Compost: The Garbage Disposal Nature Intended
Happy Valentine’s Day. Nothing says after-dinner romance like plates piled high, trash overflowing and someone screaming from the kitchen sink: “THIS PIECE OF SH*T GARBAGE DISPOSER ISN’T WORKING AGAIN!”
Why even waste time with a garbage disposer? Start a compost! Heck, ditch those nightly chats with the curb trash for a garden.
"Do I look like the Jolly Green Giant to you?"
So, you don’t have a green thumb. Guess what? You’ve got nine other fingers to pick up the slack! Roll up those sleeves because you’re bound to get down and dirty.
Now, let’s break it down.
Location. Location. Location.
No matter where you are and what space you have available, composting can be convenient!
Mountain Men and the Country Strong
Designate a cool, shaded area near your house. This will minimize travel when dumping your compostable waste.
If you have a small yard-patch, balcony or porch, pick an easily accessible spot away from the sun.
No outdoor space? No worries, read on for alternative solutions.
Not able to garden or compost?
Skip to the last section to find a recycling center that accepts and composts yard/food waste.
Say Yes to The Bin.
The most basic, inexpensive type of compost bin is actually a compost “pile,” a container-free, 8” deep earth bed filled with a fiber base (straw, newspaper, etc) on top of which you can pile your compostable waste.
If you are a beginner gardener and handy, building your own compost bin is probably the next most affordable, eco-friendly option. You can build a simple, wood compost crate with easy instructions from Earth Easy.
If swiping that credit card is as handy as you get, many types of ready-made bins are also available at your local home improvement store and online.
This collapsible design provides easy set-up and allows earthworms to aerate your bin, helping speed the composting process. Fiskar’s bin comes with steaks to secure in ground, a wind-resistant lid and durable material that upholds the natural elements. This is ideal for those who have an open backyard or small yard-patch.
This Aussi is 100% UV protected, recycled plastic with a galvanized steel frame. It’s a bit pricy, but a sturdy, high quality contender for the serious gardener or landscaper. Simply spin the Tumbleweed once every few days and you won’t have to tediously toss with a pitchfork. It speeds up the composting process, while locking in odors and keeping out unwanted pests!
If you know Latin, then you know what that means: worms. Vermicomposting is perhaps the most unique, yet the most common composting technique - when combined with other forms of composting. Worms actually provide a self-sustainable method of aerating your compost. Plus, they dig it! If you can get past the ew factor, check out One/Change for an easy tutorial of how to build your own indoor worm composting bin.
I didn’t insert a photo of a worm bin for fear of inducing nightmares, buuuuuut I did find this interactive game!
Onto some options for those who are either cursed with two black thumbs, live in an apartment with no way out or just want to ride the green movement…
Anyone who searches for composting solutions in hopes of finding something as self-sustainable and affordable as possible, will of course end up finding it in - where else - Japan. This modern adaptation of an ancient method approaches producing compost by not even composting it. Based on old, traditional Korean farming methods, the Bokashi system ferments your food waste by alternating it with layers of bran and then compressing it all together. Check out the video demonstration from Bokashi.
The Bokashi bucket has an air-tight seal and works anaerobically, providing some unique benefits. The main advantage is the ability to compost ANY food waste, even meat, fish, dairy and animal fats. It also circumvents much of the methane and other greenhouse gas emissions of traditional composting. It’s also quite small—you can fit it under your sink!
Bokashi produces a sweet-smelling, fermented waste product that can be put directly into your garden soil or brought to your local community garden. Throughout the process, you can use the leftover liquid byproduct to water plants or to clean household drains and pipes. This is the ZERO-WASTE composter!
All you tech-loving hipsters who want to go green, but haven’t the green thumb or space, look no further and click that link! Though the hefty $395 price tag may seem like it just virtually mugged you, rest assured you will get back every last penny in free time. You MUST read on about this discreet, does-it-all-for-you gadget.
The NatureMill is sustainably made to be sustainable. Its compact design fits in a standard kitchen cabinet, but can compost food waste for a family of five. Made with stainless steel and recycled food grade polyethylene, this composter is built to be tough, yet only uses 5 watts of energy per month.
A NatureMill composter recycles its own weight in waste within 10 days, diverting over two tons of waste in landfills over its life (How It Works, Nature Mill).
NatureMill’s fun and approachable design allows kids to safely participate without worrisome parents, passing on the important responsibility of reducing landfill waste. Plus, it teaches them how to care for a garden! If that’s not saving our future planet, then what is?
I saved the best for last in this section because the NatureMill has some really intuitive functions. It aerates your compostable waste with an internal air filtration system, eliminating unwanted odor. That means you can compost any type of food waste: meat, fish, dairy, you name it! It is the only dual compartment system, which allows you to access your usable compost product from one compartment, while continuing to collect more compostable waste in another. Just fill with your plate scraps, claim your compost prize, switch out the drip tray and you’re done.
No pitch-forking, no tumbling, no worms, no noise, no odor, no mess…you’ll actually forget you even own one.
Keep Calm, Compost and Carry On.
Oh just picture everyone checking out their carts online, anticipating their new compost bins in the mail, ripping open their packages, deciphering complicated instructions and then, panicking as they suddenly realize…
"Wait a second, I don’t even know what or how to compost!"
If you decide to go with NatureMill or an anaerobic composting system like Bokashi, you can skip this section. If you are going the more adventurous route by using a traditional, outdoor compost bin, continue reading for types of food waste you can compost, exceptions you’ll want to avoid and tips that will enhance your results.
Getting the Most out of your Outdoor Compost Bin
Once you set up your compost bin, you can start collecting an assortment of food and yard waste to compost (What to Compost, Earth Easy). There are two basic methods to composting: hot and cold. A "cold" compost is when you collect food/yard waste into an outdoor pile, rotate it every few weeks and allow it to decompose over a long period of time (6-12 months). If you have ample outdoor space, want the least amount of maintenance and are in no hurry, you can simply stick to the cold compost method.
However, if you grow a year-round garden, a "hot" compost can provide a compost product with optimal benefits in a short amount of time. A hot compost requires you to collect food/yard waste with a carbon-nitrogen balance, allow it to build heat (hence its name) and rotate it every other day. Unlike a cold compost the carbon-nitrogen balance in a hot compost produces a finer, more desirable texture similar to black humus. It also aids in eradicating seeds and plant diseases, allowing you to compost more types of food/yard waste. Most importantly, a hot compost will leave you with a high volume of usable compost product. Check it out in this helpful diagram (Composting Materials and the C:N Balance, Deep Green Permaculture).
Hot Compost: The Berkeley Method
I will be referencing the Berkeley method (developed by the University of California, Berkeley), which produces a hot compost in roughly 18 days. To compost with confidence, follow the instructions below:
Layer Brown Material
Start with an 8” deep layer of brown material. This includes, but is not limited to straw, corn cobs, stalks, branches, dead leaves, ash (from wood and leaves), paper towels and napkins, cardboard and shredded paper.
The fiber and carbon content from these brown materials will help drain moisture and aerate your compost.
Tip: Chop up brown material to speed up the decomposition process.
Add Green Material
Next, add a layer of green material. This can be vegetable/fruit scraps, flowers, plants, weeds, grass clippings, ground coffee, tea leaves/bags, seaweed and more.
Avoid perennials and any diseased plants if you cannot maintain a hot compost. Seeds, insects and pathogens can survive and spread into unwanted areas.
Eggshells are neutral but can be added with green material. Wash any eggshells to prevent Salmonella contamination.
Meat, fish, bones and pet manure are not recommended as they can cause heavy odors which attract animals/pests, may contaminate food crops, and take much longer to breakdown in typical aerobic environments.
Tip: Boost your compost with green sources high in nitrogen, such as clover, cowpeas, buckwheat and more. This accelerates the decomposition of slow-process brown materials.
Maintain a Carbon-Nitrogen Balance
Fill your compost bin/pile by alternating layers of green and brown material, keeping a carbon-nitrogen ratio of 25-30:1. This means layer with 25-30 parts of green material and then layer with 1 part of brown material, repeat.
To ensure a hot compost, it is essential to maintain this balance for temperature and moisture control. Otherwise, the decomposition process can delay or mold, and other unwanted issues can form.
Tip: Add more brown material if compost has a strong odor or feels too warm or wet. Add green material if compost feels too cold, dry or clumpy.
Tip: Cover after each time you add more material to regulate temperature and drainage, which will prevent heat loss and excess moisture.
Add Water and Rest
Once your compost bin/pile is full, water the top layer until evenly wet. Allow it to drain to the bottom. Cover and let rest for 4 days.
Rotate With Pitchfork
Turn your compost over (outside in and then inside out) with a pitchfork or shovel every other day until it reaches a fine, soil-like consistency.
This rotation provides oxygen. A hot compost is an aerobic process, which means it relies on oxygen to decompose your bin’s contents.
Tip: Once your compost product smells sweet and reaches a “shredded” consistency, if desired, you can just use it as a mulch!
Filthy Rich / Black Gold
(You can tell this has been such a long post, when Justin Timberlake comes up on shuffle for the 100th time.)
Now that you have a finished product, you are probably wondering what to do with your “black gold.”
For apartment dwellers with no garden/outdoor space or indoor plants to condition, you can always bring your compost to a local community garden or recycling center. Don’t know where to locate one? The American Community Gardening Association allows you to search for a community garden near you by zipcode (The Bi-National Community Garden Database, ACGA). And even if you wanted to just skip the whole damn composting process, you can find a recycling center that accepts yard and/or food waste via Earth911.
Get Dirty With It!
How you use your compost depends on whether you used an aerobic or anaerobic composting method.
For Bokashi and other anaerobic systems, you can incorporate your fermented waste product directly into your garden or potted plants by burying it in a 6” deep trench and then recovering it with the remaining soil. You can also add the fermented waste product to a worm bin or compost pile, if you want it to fully break down to a fine consistency. For trouble-shooting and other tips, check out Bokashi’s FAQ.
Traditional, Aerobic Systems
With the NatureMill and other traditional composting systems, there are different ways to condition garden and potted soil with your compost product. For instance, if your compost is a fine consistency, you can use it to “amend” soil that is poor in quality by increasing the amount of organic matter in it. Simply mix your compost into the soil, about 3” deep. For potting soil, try mixing your compost with natural additives like permilite and vermiculite.
If you’ve ended up with something not-so-fine, you can apply it instead as a “mulch,” about 3” above the soil surface. This will help insulate your plants, while still allowing elements to penetrate. The compost mulch will not function as a weed killer unless you blend it with traditional mulch.
Lastly, have a cup of compost tea! Compost tea is ideal for spraying indoor plant leaves to naturally remove dust and other allergens, while giving potted plants an extra nutrient boost. Just wrap your compost into a cheesecloth, secure with a knot, let soak in a container of water for one hour and then remove the compost tea parcel. Use the remaining liquid to directly water or spray plants. You can reference these guidelines for more info on how to use your compost in your garden (How To Use Compost, University of Florida).
You’re done! Or maybe you effed up and have to start over? Either way, the important thing is learning how much of a difference reducing your waste by just one trash bag a week can make in the grand scheme of landfill waste. You, little you, and your compost bin could be the insignificant detail (though I think you’re pretty damn significant) that prevents another Garbage Island from forming somewhere out in our oceans. So please: get dirty, mail-order some worms, have a mud fight…whatever it takes, just try this. You don’t need a green thumb, you just need a pair of wide open, green eyes and to take a look at what’s being thrown out around you.