Has the smell of your trash can ever made you plug your nose? Or has walking by a dumpster made you hold your breath until you found some clean air?
What if I told you that our trash doesn’t even have an odor? It just smells like… air. And it’s been that way for 5 years!
The secret? We learned how to compost!
In fact, “trash” really shouldn’t ever smell bad because food waste doesn’t belong in the garbage. I’ll share the reasoning behind this and then provide you with 5 super easy options for composting.
Rot: Waste or Purpose?
In our series of 6 “R” words (which began here), we’ve now covered the first 5: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, and Recycle. This brings us to our final word, our 6th “R” – Rot.
When using this word, there is an extremely important distinction to make.
Allowing food to just sit in a landfill, rotting in the sunlight on top of piles of random junk — this is waste. The landfill doesn’t have all the necessary components for food to properly decompose, namely soil and water.
Allowing food to rot in the right conditions, however, will turn waste into purpose. It will bring food scraps back into nature’s cycle of returning to the earth in order to be used again.
Did you know that 25-40% of all the food grown, processed, and transported within the U.S. will never be consumed?! (source) According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more food reaches landfills than any other type of municipal solid waste. Obviously, this creates a negative impact on our economy, but it also has giant environmental and social impacts. When food rots in landfills, it releases methane into the air. This is a strong greenhouse gas that is 21 times worse than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming! For this reason, “landfills are responsible for 1/3 of all methane emissions in the U.S.” And so much of all that food waste was actually still safe to eat and could have been donated to those in need.
So, about 40 million tons of food “waste” go to the landfill each year and rot without purpose. And in doing so, tons of value is also wasted, including: money, time, resources, and labor.
The result? Environmental, social, and economic injustice.
But it doesn’t need to be this way! YOU can help change the system. I am helping to change the system. If everyone just did their best, we wouldn’t have a perfect system, but we would see dramatic effects.
Following the first “R” words is important when it comes to reducing unnecessary waste overall. Many of these apply specifically to food, too. For example:
- Refuse to buy more than you need.
- Reduce your amount of food waste by consuming as much as you can. (I have a whole post on keeping your produce fresh longer)
- Reuse some scraps for another purpose. (e.g. citrus peels and vinegar make a lovely cleaning spray!)
Once you’ve narrowed down the amount of food waste you actually have, then you can give it a chance to Rot — with purpose.
When your scraps rot (or decompose) within an environment that produces compost, you end up with a pile of nutrient-dense fertilizer for your soil and garden. If you don’t have a garden, no worries! You can sprinkle compost into your potted plants or just over your lawn to promote healthy growth. If all else fails, you could totally list it on Craigslist or give it to someone you know. Many people would love to make use of your compost!
Whatever you end up doing with your compost, you’ve contributed to a circular system where nothing actually gets wasted. This is a super easy way to take care of our environment AND it has a major impact socially and economically.
How To Compost
You may be thinking, “that’s great, but I don’t have a yard…” Or “there’s no way I can take on something as complicated as composting…”
I’ve been there. I’ve done tons of research. And I can teach you how to compost no matter where you live or how skilled you are. This is also coming from someone who does not have a green thumb — I can barely keep succulents alive! But allowing material to just break down naturally and return to the earth? This, I can do. 😉
Here are some basic rules to follow, no matter the set-up:
- These components allow organic material to break down into compost naturally: soil (or microorganisms), air, heat, and water.
- Compost needs a mixture of “browns” and “greens”. Anything “brown” is carbon-based, like dried leaves, hay, shredded paper (not plastic-coated), twigs, straw, etc. Anything “green” is nitrogen-based, like food scraps and yard clippings. Try to mix a 3:1 ratio, so that you have more brown than green.
- Your materials just need to be mixed together well and then given time to decompose. Some set-ups (described below) require a bit more mixing than others.
- Any food/liquid can be composted, but you should NOT put animal products into your own pile. (e.g. meat, dairy, bones, etc) This will attract maggots or vermin. If you’re signed up for a collection service, check their specific guidelines.
- As your materials decompose into compost, it should smell nice and earthy — not like a gross smell. Keeping animal products out of your pile will help with this, too.
- Tip: We keep our food scraps in the freezer while we’re waiting to bring it out to the compost. This prevents it from smelling or molding indoors and allows us to wait longer rather than dumping scraps out in the compost pile everyday. (see photos below)
Composting is much easier than you may think. And you have options! Feel free to explore each of the options below and consider which one fits your lifestyle best.
1. Open Pile – Needs: Yard and Pitchfork
If you’ve got some space in your yard, the easiest compost set-up is just an open pile. If you want it to be partly contained and/or to have a lid on top, that’s totally up to you. But the most important part of this set-up is to keep the bottom on open ground. This allows worms and insects to naturally migrate into your pile and aid the decomposing process.
Kevin and I nailed 3 pallets together to create a structure around our pile and to help contain everything. The front pallet is not attached and can be moved easily. Same with the sheet of wood we keep on top. This makes it easy to access when we dump our food scraps and stir it up a bit. If the pile is looking dry, we’ll add a bit of water when we stir, but that’s about it.
The heat builds within the center of the pile. The bugs and microorganisms help break everything down. It pretty much takes care of itself over time.
To see more of this process, check out this video of someone who has a similar set-up to ours!
2. Closed Pile – Needs: Yard or Patio, Pitchfork, Bin
This type of compost pile doesn’t require much space, but it’s better to keep outdoors. Basically, you keep your pile in a closed container and follow the same guidelines as above. Dump materials, stir, and occasionally add some water. You can totally buy outdoor compost containers, or you can just DIY with something like a big trash can.
Watch this video to see how a woman made a compost bin for about $20!
3. Tumbler – Needs: Yard or Patio, Tumbler
An easy set-up that doesn’t require a pile or stirring with a pitchfork is a compost tumbler. This is typically a horizontal set-up that allows you to dump your materials, close the latch, and then turn the tumbler to mix everything up. If you tumble your ingredients daily and keep an eye on the moisture level, you can produce ready-to-use compost much quicker than the piles do!
You can buy one already made, or, if you’re feeling crafty, you can make your own for cheap! Here’s one video of a DIY compost tumbler, and another video that shows more of the hands-on process with a little bit of a different model.
4. Vermicompost – Needs: Small Space, Container, Worms
When I taught 1st grade, one of my favorite units was on earthworms! It was so much fun to learn about these tiny creatures and their powerful role in our ecosystem. Worms (and other microorganisms) eat organic material, aiding the break-down process. Their castings (poop) give vital nutrients back to the soil. They also naturally aerate the soil by moving through and creating tunnels for water and oxygen to travel.
Vermicompost is the fancy word for composting with a variety of worms — usually red wigglers. If you live in a small space or need to keep your compost indoors, a worm bin is perfect! It takes a little more upkeep, but the process is really fun to watch and totally worth it. Plus, if you’ve got kids, they’ll LOVE learning about natural ecosystems this way!
I would recommend two methods for keeping a successful vermicompost bin: the stackable system or the flow-through bin. Personally, I have not had success with using just one tub. I found it was very difficult to monitor the amount of air and moisture within the one bin. My worms would either die or the content began to mold. You may find more success than me, and if so – please share your secret! 😉
Here’s a video on the stackable system I’d recommend, or another video on the flow-through system that seems pretty simple. You can buy either of these ready-made, but the stackable system doesn’t require much if you want to DIY.
5. Compost Collection Service – Needs Depend on Service
You may not have the time / desire to maintain a compost pile but you still want to save food waste from going to the landfill. If so, try out a compost collection service! These services usually do all the hard work for you. All you really need to do is store your scraps until it’s time to deliver them. You may want to store them in the freezer so they don’t smell. Then simply pass them on each week.
If your collection service takes food scraps directly to an industrial composting facility, you may be able to compost animal products. Do a quick Google search to find available services within your area. If your area doesn’t have anything like this yet, consider donating your food scraps! Reach out to community gardens, farms, or other people you know who may want to compost your scraps themselves.
If you live in Colorado, here are a few resources:
Turn Your Scraps Into Gold!
Compost is also known as the “black gold” of the gardening world. It’s packed with nutrients and is incredible for plant growth. What you may have considered garbage is actually gold — let’s not waste it!
To sum up:
- Do what you can to reduce unnecessary waste overall (following the first R words will help)
- Allow whatever you have left to Rot with a purpose, therefore sealing this circular system into place
- Choose how to compost and the set-up that best suits your lifestyle, budget, and abilities
- Collect, mix, stir, moisten, give time, repeat