Food scraps and yard waste make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away, and they should be composted instead, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By making compost, the EPA explains that these materials will then stay out of landfills (where they take up space) and stop releasing methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Composting these wastes also creates a product that can be used to improve soil, grow more crops and improve downstream water quality by retaining pollutants such as heavy metals, nitrogen, phosphorus, oil and grease, fuels, herbicides and pesticides.
If you’ve ever considered composting, but haven’t followed through because you were concerned about the amount of time and work involved, felt you didn’t have enough space, or just didn’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered with composting basics to see if it’s right for you.
Evaluating your space (and making the most of it)
The good news is that whether you live in a house or a smallapartment, you can still compost. In an NPR article, “How To Compost At Home,” it says that all you need are worms and a 5-gallon box for vermicomposting – which is achieved through vermiculture, or employing worms to make compost.
“There are times when I made [my worm box] an ottoman so I could relax with my feet up on them!” the article says,. “You can use it like a piece of furniture.”
While that may solve the limited space issue, it doesn’t help the people who don’t want a trash area in their home. If you don’t have a backyard for composting, you can see if you can take your food scraps to a compost pile at a community garden, or ask your local grocery stores, restaurants or farmers’ markets if they’ll take it. Some cities and towns even have programs to pick up your food scraps from your house.
What food scraps and yard waste should you use?
The two main ingredients for your compost mix are high-carbon or “brown” materials and high-nitrogen or “green” materials, according to Gardeners.com.
Common brown, or high-carbon, compost ingredients are papers, dry leaves, sawdust or wood shavings, corn cobs and stalks, twigs and sticks, and egg cartons.
Common green, or high-nitrogen, materials are coffee grounds, eggshells, fruit and vegetable scraps, flowers, feathers or hair, and grass clippings. Gardeners.com explains that microorganisms and other soil fauna work most efficiently when the ratio of carbon-rich (brown) to nitrogen-rich (green) materials in your compost pile is approximately 25:1. There’s no need to stress too much about achieving a perfect 25:1 brown-to-green ratio, though, since all organic matter breaks down eventually. One of the sample compost recipes that they suggest includes 2 parts dry leaves, 1 part fresh grass clippings and 1 part food scraps. Then, you spread the ingredients in 4-inch layers and add water as necessary.
What food scraps and yard waste should you not use?
Pet droppings (especially from dogs and cats), inorganic materials (like aluminum foil, glass, plastics and metals), and paper with colored inks that contain heavy metals or other toxic materials should not be added to your compost pile, according to Planet Natural Research Center.
This NPR article says that you may want to avoid adding meat and dairy products to your compost pile, since they can attract rodents and animals. Cooked foods, buttery and oily things, and bones are also known to attract pests.
Storage containers (for food scraps and compost)
You can get creative when it comes to storing the food scraps that you’ll later add to your compost pile. Some of the different types of bins for your compost are plastic stationary bins (for continuous rather than batch composting), tumbling or rotating bins (for making batches of compost all at one time), and a separate worm composting bin – or a watertight container that can be kept where the temperature will remain between 50 and 80°F, since worms can’t tolerate high temperatures, according to Gardeners.com. Other options that they list are wire bins, plastic trash can bins, block or brick or stone bins, wood pallet bins, and two-bay or three-bay wood bins.
How long does compost take to break down?
Composted items can take anywhere from four weeks to a year to decompose, according to Green Matters, since different items and compost work on different timelines. You’ll know that your compost is finished when it looks dark and crumbly like dirt. You can also test it out by putting a handful into a sealed plastic bag, as Green Matters explains.