Updated: May 30, 2022
In honor of Earth Day, we've partnered with the lovely folks at Zero Waste who have created a handy and helpful compost guide for us. Ricky and I started using our city's compost program and we love it. Our trash has reduced by half, it feels great to know that scraps are feeding the planet, and they have a rewards system that gives back in soil (great for our garden!). How cool is that? Share below if you have experience composting or are new to it and excited to learn more!
Picture this: you’ve just whipped up a delicious plant-based recipe. The smell is tantalizing your tastebuds as it simmers on the stove, so you decide to clean up to distract yourself. You sweep the peels and scraps of vegetables into the garbage without much thought. After all, you’ve done it a million times before.
The scenario above is all too familiar. Food scraps, leftovers, and spoiled food get tossed into the garbage without a second thought. However, doing so may be a bigger deal than you think. When we send organic matter like food waste to landfills it gets tightly compacted and suffocates. This causes it to release potent gases like methane as it decomposes, which equates to approximately 7% of greenhouse gas emissions created.
Thankfully, composting is an easy and effective solution to combat this issue.
Benefits of Composting
Composting allows food and organic matter to decompose in the presence of air. In turn, this means that these organics don’t release greenhouse gas—and that is just one of the many benefits that composting provides.
Other composting benefits include:
Reducing water usage by helping soil retain water longer
Potentially assisting in reversing global warming by sequestering carbon in the soil
Infusing soil with key nutrients, which decreases the need for chemical fertilizers
Helping keep plants healthy to fend off pests naturally
Keeping your garbage from smelling and reducing the amount of waste you produce
Helping individuals and companies reach their zero waste goals
Freeing up valuable space in landfills
If all of those benefits sound great, but you aren’t sure where to start, this compost guide is for you! Below are some key tips that anyone can use to get started with compost. It includes an assortment of methods that will suit everyone, from the apartment dweller to the avid gardener, along with a basic list of what you can compost.
4 Ways to Compost: Which One is Right for Me?
The way you decide to compost will depend on your location and how much time you want to dedicate to the practice. There are 4 main methods.
Method 1: City Compost Program
What is it? Your municipality provides you with a large compost bin for free or a small fee. You load your compost into this bin over the course of a week or so (depending on the pickup schedule), then you place it on the curb on a designated day for pickup. These programs are similar to how recycling works.
Limitations & Challenges: If throwing out meat, we suggest keeping it in the freezer until compost day during warmer weather to avoid maggots infesting your bin.
Perks: Quick and easy. Plus, commercial compost piles are higher temperatures and can break down these more difficult items, unlike most at-home compost methods. Therefore, you can often throw products like meat and dairy in these bins.
Method 2: Backyard Compost
What is it? A bin or enclosure where you throw your compost on your property. There are endless backyard compost bins available for this purpose. Or you can build your own.
Limitations & Challenges: This method can get pricey if you decide to do anything fancier than a basic enclosure or pile. You will also have to pay attention to balancing brown and green matter to ensure that your compost pile functions well and doesn’t produce an unpleasant odor.
Perks: Great for gardeners, always accessible, and perfect for getting kids involved. Also, some cities will provide backyard compost bins free of charge.
Method 3: Worm Bin
What is it? Also known as a vermicomposter, this type of compost bin has worms in it. It takes only about 30 minutes a week to maintain and can be used indoors or outdoors.
Limitations & Challenges: Most worms bins cost upward of $100. You will also need to make sure your container doesn’t get too hot or cold so the worms don’t die.
Perks: Produces nutrient-dense and odor-free compost when done correctly, making it highly ideal for indoor gardeners. If cost is a hindrance, a homemade worm bin is relatively simple to make and only costs about $30.
Method 4: Drop Off
What is it? You save your compost to drop off at a designated point, such as a farmers’ market or a dropoff location that the city provides. Often this method is used by those that live in bigger cities where they don’t have the option of a pickup program or a backyard compost pile.
Limitations & Challenges: You have to take the extra time to drop off your compost. Many are also averse to this idea because they are worried about the smell. However, keeping your compost in the freezer until it is time to drop it off eliminates any smell (the freezer is a great tool for all compost methods if you’re worried about an odor in the house).
Perks: Makes composting accessible to those with limited options. Is also affordable on any budget.
What Can I Compost?
What you can compost will differ slightly depending on which method you choose, but here is a list of some universally compostable items to get you started.
Napkins and paper towels
Hair and nail clippings
Every city has different guidelines, so check with yours to see what is accepted. It can be helpful to post these guidelines near your compost in the beginning stages until you get a feel for what can go in and what should stay out of your bin.
Is one type of composting better than the other? Possibly, but it may not be for the reason you think.
The best compost method is one that will fit into your lifestyle, so try to pick a way that you and your family can keep up with and maybe even enjoy. After all, composting isn’t tricky or super smelly when you do it right, but it can make a significant impact on the environment.
Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.
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