The Everything Guide to Composting
What it is, how it works, and how to get started…without getting too dirty
As much as everyone wishes they could be lifelong members of the Clean Plate Club, we always end up with at least a little food waste. And figuring out what to do with uneaten food can be really overwhelming, whether it’s feeding leftovers to your dog, throwing it in your sink disposal, or trashing it. We at Finch, the sustainability company I founded, believe that the landfill should be the last place for food, with a sink disposal coming in second. Luckily, the best option is easy, cheap, and good for your garden: composting.
What is Composting Anyway?
Composting is simply the natural process of recycling organic matter, like leaves or food scraps. Anything that grows decomposes eventually, and composting speeds up the process by pairing it with the right amount of worms, bacteria, or fungi. It happens when various organic materials are mixed together to facilitate healthy decomposition. These materials are a combination of carbon and nitrogen, or browns (cardboard, paper) and greens (food scraps).
Committing to composting makes a big difference. Food scraps and garden waste make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away, and the United States generates more than 267 million tons of municipal solid waste. Which means that 74.8 million tons are food scraps. When organic matter decomposes through composting, it undergoes anaerobic decomposition, which means it’s broken down by microorganisms that require oxygen. But when compostable waste goes to the landfill, it gets buried under massive amounts of other trash, cutting off a regular supply of oxygen, so it actually ends up undergoing anaerobic digestion, and it’s broken down by organisms that can live without oxygen. This releases biogas, which is 50 percent methane and 50 percent carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. Landfills are the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the United States. Yikes.
What Can I Compost?
You can either create a compost bin at home or look for food scrap collections in your local municipality. In New York City, for example, they accept:
- Fruits, vegetables, eggshells
- Coffee, tea, nuts
- Dried flowers and houseplants
- Bread, grains, and pasta
- Meat, fish, and dairy (only at certain sites)
How Do I Get Started Composting?
Many compost bins, like this one, simply hold food scraps until they’re ready to be put in a backyard composting operation, or picked up or dropped off at a larger community composting operation.
To make your own compost pile at home, check out this guide to get started. Once you’re up and running, you should aim to maintain a texture like a wrung-out sponge. If it’s too dry, add water. For best results, add chopped food scraps to the middle of the pile. You’ll know when your composting pile is ready when it looks like dark brown potting soil and the pile is reduced to half its original size.
Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about electric composters, which break down food scraps into dirt in less than 24 hours. They heat, aerate, and mix organic waste, accelerating mother nature’s job of organic breakdown. If you don’t like the smell of organic waste, don’t have time to compost yourself, and can use an unlimited supply of nutrient-rich dirt for your plants, this is a great option! But if you want to stick to simplicity, you can always keep compost in the freezer to keep it from smelling until it’s ready to be picked up or dropped off.
Is There Anything Surprising I Can Compost?
Food isn’t the only thing that’s composted. You’ve probably seen some plastic cutlery and drink alternatives that are “biodegradable” or “compostable.” The problem with these is that you can’t simply put them in your backyard pile and might not be able to drop them off at your local composting facility. They need to be industrially, or “in-vessel composted,” which takes place in an enclosed environment that can compost large amounts of waste without taking up as much space as other methods. Word to the wise: Unless you know that your town has space for an industrial composter, or you find a bin that says “compost,” these products are likely going into the landfill. To learn the real deal about compostable versus biodegradable, read more here.
Our grandchildren will be absolutely shocked that we ever dared put food in the trash can. Let’s make future generations proud by ensuring our food waste is put to good use. Before you close your browser, check and see what your local composting rules are and make a commitment to try it out for a few weeks.