Composting Made Easy

Mixed compost in my own bin.

Composting should be part of everyday life for most of us. It’s one of the best things you can do for the environment. You don’t have to be a gardener or live rurally to compost your own food and yard waste. It can seem difficult, but I want to tell you how easy it actually is!

In some parts of the world, including parts of the U.S., composting is part of regular municipal waste management. For example, San Francisco implemented a citywide residential and commercial curbside collection program that includes the separate collection of recyclables, compostable materials, and trash. This means every resident and business has three separate collection bins.

But many of us don’t live in a city or even a state that prioritizes waste management, much less composting. I’m going to explain how you can easily compost on your own, regardless of where you live. Let me begin by explaining why we should all be composting in the first place.

Landfill Reduction

Composting reduces how much we are putting in landfills. Between twenty and forty percent of our landfill contents are organic waste, depending on which study you read. So even the lower 20% number represents one-fifth of our waste which could be eliminated by composting!

Consider the amount of food waste and yard waste (including leaves) we dispose of in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whom I consider to have a more conservative appraisal, the U.S. disposed of an estimated 35.4 million tons of yard waste, leaves, and brush in 2018, which is 12.1% of total municipal solid waste. They also estimated that the U.S. generated 63.1 million tons of food waste in 2018, or 21.6% of total municipal solid waste. If we calculate these numbers together, 34.2% of 98.5 million tons, that’s more than 3.3 million tons of waste we could avoid putting in landfills…without too much effort.

Greenhouse Gas Reduction

“Landfills are not meant to encourage decomposition.”4

We know that food and yard waste doesn’t break down in landfills. See infographic:

Infographic
Infographic by Marie Cullis

“By reducing the amount of food scraps sent to a landfill, you are helping to reduce methane gas emissions. Food waste in landfills is packed in with nonorganic waste and lacks the proper space, temperature, and moisture to degrade. The waste will never break down.”

Worse, oxygen-deprived organic matter releases methane into the atmosphere, which is a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change. This process is called anaerobic decomposition.  Methane is 28 to 36 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over the course of a century. “Although most modern landfills have methane capture systems, these do not capture all of the gas.”

“Landfills are the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the United States.”

How to Compost

Collect waste!

This includes food scraps and food waste, yard trimmings, leaves, and tea and coffee grounds. It can include paper and cardboard if it is not plastic coated or full of toxic inks. You can include sawdust, hair from hairbrushes, dryer lint if your clothes are made from natural fabrics, used silk dental floss, wooden toothpicks, and cut flowers that have wilted. Remove produce stickers (they are made of plastic) and do not include bioplastics because most of those are only made for industrial composting, not home composting (and if they are home compostable, the package will say exactly that).

Generally, you’ll want to exclude animal products such as scraps and bones, but you should compost eggshells. We are largely vegetarian, so the limited animal waste we have either goes in the dog’s dinner (appropriate parts such as fish or chicken skin, fat, or bacon renderings) or to my mother’s pigs (bones after boiling off for broth and such) who can eat anything. There are exhaustive lists of types of waste you can and should not compost, as well as comprehensive articles on advanced composting. I’ve listed a few of these under Additional Resources below.

I keep an old plastic container (one I stopped using several years ago after learning about the hazards of storing food in plastic) on my kitchen counter next to the sink. You can use a metal pail or buy a prettier compost container if you so desire (sometimes called compost pails or crocks). Or you may want a covered one if you are not able to make regular trips to the outdoor compost bin. But even a large jar or bowl will work. You do not need “compostable” scrap bags, they are a waste of money and are made of plastic. Just wash out your container regularly.

Stainless steel compost countertop bin or crock
Stainless steel compost countertop bin or crock. Photo from amazon.com

Deposit Waste into an Outdoor Compost Bin

If you have an outdoor area, you can build or buy a simple compost bin. There are many DIY instructions on videos on how to do this, and there are also many options for purchasing. I suggest reading up on the various types of bins and their reviews to find the right one for you. Our compost bin is a plastic Rubbermaid compost bin that my mother-in-law handed down to us. Though not the type we’d buy today, it’s very functional and does the job. We had to add some “security” around it to keep out critters. At the beginning of every spring, we use the side hatch to remove the bottom layer of rich compost to incorporate into the garden boxes.

My Rubbermaid compost bin with fencing around it.
Our Rubbermaid compost bin with small fencing around it.

My Rubbermaid compost bin from an angle.

Composting Indoors/Apartment Options

Ask permission (if you live on a managed property): Request to place a small compost tumbler on your patio or outdoor area.

Electric composters: These machines “grind and heat your organic refuse into a dark, dry fertilizer.”

Worm composting: This practice uses earthworms that eat food scraps and digest the waste, breaking it down into a nutrient-rich compost called vermicompost. There are lots of resources online for worm composting and I’ve included a couple below under Additional Resources.

“Compost does not smell bad. The reason your trash stinks is because organic and non-organic materials are mixed. Just like in the landfill, the organic matter can’t break down, so it lets off really stinky odors.” -Kathryn Kellogg

Compost Services

Last, there are private collection services. If you are able and willing to include this in your budget, you’ll have the easiest and most convenient method of compost while doing a good thing for the Earth. A quick internet search can locate the compost services in your area. Litterless.com also offers a state-by-state listing of where you can compost.

Example of an outdoor open compost bin with many colorful food scraps.
Example of an outdoor open compost bin. Photo by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Compost care

Compost needs three main components: oxygen, heat, and moisture. These allow for biological activity, meaning worms and insects, which is what breaks everything down. I suggest covering the compost bin (if it didn’t come with a cover) but allowing it to stay moist. Most compost bins have air holes. Between moisture from rain and food scraps, this is usually not an issue. You can add water if needed, but only a little. Stir or turn your compost every few weeks to allow for aeration between the layers.

It’s really that simple unless you want to get super scientific about it and try to achieve a certain compost quality, which is cool! But it can just be an easy way to lovingly dispose of food scraps and other organic waste.

Compost is Great for Gardening

Compost is the ultimate and most natural fertilizer for a home or urban garden. I have several garden boxes like the one pictured below, using a mixture of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Growing your own food reduces reliance on large agricultural farms that use heavy pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic modification.

Garden box using compost as soil.
My garden box, using compost as soil.
Lettuce I grew in the garden box with compost.
Resulting lettuce crops from the same garden box. This was the freshest lettuce I’ve ever had and of course, it was plastic-free.

If you have no desire to garden, you can give your compost away to a friend who does.

Rotting or composting fruit and vegetable waste
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Or Do Nothing with It

You can also compost and do absolutely nothing with it! The important part is reducing what is going in the landfill where nothing decomposes, which in turn reduces greenhouse gases. Compost makes the world a better place! Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.

All photos by me unless otherwise noted.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “A more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane emissions will leap as Earth warms,” Princeton University, ScienceDaily, March 27, 2014.

Guide, “Composting,” Earth Easy, accessed March 14, 2021.

Article, “10 Pro Composting Tips from Expert Gardeners,” Earth Easy, August 6, 2019.

Guide, “Composting At Home,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 18, 2021.

Article, “How to Make Compost at Home?” The University of Maryland Extension, accessed March 18, 2021.

Guide, “How to Create and Maintain an Indoor Worm Composting Bin,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 18, 2021.

Article, “Slimy pets to eat your garbage and entertain your kids,” by Colin Beavan,

How to Compost in an Apartment,” Earth Easy, March 8, 2019

Article, “You Should Be Composting in Your Apartment. Here’s How,” Mother Jones, December 31, 2019. Features how-to’s on worm composting.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 13

Last updated on February 14, 2021.

Trash littered beach
Image by H. Hach from Pixabay

Welcome to this part of my Packaging series! If you read my last post, you learned about refillable options for personal care items. Today, we will look at food packaging.

I honestly cannot say enough about food packaging because there is so much encasing our foods. Sometimes this is to make packing and shipping easier. Other times, food is overpackaged to create a false sense of sanitation, as mentioned in my first post in this series. BASF, a chemical company in the business of making such packaging, argues that “good packaging can enhance the cleanness and freshness of food, while offering branding opportunities for food manufacturers.”1 This is a false notion, and I believe plastic packaging causes more health problems than not using packaging.

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” —Robert Swan, author and explorer

The Produce Section: Bagging

Produce in plastic bags
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The produce section is where I spend most of my time in the supermarket. When shopping produce, we are encouraged, even prompted, to bag the items. When I starting going plastic-free, I bought my own reusable produce bags and continually use them at all grocery stores and farmers’ markets. You can buy bags like these, or even make your own:

Cloth mesh produce bags
Cloth mesh bag
Mesh produce bags
Mesh bags made from polyester or plastic. These aren’t ideal but they are infinitely reusable. Photo by Amazon
Cloth produce bags
Organic cotton muslin cloth bags

In her book, plastic-free expert Beth Terry notes that most fruits and vegetables have their own packaging.2 Produce like bananas, lemons, onions, garlic, and a host of others, have natural peels removed before eating. These do not require extra packaging.

Plastic bags have always been marketed to us as more sanitary. So much so, that you, dear reader, most likely cringe at the idea of not bagging your fresh produce. The truth is, that’s debatable and it comes at the cost of polluting the environments we live in. I wash most of my fruits and vegetables before I eat them anyway, whether they were bagged or not. 

Man holding unbagged produce over shopping cart
Image by CYNICALifornia from Pixabay

The Produce Section: Overpackaged

Plastic wrapping on produce can be extreme, and I’ve seen it in every type of grocery store. Such packaging is wasteful because it is so unnecessary. Here are numerous examples of overpackaged produce:

Bulk Foods

Person filling jar from bulk bins at store
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

When I mention bulk purchasing, I do not mean the oversized packages of coffee, peanut butter, and toilet paper from Sam’s Club or Costco. I am referring to the bulk bins in grocery stores and other food product shops. You can fill your own containers, just have them weighed at customer service first so you are not charged for the weight of the container. You can buy foods like beans, flour, granola, candy, dried fruit, etc. from these bins. Use glass jars or reusable cloth bags and avoid packaging altogether. Also, avoid bulk foods sold in “convenient” pre-weighed plastic containers like the ones pictured below. They defeat the purpose.

Prepackaged bulk food items.
Photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash

There are companies nationwide that offer refillable food items, such as Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Sprouts of Colorado, Rainbow Grocery in California, and Sustainable Haus in New Jersey. You can find shops that sell bulk items by searching Zero Waste Home’s app3 or by searching Litterless.com.4

Jar filled with item from bulk bins at grocery store
My own jar that I filled at the grocery store. Photo by me

No bulk in your area?

If there are not bulk bins available in the stores where you live, you still have options. Always choose glass instead of plastic packaging, since glass is 100% recyclable and plastic is recycled at a rate of under 10%. If a Container Deposit system exists in your state, use it because it ensures a much higher recycling rate for all types of materials. Look for brands of dried pasta that do not feature a plastic window (and if you buy that, please separate the plastic from the cardboard and only recycle the latter). Reuse Ziploc bags from deli meats and cheese. Avoid individually wrapped snacks, as it’s cheaper and better for the environment to buy a larger package and separate the food into small metal containers or reusable snack bags.

Loop

Created by TerraCycle, Loop is a closed-loop model that partners with consumer brands to put products in specially-designed durable and reusable containers. This is a take-back program, or a container deposit program, which we learned about in Part 7 of my Packaging series. Here’s a two-minute video explaining the business model and one way we can solve the disposable problem:

For a while, this was only available in parts of the U.S., but now it is available nationwide. While I love this business model, it still encourages consumers to buy some of the same products without changing their habits much. As Tom Szaky mentioned in the video, “let them experience a throw-away mentality but be doing the right thing from an environmental point of view.” This does eliminate single-use disposable packages, but as a consumer culture, we need to rethink how we spend, how we buy, and what we purchase.

I have attempted to purchase items from Loop several times, but I find it expensive. I don’t mind the container deposits because I’ll get those back. But the products have an upcharge and unfortunately, I cannot fit these into my budget. This makes it inaccessible to many people who want to support the cause. The upcharge to buy products in reusable packaging should be absorbed by companies, not put on consumers.

“Reusing an object saves time, energy and resources and does away with the need for waste disposal or recycling.” -Loop

Convenience vs. Environment

Our desire for convenience, driven by marketing and busy lifestyles, is killing the environment with packaging alone. Many argue that consumers have to change the way they shop; others argue that companies must change the packaging for items consumers buy. I think both are right – companies and consumers must change. Chris Daly of PepsiCo. believes that the convenience of packaging will continue because it is less work for the consumer. “Because these habits will be slow to change, we must continue to focus on improving the packaging that consumers take home and planning better for what happens to it,” he wrote in The Future of Packaging. Additionally, stores have to implement expensive infrastructure including the bins, scales, and systems for quality control and shrinkage.

But others disagree. In a well-written article, Karine Vann wrote that the use of bulk sections in grocery stores are not maximized to their full potential.5 These sections need promotion, normalization, and stores should educate consumers on how to use them. I believe this is entirely possible! We must do all we can to eliminate packaging waste.

“To truly reduce waste, advocates believe bulk must be more than just an aisle in the store—it must become a deliberate system that starts at home and continues seamlessly into the supermarket.” -Karine Vann6

Solutions

For more ideas, refer to my page on “11 Ways to go Plastic-Free with Food.” There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging on the internet and I’ve included some articles under Additional Resources below. Last, don’t underestimate the power of growing your own food in your backyard or on your balcony.

Salad bowl with vegetables from garden
Photo by Elias Morr on Unsplash

Remember, we can all make a difference in how we consume and how we generate waste. We’re all sharing this planet and its’ beautiful and valuable resources, and we have nothing to lose by working together to create change.

If you’d like to read my Packaging series in full, please see this quick guide highlighting the contents of each article. And if you’ve already read it, I thank you and please subscribe! I’ll see you in my next post.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Additional resources:

Article, “How to Grocery Shop When You Can’t Bring Your Own Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated March 20, 2020. There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging when you can’t bring your own containers.

Article, “Eat your food, and the package too,” by Elizabeth Royte, National Geographic Magazine, August 2019.

Article, “The cost of plastic packaging,” by Alexander H. Tullo, Chemical & Engineering News, October 17, 2016.

Article, “Grocery Stores May Soon Offer Your Favorite Brands in Reusable Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated February 21, 2020. This features information about Loop.

Video, “Closing The Loop: The End of Disposable Plastics,” Fortune Magazine, June 12, 2019.

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote any of the products in this post.

Footnotes:

Jack-O’-Lanterns and Fall Pumpkins: Please Compost

Last updated on March 27, 2021.

pumpkins, Photo by Katie Burkhart on Unsplash
Photo by Katie Burkhart on Unsplash

Halloween was a week ago, is your Jack-O’-Lantern still around? Do you still have fall pumpkins around your home? Please read this before you dispose of them!

Don’t you just love fall and pumpkins? The colors, the smells, the flavors?

Fall includes fun holidays such as Halloween and Thanksgiving. Pumpkins, of course, are one of the main natural items we associate with Fall. We use pumpkins to decorate and make food.  Some use squash or gourds for decorations. I think it’s awesome if you’re using nature’s creations instead of plastic decorations! But what do you do with those items after their prime?

Compost them, that is the simplest answer.

Decorating Pumpkins/Jack-O’-Lanterns

Carving pumpkins is a fun and creative tradition. But it’s best to keep it simple. Try to avoid using paint, plastic decorations, glitter, and glues on the pumpkins, as those things can have toxins and will not break down. They could also harm wildlife down the line. I have read that some use petroleum jelly to prevent spoilage, and I think I’ve even tried that in the past. But petroleum jelly is a by-product of crude oil waste and therefore not environmentally friendly.

Jack O'Lanterns, Photo by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash
Photo by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash

Please don’t put them in a landfill!

The U.S. Department of Energy has indicated that approximately 1.3 billion pounds of pumpkins are thrown in landfills. Since nothing breaks down in a landfill, the pumpkins release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming.The Department of Energy someday hopes to convert greenhouse gas emissions from landfills into energy, but until that infrastructure exists, avoid the landfills.

If you compost already, just toss your pumpkin in! Feel free to chop it into smaller chunks first, but it will do fine whole. If you’re not composting, I have some other options for the pumpkins. If you want to know how I compost and learn how easy it is, please read my article.

Child placing a candle inside of a Jack O' Lantern
Photo by me

Other options

If you cannot compost your carved pumpkins or squash decorations, one option is that you can feed these items to livestock. Does a family member or friend own a farm? If not, maybe try offering them to a farm nearby for their animals. The local food bank or urban garden may have a compost bin, to which you may donate your pumpkin. Again, make sure they are free of plastic, glue, paint, etc.

Another option is to let your pumpkin rot, preferably in the woods somewhere, where animals, insects, and birds can ingest it. I’m not suggesting trespassing into the National Forests to do this. But if you live near a small forest or wooded area and no one would notice or care if you left your pumpkin, it will break down naturally. It’s certainly better than putting it in a landfill!

Food Waste

Last, there are lots of people who are concerned about food waste with pumpkins, and that is a valid point. I advocate using natural items over plastic items for decoration in nearly every situation. Perhaps we should use pumpkins for decoration, not carve them, and then make a pumpkin recipe from them! This would reduce food waste nationwide.

Bowl of pumpkin soup on a green napkin and wooden spoon.
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

I’d love to know what you plan to do with your pumpkin, and what your ideas are! Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes: