In case you missed it, the planet is dying (thanks to us!). So, naturally, consumers have taken it upon themselves to do their part in reducing their waste usage by cultivating a more sustainable lifestyle. Think paper straws, rubber snack baggies, going vegan, reusable water bottles—and composting. Yep, the thing that you thought was only for farmers or homes with backyards that could fit, like, nine Slip ’N Slides.
Here’s a fun fact that’s also not so fun: According to the USDA, 30 to 40 percent of the food in the United States goes to waste. And composting is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to reduce how much food waste you’re sending out into the world.
Before you get overwhelmed about the idea of starting a little dirt pile in your home, I’m here to tell you that’s wholly unnecessary. My roommates and I have been composting for more than three years now while living in a fourth-floor New York City apartment with a perpetually leaking ceiling. And while our process (more on that below!) has been working for us, I realized that I Don’t? Actually? Know? What? Composting? Is?
Yes, I know you put the food scraps in the Earth and then they go back to the planet and you’re doing a good deed and the flowers grow. But to find out how it works and why we should all be doing it, I talked to a handful of experts to answer my burning questions. Here’s why you should get on the composting train as well.
So what is composting and why should I be doing it?
There are two ways to look at compost, says John Biernbaum, PhD, professor of horticulture at Michigan State University. There’s the act of creating your compost pile with your scraps and then there’s the compost itself, which is organic material that can be added to soil to help plants flourish and grow.
Remember that fun stat about all the food that ends up in landfills in the U.S.? By composting your food scraps, you’re effectively minimizing how much waste you send to landfill every day. In turn, that reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the air by decomposing landfill waste. You know, that thing that’s destroying the Earth’s atmosphere by trapping heat and melting the polar ice caps? Yeah, that.
By creating a compost pile, you’re taking your food waste and essentially recycling it to create homemade fertilizer for your garden (or someone else’s if you donate your scraps to a composting company).
An important thing to remember about composting in general is that it’s one big ♫ciiiiiiircle of liiiiiiife♫: “Composting cultivates nutrients for the Earth,” explains Biernbaum. “That, in turn, makes the soil healthy, which then makes the plants healthy, which then leads to healthy animals [when they eat the plants] and then healthy people [when they eat the animals or plants].” Voilà!
That’s all pretty dope. How can I start my own compost pile?
If you’re lucky enough to have outdoor space and a garden (my 8 x 9 bedroom is screaming at you rn), you can start composting right in your backyard. All you need is at least three square feet of space and a composting bin to throw your scraps in. Pro tip: If you are doing this outdoors, use some chicken wire or fencing to protect your pile from hangry animals.
But it doesn’t end with flicking your banana peel into a cute new bin. One thing people get wrong when starting their own composting pile is thinking you just throw food in a pile and it suddenly becomes a compost, says Jean Bonhotal of the Cornell Waste Management Institute. For your scraps to become a healthy compost pile, you need a mix of “brown” and “green” waste—aka carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich matter, respectively. Green waste includes moist matter, like your food scraps, while brown waste is dry matter, like dead leaves and wood chips.
For your compost pile to effectively turn into fertilizer, you need to maintain a balance in the materials you’re throwing in there. The brown waste is super rich in carbon, which feeds the organisms breaking down your scraps. When combined with green materials that are rich in nitrogen, a gas that makes up a majority of the Earth’s atmosphere, the two types of matter form an environment that allows microorganisms like your bb composted fertilizer to form. Ya got all that?
None of that Very Cool Science™ can happen without water and air though. “Water is the most limiting thing when it comes to an effective compost pile in your backyard,” explains Biernbaum. So make sure the water (whether it’s rainwater or you watering the pile yourself) and air is flowing so that sweet, sweet nitrogen and carbon can do their jobs.
Brief pause to show you the cutest composting bin I’ve ever seen:
Okay, but can I still compost if I’m living in a big city?
You can *absolutely* get your compost on. If you’re cool with rotting food disguised in a chic compost bin, you’re all set. Not so much? Biernbaum suggests setting up a food scrap collection bin in one of your bottom refrigerator drawers. Just place a biodegradable bag inside a plastic bag for transporting. The refrigerator helps keep your garbage from smelling until you can bring it to the collection agency. (Psst, this is what I do and it’s great.) A quick Google search can help you find a local compost collection company that can turn your leftover salad into organic fertilizer.
Or if any of your neighbors have a large backyard or garden, ask them if they can take your compost. You can also consider vermicomposting, which is basically where worms process your scraps in a container for you. Yup.
What should I be putting in my compost bins?
Other than the obvious food scraps like fruits and veggies, you can compost eggshells, coffee grounds, and tea bags. If you’re out for a stroll and see a dead leaf on the ground, you can throw that in as well!
Okay, cool. What *shouldn’t* I be putting in my compost?
It really depends on your situation! For example, some collection sites in New York City do *not* accept any rice, grains, pasta, bread, meat, fish, and dairy, whereas others do. So if you plan on dropping off your compost at a collection site, make sure to separate your leftover greens from your leftover meat. Take a look at your local collection site and see what it suggests.
That being said, you should also avoid composting:
- Pet or human feces
- Any kind of wood treated with preservatives or chemicals
How long does it take for my food scraps to compost?
Honestly, it all depends! But according to Biernbaum, it can take a handful of weeks to months depending on the size of your pile. The smaller the pile, the faster it decomposes. But when your compost looks and smells like soil, it’s ready to bless your plants with.
Sooo let the composting begin! Unrelated but very related, please send me any and all dirty composting puns.
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