May 12, 2012

How to Start Composting, and My Best Case for Why to Compost

Before I lose any readers, I want to say upfront that this post isn’t just for gardeners. It isn’t just for people who grow food—or grow anything for that matter. And it isn’t just for people who live on a few acres in the country, or even who have a yard. This post is for people who eat food. If you apply, I truly hope you’ll read on, and then be flooded with inspiration about stockpiling rotting things.

This week is International Compost Awareness Week. (No, really, it is. Yes, this is a real thing. No, don’t stop reading because you’re suspicious that this is a lame reason to have an Awareness Week.)  

Most people in the U.S. don’t compost. In fact, in areas where composting is a really hot, hip thing to do, still only about a quarter of households do it. I think people think that there’s a big learning curve to composting. They guess that, if they wanted to start composting, they’d have to read a few books about how it works. Then they’d have to do all kinds of research about the supplies they’d need, and then, after that, they’d have to spend a whole bunch of money on the supplies. Then they might worry, after having spent all this time and money, the whole composting thing wouldn’t become an easy habit after all, and it all would have been for naught.

All of that stuff isn’t really true. You don’t need to read any books, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money. In fact, at most you’ll need to spend about $40 and you’ll need to set aside a couple of hours to get set up. That’s it. I know for a lot of people even $40 and a couple of hours makes composting seem like too much of a hassle to bother with. I get it. You might think of it as one more of those Things You’re Supposed to Be Doing But Aren’t. It’s really easy to say, “To hell with it. I’m embracing the one receptacle that takes no thought: the garbage can.”

But here’s the thing. Composting is actually pretty fun. It’s not hard. It makes a million kinds of environmental sense. It could save you money on your trash bill. If you have kids, it teaches them about things that are really valuable. If you don’t have kids, you probably can’t complain too much about the two-hour setup. I love composting. In fact, as I said to my dear friends Ann and Tim one day, “You have no idea how passionate I am about letting shit rot in a pile.”

Plus, the whole landfill thing is kind of a big deal. You’ve probably heard statistics about how much trash the average person creates (a lot), and about the alarming rate at which we’re filling up landfills (yikes). But landfills just aren’t a part of daily consciousness for most of us. (The only time we might have to confront them is when we need to take that one highway to go to that one place, and we have to drive past that one landfill and smell an icky, foul smell for two minutes, and even then we’re supremely annoyed at having to deal with this reality that we, as a society, create stinky beyond-enormous pits of garbage all over the place, but, really, the main thought we’re having is, “Will it get better or worse if I roll the windows down?”)

But they are out there, and they are a problem. Did you know that New York ran out of landfill space quite a few years ago and now ships its garbage (36 tons a day)—by truck or by barge—to other locations to be buried? To help improve our waste situation, the Three Rs of reducing, reusing and recycling are awesome, but we really ought to throw a C in the mix. Up to a quarter of what a household throws away could be composted. But even if composting didn’t help with our waste problem so much, I would still be a huge fan. I mean, “garbage” decomposing and turning into a super rich, beautiful soil amendment? Yes, please.

Here are some tips on how to start composting at home. You won’t regret this. If you do, please write me a nasty email.

If you have a yard, I highly recommend simple, open outdoor bins to toss your compostables into. You could even opt for open piles of compost (which cost zero dollars, by the way), but these could attract raccoons and other critters. I recommend at least two bins because you can start filling up one, then, as you switch to the other, the materials in the first can fully break down. You can make bins out of wood, or even out of simple posts and inexpensive chicken wire, like I did in my backyard. Here are the two bins I currently use:

Compost Bins of Chicken Wire and wooden stakes

If you don’t have a yard, you can compost in an indoor worm bin. These aren’t gross, they don’t smell, and you’ll gain a new appreciation for the awesomeness of worms if you have one of these bins. At least that’s what happened to me when I kept a worm bin for two years when we lived in a rental without a yard. But, alas, I had to give my worms and their bin to an adoptive family when I moved across the country (thank you, Jennifer—you’re a worthy worm mother). If you set up a worm bin, you’ll need some kind of tub, some bedding (I used coconut coir from a pet store), and some red wiggler worms. I used this worm composting bin kit to rig my bin into a well-ventilated worm home. The kit came with helpful instructions for how to take care of my worms (it’s surprisingly low-maintenance). My worms after I’d just added them to their bin:

Red Wiggler Worm in Coconut Coir Worm Bin

What You Can Compost

  • Fruit and veggie scraps
  • Grain-based waste (anything from stale bread or pasta left in the fridge too long to the crumbs at the bottom of the tortilla chip bag)
  • Yard waste (grass clippings, leaves, etc.)
  • Dryer lint (from cotton clothes or other natural fibers)
  • Paper and cardboard scraps (shredded or broken up somehow is best)
  • Coffee grounds and filters, and tea and tea bags (as long as the bags don’t have staples)
  • Egg shells
  • The stuff in the dustpan after you sweep (unless you sweep up weird things; use your best judgment)

What You Probably Shouldn’t Compost

  • Cheese, meat or oily food stuffs
  • Dryer lint from synthetic materials
  • Pet poop

Stuff You Can Compost If You’re Hardcore

  • Chicken manure, rabbit manure, etc.
  • Hair and fingernails (these things take a while to break down, but they will; don’t compost hair that’s been dyed with chemical dyes)
  • Urine (having the boys in your household pee on the compost pile is great, but not necessary if that grosses you out)

I keep a covered crock on my kitchen counter at all times, and just throw veggie scraps, coffee grounds, etc., in there, dumping the bin every day or two.

Compost Crock

If you compost, you’ll eventually end up with a finished substance: you know, compost. If you do grow any food, how to use your compost is a no-brainer. But if you don’t, here’s my suggestion for what to do with it: pass it along to someone who gardens. “Oh, great,” you might be thinking. “Now I’m supposed to go on a wild goose chase to get rid of this stuff I’ve created?” The thing is, I promise that if you call a friend or neighbor or family member who gardens and offer them free compost, they’ll be at your doorstep in five minutes with a shovel, a few buckets, and a smile. If you create compost and give it away, you’re connecting with people who grow food locally while you’re cutting down on waste: win-win.

I recently gave my friend Cote a few tips about setting up a compost bin in his yard. He and his wife Nicole are growing their first garden this year, and just this morning he sent me a picture of their finished bin. I called him to ask how much he spent on supplies and how long it took to get set up. His response: $15 and 10 minutes of setup time. I also asked what prompted him to start composting. “It just makes sense,” he said. “I was making all of this yard waste, getting rid of it, and I knew I’d just buy it back eventually—either from the city or in bags at the store. I figured I could just make it myself. It’s right in the backyard, I already have all of the materials, it’s free and it’s easy.”

If you’re ready to get started and have questions, feel free to leave a comment here and I’ll do my best to help you out. Or, if you already compost, share details about your setup and any tips you have with others by leaving a comment. Yay for composting!

Photos by Shelley Stonebrook