If you grew up as a city kid in a hippie-ish family like I did, compost may have been something you heard spoken about reverently but which was relegated to farm life.
It sounded smelly and messy and not like something you’d want on your apartment balcony — and definitely not in your kitchen where it might attract unwanted critters.
How times have changed.
As more people have embraced the idea of reducing their carbon footprint, composting has finally been recognized as a simple way to put less waste into landfills. With more municipalities and private companies providing options for residents of cities and suburbs to have their compost collected and then used in public parks or sold for use on farms or residential gardens, composting is now becoming more mainstream.
Ready to jump in? Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about composting but were afraid to ask:
Q: What is the point of composting?
A: It’s good for the planet. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 41 million tons of food waste were generated by Americans in 2017 alone, with just over 6% of that amount used for composting and 18% as combustion for energy recovery programs. The vast majority of food waste ends up in landfills, where it creates methane gas that damages Earth’s atmosphere and contributes to climate change. Food waste accounts for the largest single source of waste in landfills, clocking in around 22%, according to the EPA. Composting keeps food waste out of landfills and puts it to good use growing new food.
Q: OK, but what exactly is compost and why is it a good thing?
A: Compost is basically a nutritionally rich food for dirt, helping to grow stronger plants. When we take organic matter such as food scraps, shredded paper, and plant and grass cuttings and allow them to decompose naturally, they break down into a kind of food product that is added to the earth in gardens, farms and parks.
Q: What kinds of things can be composted?
A: Any food scraps are technically eligible to be composted, but it is best to stick to fruits and vegetables, egg shells, coffee grounds and their filters, tea and tea bags, and nut shells, which are pretty universally accepted by any composting facility. Shredded newspaper and paper, cardboard, houseplants, grass clippings and yard trimmings, leaves, fireplace ashes, hair, fur, sawdust, wood chips and natural fiber fabric scraps are also good candidates for composting. And how long does it take for your composted items to decompose? Most fruits and veggies will take a few weeks, while certain items such as banana peels and apple cores might take more than a month and orange peels as long as six months.
Q: Then what can’t be composted?
A: Anything harboring substances potentially harmful to plants. This includes pet waste (feces or soiled cat litter, which contain bacteria), diseased plants, coal or charcoal ash and plants that have been treated with chemical pesticides. Black walnut tree leaves or twigs are also said to be problematic and perhaps should be kept out of compost, although there is some debate over that.
Q: Why can’t I compost things like meat scraps or old bits of cheese?
A: Actually, you can, along with food-based fats and grease. However, you should check with your local composting facility, if you are participating in a curbside pickup or drop-off program, to make sure they accept those items. And, fair warning, if you’re concerned about smell, those are the items that can be a bit, well, odoriferous.
Q: Yeah, so that’s what I’m really worried about when it comes to compost: the smell.
A: This is why you need a good composting plan — which comes down to deciding what kind of method and container you’ll use, where you’ll store the compost, and how frequently you’ll be able to distribute it, whether through curbside pickup, a local drop-off site such as at a farmers market, or using it in your own garden. Generally, if your compost is in a container with a tightfitting lid, you shouldn’t have any issues with unpleasant odors.
How to do it
Now that you’ve got the general idea of why composting matters and how it works, there are several methods for home composting, whether you live in a small apartment in the city or in a single-family home in a suburban subdivision.
First, check to find out if your town has a free community composting program or consider subscribing to a residential compost service, which provides weekly pickups at a low cost. Compost can pile up quickly, so it’s important to have a plan for getting it out of your house in a timely manner.
Countertop compost containers: A countertop compost bin stores scraps that are going to be added to a larger outdoor compost bin. These containers tend to be small — holding a gallon or less — and can be made out of anything from stainless steel to ceramic to plastic to bamboo. Some of them come with biodegradable liner bags that can help keep the container clean, but the bags will begin to break down after a few days. Those designed with charcoal filters in the lids help filter unpleasant odors, and others can fit inside the freezer, which eliminates that smell factor.
Freezer and blender composting: As mentioned above, you can opt to store your compost scraps in the freezer — any kind of freezer-safe container will do — until it’s time for pickup or drop-off. Blender compost is made by putting your food scraps and old newspaper in a high-powered blender (another use for that Vitamix!), with enough water to cover, and pureeing it into a sludge that can be poured directly onto your plants.
Worm composting: Maybe you’ve always wanted a really quiet pet (or 1,000 of them) with a purpose. Known as “vermicomposting,” worms can eat a significant amount of food scraps each day, and then their castings (read: poop) become an excellent plant fertilizer. Bins can be made or purchased at a low cost and, if maintained properly, generate plenty of good compost for home use without much effort. To keep the worms thriving, you’ll want to provide a nice clean environment for them that is warm with plenty of air circulation.
Compact compost bins: If you’ve got a balcony, patio or even a large kitchen, then you might have room for a compost bin about the size of a typical kitchen trash can, which can be a great option for families that generate more food scraps and for anyone who is an active gardener. Some are smaller-scale versions of the traditional tumbler composter, producing compost in about six weeks, or you can opt for an electric model, which uses heat to accelerate the process to about two weeks. Or just go ahead and make your own, in any size, to custom fit your space and needs.