One of my earliest memories is of shucking corn at the compost pile in my backyard in rural Connecticut. As much as boiling the corn, slathering it with sweet butter and eating it, the act of pulling off the husk and removing the silk is deeply ingrained in my being. We’re all taught from a young age that in order to get something we want, we have to work for it, and that was true even when it came to corn on the cob.
Later on, at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. I collected compost in my on-campus housing and brought it to the college farm where it was processed and then used to fertilize the soil that the vegetables I later ate grew in.
Today, I drop off my compost once a week at a convenient location next to my subway stop in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It’s processed at a local urban farm in Red Hook and then used in tree and plant beds nearby and at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Composting is as local as it gets. I’ve been doing it my whole life. It’s easy. It’s important. And today, with the future of the planet on the line, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be doing it, too.
Compost collection is happening in cities and towns across the country, and at an impressive rate. A 2017 report from the D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) showed that residential curbside collection of organic materials had more than doubled in the previous three years, and that drop-off sites were serving approximately 6.7 million households in the country.
If this will be your first foray into composting — or if you live in a place where compost collection has yet to become standard—here’s what you need to know to get started.
Sometimes called “food scrap recovery” by advocates, composting at its most basic level removes unused organic materials from the waste stream. This cuts down on the volume of garbage going to landfills and on the transport of trash from residences and businesses to waste-management facilities.
“Food scraps and other organic materials, they are the heaviest, wettest, stinkiest part of our trash,” explained Linda Bilsens, Project Manager of Composting Community, a project of the ILSR. “Think about that having to be picked up and taken to a landfill or incinerator. It doesn’t make sense to burn something that’s wet. By composting you’re avoiding that avenue of managing materials.”
It’s helpful to think of composting organic materials as another form of recycling. When the food scraps — and that includes everything from banana peels to egg shells to coffee grounds — are composted, they actually break down and become “black gold”, or a highly-nutritive substance that can then be used to improve soil health.
Composting advocates also like to stress how recycling food scraps means the organic matter, and its potential benefits, remains local, both replenishing local soils and cutting down on the transport of goods by trash haulers.
“Composting is a way to keep the resources in the community,” said Domingo Morales, Organics Recovery Program manager at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York City. “Stop thinking of it as garbage and think of it as a resource. Recycle something. Reduce greenhouse gas. Use it to green up the community.”
And at a time when climate change is on the minds of so many, composting can actually work to fight some of its effects. “Healthy soil can better withstand droughts and floods,” Bilsens said. “Biologically diverse soil can pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it. It’s a pretty exciting aspect of the work.”
According to ILSR research, soil with compost added can filter out urban stormwater pollutants by 60-95 per cent.
Additionally, diverting organic matter from the landfill can also tamp down the emission of methane gas into the atmosphere, Morales said, thereby cutting down on one of the primary factors driving global warming.
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How does it work?
In time, all organic matter will break down, or decompose. But composting is an active process through which humans encourage that breakdown in the service of getting something in return: Biologically-diverse and nutrient rich compost that can then be used as an organic fertiliser, as discussed above.
So just how does it happen? Morales explains: “Composting is an aerobic process, it must have oxygen in it. When food goes to a landfill it’s just thrown there. It creates acids and methane. But we can avoid that by putting oxygen into the mix. When we compost, we ensure the food scraps have air. The microorganisms that like air are beneficial, and that makes nutrients more soluble.”
Whether you compost at home yourself or the composting is done on a larger level at either a facility, farm or garden, the process is the same. The pile needs both greens (nitrogen-rich materials) and browns (carbon-rich materials), and it must be turned or moved every 2-3 days so that air gets into the mixture.
Greens are food scraps, grass and other items with a high level of moisture, and browns are generally dry leaves or clippings, brown paper bags, paper towels and napkins or newspaper (make sure the paper is black and white and non glossy.) You want to keep about a 2:1 greens to browns ratio for the most efficient break down.
The process can take months or longer, depending on how much material you are working with and how often you’re adding additional greens or browns to your compost.
“If you’re constantly adding stuff in, you’re just resetting that every time you add something,” said Morales. “It takes a lot of time to mature but once there’s no food in it, you can use it.”
Large-scale facilities are able to process materials much more quickly because the more scraps you’re working with, the hotter the pile is, thus resulting in faster decomposition.
What can be composted?
Generally speaking, all organic matter can be composted, from paper products to vegetable and fruit scraps to coffee grounds and even animal protein, but each compost drop-off site may have its own rules. Here’s a handy reference guide.
In New York City, compost is processed at such a rate that meat can be included in the city’s curbside collection program, but meat isn’t accepted at most drop-off sites at Farmer’s Markets. Before you start collecting, consult with your local pickup or drop-off location of choice to find out their specific requirements and guidelines.
How to store compost
If you’re collecting scraps in your home or apartment, most experts recommend storing the materials in a reusable plastic bin and keeping it in your freezer until you’re ready to drop it off.
You can also keep compost in your refrigerator, but because the materials are water-heavy, be on the lookout for spillage. (I double-bag my compost and store it in the the fridge because my freezer is too full.)
“I would suggest people freeze it until they’re ready to take it—try to time your drop off,” said Marisa DeDominicis, Executive Director of Earth Matter NY, a composting group that specialises in education. “The freezing part also helps keep you from getting it all over everything.”
There are also bins that were designed specifically for composting. They stay on your counter or can be stored under the sink, and have tight lids to contain smells and keep pests away.
Bag liners can be used if you don’t want to clean the bins (though perhaps you don’t want to add more plastic to the waste stream) and also for easy moving of the compost from the home to the drop off site.
How to compost at home
Those with backyards or land have another option available to them other than city based initiatives: Composting at home rather than just collecting your scraps and dropping them off.
There are a few different types of vessels you can use, depending on how much space you have and how much material you want to compost. Morales recommends a tumbler for small gardens and backyards in urban areas. It sits off the ground and is completely covered so as to keep rodents away, and there’s a crank on the side which spins and adds air to the compost.
Other options include compost bins and cans. Just remember you will need to aerate the compost with any bin, can or tumbler every 2-3 days.
Some composters use pitchforks or shovels while others use a compost crank. As long as you’re turning the materials and getting air into the mixture, any tool will work.
Pro tip: Chopping or cutting up your organic materials into smaller pieces will speed up the composting process by allowing the items to more evenly decompose.
Additionally, you need to consider rodents if your compost pile is outside. A small bin in a backyard may not break down at a rate that’s quick enough to keep rats away, especially if animal protein is in the bin.
In order to prevent possible rat problems, make sure to maintain the greens-to-browns ratio, turn often, and consider a bin that’s completely enclosed, including the bottom. Rats like to burrow underneath compost piles for heat, Morales explained. “You have to turn more frequently to destroy habitats for rats and to add more air,” he said.
For urban composters without outdoor space or anyone else who want to take a more hands-on approach, there’s vermicomposting, or composting with worms. “I actually feel if it’s a 1-2 person household the worm bin would be fun. It’s not that hard, and it’s inside,” said DeDominicis. “Benevolent neglect probably gets the best results.”
You’ll need a tupperware bin with vents, and it needs to be big enough to hold a pound of redworms, and a place to store it that’s neither too hot nor too cold — between 10 and 26 degrees is optimal. The worms will eat your scraps, DeDominicis said, but be sure to always have a “biofilter,” or top layer of shredded newspaper. “You want to create an area that’s covering over the actively working material that’s breaking down,” she said.
For more on vermicomposting, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a helpful how-to guide.
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The process of turning organic materials into fertile soil, aka composting, takes time, but every small part that humans can play makes a difference. And while some of us may be excited at the prospect of keeping worms in our apartment, others will be disgusted at the idea. That’s OK! Collect your scraps and drop them off at a collection site once a week. That’s easy enough, and it will make a difference.
And if you end up loving it, there are many opportunities for budding composters to become masters at the art. Groups like Earth Matter and The Institute for Local Self-Reliance host information sessions, trainings and more for composters — you might even be the one to bring composting to your community.