The Other Black Gold: Get Started with Composting

Americans have a reputation for being wasteful — even going so far as to waste our own waste. According to the EPA, yard trimmings and food scraps make up 24 percent of U.S. waste, needlessly filling up our landfills when it could be put to good use in a backyard or potted garden.

And, for many of us making our way in the city, quietly pushing food scraps into the sink or garbage disposal (hoping — fingers crossed — that the goo is going to a “good” place), it’s time to wake up. Truth is, our waste is taking a one-way ride to already overburdened sewage treatment plants, which eventually dump into oceans and other bodies of water, killing off marine life.

Put simply, composting is the process of recycling organic waste such as plants, food and manure into a dark brown or black humus — a rich, nutrient-filled material with an earthy smell that can be used to enrich your garden, houseplants or lawn. If hanging onto your old banana peels for a few weeks doesn’t sound, er, a-peel-ing, consider this: besides freeing up landfill space and providing you with free plant food, composting suppresses plant diseases and pests, eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, restores poor or contaminated soil, and destroys 99.6 percent of industrial volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in contaminated air. And even if you’re not going to use your kitchen’s potential yield of black gold, a neighboring gardener will likely be happy to take it off your hands.

Here’s what you need to know to get started:

• Keep fruit flies out of your food scraps (and bypass having to share your counter space with a bowl of funky leftovers) by storing compostables in the freezer in a large Tupperware or in a biodegradable paper bag that can then go right into the compost pile. No muss, no fuss!

• Store your scraps in a large coffee can next to the sink with a plate instead of a lid for easy access.

• If you have the outdoor space, start your own compost pile with this three-step abbreviated tutorial: 1) In your bin of choice, mix two parts “brown,” such as dry leaves, nut shells, wood chips, sawdust, or straw with one part “green,” such as fruit and vegetable scraps, tea or coffee waste or grass/plant clippings. 2) Keep your compost moist and aerate it by turning it regularly. Your compost needs air to help it break down and prevent it from stinking. (Properly maintained compost shouldn’t reek!) 3) When it’s ready, you shouldn’t be able to recognize any of your old kitchen scraps, and it should look and smell like fertile soil.

• If you don't have the space, find a community garden, a neighbor’s garden, or organize your building to start a community composting bin and arrange to donate the compost to a park, a school or a farm.

• Become a landlord of your very own worm condo. Worms can eat more than their body weight in food scraps a day and leave behind nutrient rich “castings” your houseplants will love. Believe it or not, they’re not gross to maintain. In fact, with the right composting unit, you’ll rarely even see (let alone smell) the little critters.

Fruits and vegetables
Coffee grounds and filters; tea bags
Cotton and wool rags
Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint; hair and fur
Grass clippings; yard trimmings; leaves; houseplants
Hay and straw
Sawdust; wood chips; fireplace ashes
Shredded newspaper

Not Compostable
Black walnut tree leaves or twigs (due to a naturally occurring toxin)
Coal or charcoal ash
Dairy products (e.g., butter, egg yolks, milk, sour cream, yogurt)
Diseased or insect-ridden plants
Fats, grease, lard or oils
Meat or fish bones and scraps
Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)
Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides

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