In the U.S., a staggering 30 to 40% of food winds up in landfills. But there’s an age-old solution that could help reduce your household’s “contribution” to your local landfill – composting.
There are many benefits to composting. Besides reducing what goes into landfills, it:
Reduces greenhouse gas emissions. How? Compost requires oxygen to fully break down, and when food waste is heaped on top of other waste (food and otherwise) in landfills, it “suffocates.” It can’t properly break down and instead gives off methane gasses, which damage the ozone layer.
Builds and enhances soil. Adding compost to existing soil allows you to replace any topsoil lost to erosion and run-off, while creating an environment where healthy bacteria, fungi, worms and insects can thrive. And when the soil is healthy, the plants and trees that grow in it are healthy too, less prone to diseases, and reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers.
Helps retain water in the soil. Soil rich in compost is able to hold on to moisture, making plants more drought-tolerant than they otherwise would be.
So What is Compost?
Essentially, compost is decayed plant matter: leaves, twigs and grass clippings mixed with kitchen waste (peelings, cores, eggshells, coffee grounds, etc.), oxygen and water. Over time, this concoction naturally breaks down to create a dark, soil-like substance that’s rich in nutrients.
How Do I Make It?
A compost pile is basically a combination of “carbon” and “nitrogen” materials. (Some composters refer to carbon items as “brown” and nitrogen items as “green” but bear in mind that the color of a compost item doesn’t necessarily correspond to its classification. Coffee grounds are one example.) The ratio of carbon to nitrogen should be about 30-to-1 – carbon gives compost its light, fluffy texture while nitrogen adds enzymes to the mixture which help promote decomposition. But watch out! Too much nitrogen will cause the pile to “burn” and not break down properly. When in doubt, add more carbon! Some common composting materials include:
Dry tree leaves & brown grass clippings (sprinkle in layers in the pile so they don’t clump and deprive oxygen flow)
Twigs & sticks
Shredded newspaper, cardboard or brown bags (avoid glossy or colored papers)
Green tree leaves, grass clippings & yard trimmings
Tea bags & coffee grounds (filters are okay)
Vegetable & fruit peelings (cut banana and citrus peels into small pieces; they take a while to break down)
Avoid adding the following to your compost:
Bones, meat or fish scraps & fat (they’ll attract pests)
Diseased plant material or weeds that have gone to seed
Most composters keep a small pail on their kitchen counter or under the sink and add scraps to it during and after cooking. When the pail fills up, it gets dumped onto a larger pile or in a compost bin outside.
Building Your Compost Pile
To make a compost pile, start on bare ground (to take advantage of worms and other critters) then top with a thin layer of twigs or straw for drainage. Next, create layers of brown and green “ingredients”, alternating wet and dry materials – it’s essential the compost has some moisture in order to properly break down. If the moisture doesn’t come naturally from rainfall, you’ll have to hose down the pile periodically. And be sure the materials don’t clump so that oxygen flows freely. Cover the pile with wood, sheeting, carpet scraps – anything that will keep moisture and heat inside the pile – then let it all “percolate” for a couple of weeks before turning it over and aerating it with a shovel or pitchfork. Mix in additional materials any time you stir the pile.
It will take several months to a year before the compost is done, and you’ll know it’s ready when it looks and smells like very dark soil. It should be evenly moist, not wet but not dry and crumbly either. Simply work compost directly into garden soil to create nutrient-rich dirt that plants will love!
While it might seem like work up front, once your compost is established, you can take pride in the fact that you’ve reduced landfill waste and can enjoy the fruits of your labor with hearty, healthy outdoor plants.