Food waste is generated through food scraps, unconsumed portions of foodstuff (e.g., coffee grounds, eggshells, fruit rinds, banana peels), and excess food that is thrown out. In 2012, food waste was the second highest constituent (14.5%) of the American waste stream (EPA). (As a side note, the yard trimmings subgroup was the third highest category with 13.5%; keep reading to see how these can also be reduced.) So, what is one to do with all of this waste?
Composting offers an excellent solution to the problem of food waste. Not only does it keep food out of the waste stream, but it creates excellent fertilizer for gardening. Even if you do not have a green thumb, compost reduces waste at minimal cost and generates material that can be given away or used as plant food for established plants. It may even inspire you to give gardening a shot!
Outdoor composting (set-up)
Indoor composting (set-up)
Outdoor composting (set-up)
Typically, composting is done in the backyard of residential property. If you participate in community gardens or other social groups where compost may be useful or food waste may be generated, consider composting there, as well. Be sure to contact your city code enforcement office before you begin composting – it would be unfortunate to put forth all of the work only to learn that composting is not allowed in the parcel’s zoning classification.
Steps for setting up composting:
1. Collect materials
Composting is more than just throwing your food in a pile. In order to optimize your compost pile’s output and reduce negative characteristics (e.g., smell), you need to balance wet and dry inputs. Generally, you can consider the following:
Wet inputs (green, nitrogen-adding)
Dry inputs (brown, carbon-adding)
Dead leaves (dry)
Hay or straw
Saw dust (untreated)
When adding wet inputs, including food, add about an equal amount of dry material, too. This ratio may change depending on the climate and the weather, so less dry material may be needed.
Do not add:
Grease or oil
Fatty foods, meats, or bones
Human or pet waste
Pine needles (pine needles are highly acidic and can ruin the pH balance)
Pesticide-treated plants (compost with pesticides may kill the plants it feeds)
Weeds with seeds or runners (these may sprout in the pile)
2. Select a container
The pile should be about one (1) cubic yard (3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet). Piles larger or smaller may require additional maintenance to increase efficacy. Containers for compost can be constructed from loose lumber (though untreated wood may begin to breakdown itself) or can be purchased from home improvement stores’ garden sections.
3. Choose a location
Generally, this will be in the backyard. Many cities have ordinances prohibiting composting in the front of buildings. Also, while a well-maintained compost pile should not generate odors or attract animals, it is generally polite to keep compost piles away from outdoor living areas and off property lines.
4. Build the pile
When beginning, lay down the base for your compost pile. If you have plenty of wet and dry inputs from above, alternate layers until the pile is built up. Mix together with a pitchfork or spade. If you do not have enough of the inputs, you can use soil as filler until the pile is fully built up (soil is considered wet input). Remember that it is important to have a good mix of wet and dry components in order to promote the health and productivity of your pile and to remove the odor that might otherwise be generated.
Indoor composting (set-up)
If you do not have a yard or do not want to work with a full compost pile, you can still compost on a smaller scale inside your residence. (Note: For renters, it is advisable that you ask your property manager for permission first.)
Steps for setting up compost:
1. Collect materials
Unlike outdoor composting, indoor composting is entirely self-contained. Many companies offer composting units. Alternatively, you can make one for yourself from a small garbage bin, a plastic storage container, or any other unit that possesses a lid and through which you can punch small holes for ventilation.
In addition to a container, you will need old newspapers, a small bag of soil, and a tray that will fit under your container.
2. Choose a location
Your compost container should be in a location that is large enough to house it, yet close enough to where it will be used that it is not bothersome to drag food waste to it. The cupboard under the kitchen sink is a great place, space permitting.
3. Punch holes in the container
Compost needs to breathe, so ventilation holes are required. Typically, a ring or two of evenly spaced holes around the top of the container and a few holes on the bottom of the container are enough. Make sure that the holes are large enough to get air in, but not so large that your compost leaks out. (If it does, though, the tray will act as a collector.) Remember: you can always make the holes bigger, but it is not as simple to seal them back up.
4. Cover the tray with newspaper
This will provide a substrate to absorb any moisture. It will also make cleaning easier. Afterwards, place the container upon the tray.
5. Add soil
The base of this compost, regardless of whether you have sufficient wet and dry inputs or not (see Outdoor composting (set-up)), is soil. Add a few inches to your container as your base layer.
6. Add newspaper
Add some shredded newspaper to the soil to provide the dry-wet balance needed to optimize your compost. Mix the newspaper into the soil to finish the preparation of your compost.
Whether you are engaging in outdoor or indoor composting, the steps to follow are similar. For outdoor composting, you will need wet and dry inputs stated in the Outdoor-composting (set-up) section. For indoor composting, you will likely only be adding food waste as your wet input and shredded newspaper as your dry input. Other than that, the process is largely different only with regard to size and the tools used. Differences beyond this will be addressed in the following steps.
1. Add waste
Once your compost is set up, you may begin adding compostable material to it. This will mostly involve food scraps, though vegetation may be added to outdoor composting. When adding waste, be sure to add roughly as much dry input as wet input. Add by digging to the center of the compost (from the top), mixing in the wet and dry input to the center. This is accomplished with a pitchfork or spade (outdoor) or scoop or trowel (indoor). Once mixed, bury the compost.
2. Ensure aeration
The microorganisms that digest compost have pretty familiar needs: food, water, and air. The food waste provides the first of these, and the others are easily met. For indoor composting, the food waste should provide the water and the holes in the container will provide the air. All that needs to be done is to ensure that the compost is not compacted. For outdoor compost, using a pitchfork or spade to gouge holes in the pile allows water and air to get into the depths of the compost, which helps digestion and waste breakdown.
3. Ensure nutrition
Eating a healthful diet is not just for humans. While any organic matter can be added to compost, processed foods may take longer. The more processed it is, the longer it may take. While not critical, it is important to bear this in mind, as it may impact how long it takes for your compost to break down.
4. Balancing inputs
A balance between wet and dry inputs will optimize your compost and improve the efficacy with which it turns waste into reusable material. While it is common belief that compost inherently stinks, this is not actually the case. Foul-smelling compost is often an indication that there is too much moisture. This can be balanced by creating more aeration (more holes) or more dry input. Alternatively, if the compost is showing no signs of breaking down, there may be too little moisture. Reducing dry input can help with this. For indoor composting, it is important to mix in a small amount of soil throughout the compost about once per week. This tends to help maintain moisture levels and improve waste digestion.
5. Harvesting compost
The compost will be ready for harvesting when it appears dark brown or black and has an earthy smell. When removing compost, be sure to place large chunks back in the compost container for further digestion.