The ABC’s of Composting - Public Goods

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The ABC’s of Composting

When my friend, Lindsey, told me about an environmentalist on Instagram who had fit four years worth of waste into a single mason jar, I had my doubts.

compost pile, humus

“Follow her on Instagram!” Lindsey pleaded. “She is literally changing my life!”

I took out my phone, tapped the Instagram icon on the screen, and typed in the handle, “trashisfortossers” into the search bar. A page with 283,000 followers popped up. Lauren Singer, the face behind @trashisfortossers, is an activist whose interest in sustainability was first piqued after reading Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring.”

I scrolled through Singer’s feed and tapped on a video of her in a kitchen with a mason jar in her hand. Inside the jar, she explains, is four years worth of trash, bits and pieces of plastic that are not currently recyclable in the New York City recycling program. She dumps out the trash and organizes it into categories: synthetically made clothings tags, desiccant packets found in vitamin jars to ensure freshness, plastic cling wrap, PLU stickers found on produce and wristbands from concerts and music festivals.

When the video finished, I was confused. How was this four years worth of trash? Where were the food scraps?

“Does she not eat?” I jokingly asked Lindsey. “My kitchen garbage pail constantly has apple cores and avocado pits in it.”

“She composts all her food scraps!” she said.

Composting. That was the first time I had ever heard the word. I continued to scroll through Singer’s Instagram feed and realized I was a newcomer. She had been practicing a life of sustainability for six years, providing tips and tools for zero waste meals through hundreds of Instagram posts for hundreds of thousands of people. Within a week, I had researched a dozen articles on composting and decided to practice this method to become a more sustainable person.

Composting is the biological decomposition of organic matter, such as the food scraps left over from meals, into nutrient-packed soil called humus, the Latin word for soil. This term, though coined in the 1700s, predates its century. In “Hamlet” (1603), William Shakespeare utilized the term as a metaphor to add weight to a contentious argument with his mother, the Queen of Denmark.

“Do not spread the compost on the weeds,” Hamlet remarks, as a means to admonish her sinful ways.

Even the ancient Akkadians — an empire that flourished in the rich soils of the Mesopotamia Valley between 2350 BC and 2150 BC — used manure, a form of compost, in their agricultural practices.

Healthy, organic vegetables and fruits are a direct result of composting. Unlike harmful pesticides, composting does not pose a threat to pets or animals.

It is also an ideal method for waste disposal. Composting breathes new life into the various food scraps that accumulate in the kitchen and would otherwise end up in landfills and incinerators — all which cost money to operate.

How to Compost at Home

To compost you will need to purchase a compost bin (or DIY), and place it in an area in the yard that receives only a moderate amount of sunlight; direct sun could have adverse effects. Collect all natural, organic waste such as vegetable skins, fruit peels, eggshells and coffee grinds you typically throw out. Not every scrap of food can be composted, though. Cheeses and meats, on the other hand, should not be added to a compost bin because they have the potential to lure in large animals, not to mention the petulant stench that pervades.

Take these scraps out to your compost bin and layer nitrogen-based scraps and carbon-based scraps into your compost bin, making a pile. Nitrogen-based scraps include produce scraps, lawn clippings, stale bread, manure and flat beer; and carbon-based scraps include cardboard and paper products, crunchy, dead leaves and twigs (free of pesticides), that sheet of lint that collects in the dryer and wine corks.

To promote the decomposition of organisms, add water for moisture. Every five to ten days, go out back to your compost pile and turn or till the layers. This practice aerates the compost pile and accelerates the decomposition of organisms, helps kill fly larvae, and covers lingering odors that could potentially lure in unwanted animals.

Repeat this process, adding layers of scraps, watering, and tilling, and in as little as two months, a loamy-like soil with a pungent earthy scent is ready. Add the finished compost to vegetable gardens or flower beds and watch your hard work pay off.

In an article titled “How to Grow the Tastiest Tomato? One Secret’s in the Soil,” NPR expounds on the work of horticulturist Harry Klee, who teaches at the University of Florida. Klee recommends “planting seedlings in rich soil with lots of organic matter, or compost.”

Sustainable Composting Products to Assist at Home

Composting, like any chore, requires dedication and time. Gardening tools like composting tumblers or barrels save time by allowing you to easily till compost piles with a handle or rotating base instead of using a shovel, but these tools tend to be on the pricey side.

One obstacle to composting may be a lack of yard space. Those who live in apartments or small spaces can purchase aesthetically-pleasing tabletop compost bins made of ceramic or bamboo — or other eco-friendly innovations like the Full Circle Scrap Happy Scrap Collector & Freezer Compost Bin. To eliminate odors in the kitchen, add a layer of sawdust on top of indoor compost bins. Or, as Full Circle’s product is designed for, place it in the freezer. Once these containers are full, bring them to a local compost drop-off location or donate to a friend or relative whose garden would benefit from your organic scraps.

Those who do not have the space or the time to compost can resort to municipal composting, an organics collection program that takes biodegradable matter and converts it into rich soil or renewable energy. Municipal composting varies by state and county. The Organics Collection Program in New York City, for example, provides free curbside pickup of food scraps and lawn clippings on a weekly basis.

Down in the sunshine state, the city of Ft. Lauderdale states on its website that its business community, specifically the restaurant and hospitality industries, has begun composting food scraps indicated on the Green Your Routine In Action map. Residents in East Thetford, Vermont drop off their food scraps at Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center where bountiful crops are grown each year. Over in Longmont, Colorado, individuals may either drop off food scraps and yard waste to the Water Division or pay $6.60 a month for bi-weekly curbside pickup.

Ultimately, we need to compost to promote a greener planet. If we fail to compost our food scraps, they end up rotting in landfills and decomposing anaerobically (without the presence of oxygen).

Staff from The Bokashi Bucket, a home composting system, explain that this lack of oxygen releases methane into the atmosphere, a toxic greenhouse gas that is “twenty times more harmful than carbon dioxide.” Even more disturbing, “rotting food in our landfills is the second largest source of man-made methane emissions.”

Methane not only contributes to climate change but also poses threats to our health, according to Tox Town, a product of the United States National Library of Medicine. With all of these alarming facts on the table — coupled with the knowledge that many cities offer free composting services — it seems obvious to adopt this sustainable practice into your life.

Additional Tips for Reducing Waste

1. Choose products that use zero-waste packaging such as recyclable paper.
2. Reuse aluminum foil. Stretch your dollar by cleaning used foil wrap in soapy water or the dishwasher.
3. Gravitate to a more plant-based diet. Loose fruits and vegetables are incredibly versatile for cooking and eliminate wasted packaging.
4. Make use of leftovers! The contestants on “Chopped” reinvent leftover dishes with ease, and so can you. Instead of throwing out the carcass of last night’s rotisserie chicken, boil it in water, remove the bones, then add in vegetables and seasoning for a delicious homemade soup.
5. Research! Organics can be used in various ways. One family who live off the coast of Maine dig clams to eat, then afterwards toss the hollow, clean shells on a patch of their front yard. Over several years, the shells have created a beautiful, natural driveway.

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

Comments (5)

  • This is a great article thank you! I am a renter so I don’t have any garden beds to give compost too, but I have recently discovered that in my local neighbourhood there is a composting collective. Every Sunday farmers market you can take your scraps down to them and they take them away to compost. They also run composting workshops and stuff like that. So even if you think you can’t compost because you’re apartment living – there might still be a way, it is worth exploring!

  • Great blog! Excellent info. I compost but sometimes forget my layering. I miss some good things that can be composted like cardboard. I’m definitely learning. It’s a process but I’m excited about it!

  • I’ve wondered for a long time now which if any of public goods products are compostable? For example, since I’m using a ayate washcloth, and sea sponge, both of which are organic material I’ve wondered if I could put them in my compost when it’s time to replace them. My only hesitation is that I’ve obviously been using (public goods) body wash on them, and I’m not sure how that would affect the compost.

    • Hi Nathan,

      Both of those products are compostable, and body wash residue shouldn’t be a problem. Soon we are going to publish a blog post with a complete list of our compostable products.

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