The Dirt on Composting
What is compost?
When I was in the third grade, my science teacher had us perform an experiment. We all walked to a dirt patch by our school’s playground and watched our teacher bury a piece of burnt toast, a banana peel, a plastic bottle cap, and a piece of stationary paper about 6 inches deep in the red Georgia clay. Our job as “scientists” was to predict what each of these items would look like approximately 2 months later when we came back to the same spot and dug them up. We had a count down on the white board, and when the day came to dig up our items, my fellow students and I were jittery with excitement, mostly because that meant we had another class outside. When we dug up our items, many of our class predictions were correct – the banana was a slimy pile of sludge, the paper was a soggy mess, the bottle cap was pristine, and the toast, because it had been burned, was in decent condition.
Little did I know that this lesson on how different items biodegrade would become helpful in my college career on the other side of the country. As I started my environmental science degree, I learned to minimize what I was sending to the landfill. Now that I am a Master’s candidate in the same field, I have had the time and the practice to ingrain sustainable habits into my everyday life. This basic exercise from the third grade gives me the daily instincts to decide what is compostable and what is not.
What is compost? Compost is organic material, mostly food scraps and plant waste, that has been broken down and can be used as a natural fertilizer. The 2050 Company aims to reduce food waste before you even decide to buy their smoothies, but what can you do to reduce food waste once you’ve already purchased fresh produce and brought it home? Composting is a great place to start!
How do you compost?
The easiest way to compost is to set up a designated area in or outside your home to recycle your compostables. If you have a backyard, the best way to do this is to choose a dry shady spot and just start piling things up. After two weeks you should “turn” your pile, and make sure your pile is damp. Just take a shovel and stir it up a little, so that oxygen can reach parts of the pile that it wasn’t reaching before. If you are looking for something a little more manicured, many people will choose to make or buy a composting bin, which can make it easier to turn over your compost regularly.
Or, maybe you are like me, and live in an apartment with no access to an outdoor green space. What to do then? You have a couple of options. First, you can get a table top compost (which doesn’t necessarily have to go on your table). These are great space saving options. You usually want to mix your “green matter”, or your food scraps, with “brown matter” like newspaper, wood chips, or a house plant that you just accidentally killed. Another option is to add worms into the mixture – they help speed up the decomposition process, and naturally aerate and turn the compost. If you are composting successfully, your worms will breed, and you could start considering yourself not only a composter, but a worm farmer as well!
If indoor composting is not for you, you can simply save your compostable items in a sealed container in the freezer until you have time to drop them off at a local community compost. Many schools, community gardens, and local farms that compost will let you drop off your compostable materials free of charge. Go to your local government websites to find community compost sites near you, or check out ShareWaste, a website that allows you to finds people in your area who are looking to take compostable items off your hands.
So down to the nitty gritty – what can you and can’t you compost? A general rule of thumb I use goes back to that third grade experiment. I think, “If I buried this in the ground for two months, what will look like when I dig it up?” If the answer is “exactly the same”, then it probably doesn’t belong in the compost. Here is a list from the EPA of common household waste items that can be composted:
Fruits and vegetables
Coffee grounds and filters
Hay and straw
Cotton and wool rags
Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
Hair and fur
The things that you don’t want to compost are things that will rot and spoil before they decompose, or things that could harm your plants if you are using your compost for fertilizer. This list includes:
Coal or charcoal ash (can be harmful to plants)
Fats, grease, lard or oils
Meat or bones
Any yard trimmings that have been treated with pesticides (these could kill the organisms that break down your compost)
If you ever come across an item that you want to compost that is not on either of these lists, the easiest thing to do is Google it! The internet is full of answers when it comes to composting.
Why do we care?
So why do we care about composting? Reducing food waste has been cited as the number one way to slow a global temperature increase of 2ºC by 2050. While many companies, like the 2050 Company, are working to reduce food waste on the supply side, we as consumers must also do our part in reducing our waste. According to the EPA, food scraps and yard waste make up about 30% of the garbage thrown away by Americans each year. Keeping a compost pile not only keeps that waste out of the landfills, but allows us to save money by creating a natural fertilizer. Whether you are using it to supplement your outdoor garden or grow indoor house plants, composting is a great way to grow new life out of something that might have been thrown away.
Riley Henning is a Master’s candidate in the combined degree program in Environmental and Ocean Sciences at the University of San Diego, where she was the president of the Marine Science Club and sat on the Student Sustainability Coalition. She is passionate about science outreach, proper recycling, and house plants. Riley will be finishing her degree this fall and is pursuing a career in data analytics and science communication.