly potting soil and smell earthy, not stinky. If your pile is too dry, it’s a sign you need to add more greens. If it’s too slimy or wet, then try adding more browns.
At-home compost approved: Fruit peels, fruit cores, vegetable skins, animal fur, nail clippings, houseplants, nut shells, coffee grains, bread, egg shells, sawdust, tea leaves, yard trimmings, uncoated paper, fireplace ash from natural wood.
Not at-home compost approved: Meat products, bones, fish, dairy products, grease or fat, oils, eggs, diseased plants, pet feces, anything treated with chemicals or pesticides, coal or charcoal ash.
A tip on worms: Vermicomposting is a kind of composting that relies on a certain type of earthworm (red wiggler) to digest organic matter, which can eat its weight in one day. You don’t need to add any outside worms to your bin if you are composting at home in the conventional method.
If you have a very, very small space, no access to an outside area, or there isn’t a pick-up solution near you, then vermicomposting could be your best option. This is helpful to get you started
When is compost “done”?
The end game for compost is healthy, earthy soil. As you continue to add to and mix up your bin, within a few months (depending on how much you are adding at a time) this should be the majority of what your bin contains. You can use finished compost as fertilizer in a garden, potting soil, a housewarming gift (I am not joking; bags of organic dirt can be pricey!) — or give some love to Mother Earth and spread it around what’s growing in your neighborhood.
Then, start your bin up again! It’s amazing how doing this one small thing for the environment will connect you with it like never before. Since starting a compost pile, I’ve naturally produced less trash, less food waste, and have felt like my actions were truly making a difference — I even have the dirt to prove it.
For more information, check out this guide from the EPA.