Food waste stinks. It smells up the kitchen, attracts pests, and fuels climate change, constituting 22 percent of discarded municipal solid waste in landfills, according to estimates from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
According to Celeste McMickle, a composting educator and founder of Celestial Solutions, a sustainability consulting firm, composting plant-based food waste is the easiest way to keep your kitchen smell free while reducing your impact on climate.
“Compost is such a great solution to that, because you take something — your food waste, which is a problem, which is generating methane gases in landfills which is heavy and wet, having to be transported long distances in trucks — and you suddenly turn it into a renewable resource,” McMickle tells NBC News BETTER.
How your food waste impacts climate
When we toss uneaten food from our plates into garbage cans, it eventually makes its way into landfills, which lack the oxygen necessary to break down organic material properly. As foods decompose in these oxygen-starved environments, they leak methane into the atmosphere, which has 34 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide, according to Project Drawdown, a coalition of researchers and scientists who are working on climate change solutions.
But when you put your plant-based food scraps in a compost bin with the right materials, oxygen and bacteria break down the organic material in a way that mimics decomposition in nature, and turns the waste into vital nutrients for trees and plants, says McMickle.
Different ways to compost
There are three simple ways to start composting, according to McMickle:
- Purchase a compost bin, which can be stored in a shaded corner of your yard.
- Store your plant-based food waste in a sealed container in your freezer, which you can drop off at your local farmers market to be composted.
- Join a community composting group where you live.
How to compost in your backyard
“Backyard composting is awesome, very straightforward, very simple, and something that anyone can do even with a small, little corner space to put a compost in,” says McMickle.
Composters are usually made out of high-quality material designed to not give off microplastics, McMickle says. Most major home improvement retailers sell composters that range in price.
“Usually, these systems will also have a small panel on the bottom that you can open up and remove the finished material, so as the compost is going through the decomposition process, the finished material will wind up at the bottom, and the new material that’s still decomposing will be at the top,” she says.
You can add your finished compost to your garden or house plants, street trees, give it to a local organization or community garden that collects compost, or you may even be able to sell it, McMickle says.
Before you start, you need to understand what you should and shouldn’t put in your compost bin, say McMickle.
The right compost recipe contains “greens” and “browns”
Your compost will need a proper mix of “green” materials, which are high in nitrogen, and “brown” materials, which are rich in carbon — both chemical elements are vital to the decomposition process.
- Greens can include your organic food scraps (vegetables and fruits only), fresh garden trimmings, coffee grinds and tea bags.
- Browns can include dry grass clippings, dead leaves, straw, sawdust, wood chips, dry flowers, dry garden trimmings, nut shells, egg shells, shredded cardboard and paper (use small amounts of cardboard and paper, and nothing that contains a glossy color)
What not to include in your compost: Meat, dairy products, bones, or pet feces, or anything that has been treated with pesticides/chemicals.
The “browns” to “greens” ratio: Be sure you get it right
Your compost will need an appropriate ratio of brown-to-green material. For every bucket of greens you add to your compost bin, you should add two buckets of browns, according to the NYC Master Compost Manual.
McMickle says many beginner composters make the mistake of not putting enough browns in their compost, or they throw in materials that don’t belong.
“You just want to make sure that throughout the composting process, your balance of greens and browns are such that the compost doesn’t get too wet or sticky, but still has a slight amount of moisture to it,” McMickle says.
She says a healthy compost has the moisture of a rung-out sponge and doesn’t smell.
“You really don’t want to have a huge mess back there,” she says. “You want to have some level of dryness to it. That is really going to facilitate both the composting happening really efficiently, but also it’s going to prevent smell.”
McMickle says composting doesn’t have to require a lot of work, but you can speed up the process by turning it regularly to add more oxygen to the process.
“Spend a little bit more time, go in, fix the pile up a little bit, see how it’s doing, make sure it’s not too wet or smelly,” she says. “But really, all you really need to do is add food scraps to it, and add browns to it. That I don’t think takes much longer than taking your trash out. It’s just dumping it in a separate bin.”
How to know when your compost is done
When your compost starts to look like black, crumbly dirt, and no longer resembles food waste, it’s ready to use, says McMickle.
“It’s going to smell nice and earthy like the forest floor,” she says.
The NYC Master Composter Manual has more detailed guidance on how to compost effectively.
Composting with worm bins
If you don’t mind slimy critters, McMickle says you can compost with a worm bin. Worm bins are simple containers with air holes, which you can make yourself or purchase. Worms can be purchased online, or at bait and tackle shops. Worms will eat your plant-based food waste, but they require tender love and care, says McMickle, and may not be the best option for beginners.
“Just try and make sure that you do your research to learn about different methods for worm composting and understanding what their needs and requirements are,” she says.
The EPA provides detailed guidelines on how to create a worm bin, and how to properly feed and care for worms.
Composting in an apartment
Don’t have a yard? You can store your plant-based food scraps in a lidded container in your freezer. McMickle says many people use large yogurt containers. Most farmers markets and some cities have drop off locations for compost, according to McMickle.
Get involved in a community composting program
McMickle says many cities, like New York, offer local composting programs and courses for locals. To see what’s available where you live, she says you can search the name of your city plus “community composting” online, or check out what may be available in your area through the Community Composter Coalition, a national network of community composters.
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