When it comes to food, or to put it more precisely organic materials, a certain amount of waste is inevitable. It doesn’t matter how much you plan your meals, reduce your purchases, or reuse “waste” items in your kitchen, there will always vegetable scraps such as onion skins, carrot tops, avocado stones, even bones, eggshells, and cheese rinds.
However, the good news is these products are still not true waste! In fact, they’re a valuable resource in themselves, and through the magic of composting, you can turn all that useless organic “waste” into a steaming pile of highly nutritious soil that’s perfect for growing your own vegetables or giving those tired looking window box azaleas a new lease on life.
But if you’ve never composted before, the whole process can seem a little intimidating. However, there’s no need to be put off, and here we get you started with three of the most popular ways to compost at home—helping you reduce food waste and get the benefits of organic, homemade fertilizer at the same time.
Conventional composting usually requires a little bit of outdoor space, so it’s ideal if you’ve got a dark and neglected corner of the garden. There are a few different methodologies behind a successful compost bin, but much will depend on the type of space and containers you will use. For example, smaller containers may use a “no-turn” composting method, while larger bins will need to be regularly turned to allow air into the pile.
The basic premise is to manage your ratios of greens and browns as you layer organic materials. This means carbon-rich materials (brown) such as leaves, newspaper, cardboard, vegetable stalks, straw, and sawdust, alongside nitrogen-rich materials (green) such as fruit and veggie scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings, seaweed and kelp. You’re looking at a 70/30 mix of the two; so that’s two thirds brown and one third green.
You can start your pile on bare earth, slowly adding the layers as you generate waste. Keeping the compost pile moist is important, that’s why your shady corner is the ideal location, and turning the pile once every few weeks will allow air into the mix and aid decomposition. You compost bin should smell earthy, and definitely not like rotten food, however, if it does begin to smell bad, simply add more carbon.
This method of composting is among the slowest, relying on nothing more than water, oxygen, and heat to create the right kind of bacterial conditions to break down your organic matter. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to have two compost piles, as once full, you’ll need to leave your pile to decompose for up to 6 months.
One thing to note is that, in most cases, you won’t be able to compost animal products such as meat, bones, or dairy in this type of system as it has the potential to attract pest and breed dangerous pathogens. Commercial composting facilities are able to do this as their massive piles reach very high temperatures, and while it’s a very good sign if your pile is steaming, it won’t hit the kinds of temperatures needed to process meat and other animal products.
By now, everyone knows the benefits of our hardworking earthworm friends. They breakdown organic materials in the soil and turn it into nutrient-rich fertilizers that plants love. Luckily for us, someone saw that natural process and realized we could use it to our advantage.
Vermicomposting is essentially composting with the help of worms. This means that you can skip many of the maintenance steps of conventional composting, such as regular turning, however, you will need to make sure your worms are “fed” with food scraps. Perhaps the biggest advantage vermicomposting holds over conventional composting though, is that it can be practiced in small spaces—even inside your apartment when you don’t have a garden.
The process is relatively simple: you’ll need some kind of container which you can either buy or make your own, plus worms—reg wigglers are considered among the best. Once you’re set up, you’ll need to feed your worms a mixture of food scraps and shredded paper. After a few weeks, you should be able to start removing your first compost, and if you find your worms are multiplying too quickly, start handing them out to friends to start their own vermicomposting bins.
Bokashi was developed out of a Korean fermentation process by Japanese professor Dr. Tuero Higa in the 1980s, and so is not strictly composting in the sense that it breaks down organics through natural decomposition. What it does do, however, is ferment ALL kinds of food scraps (including meat, bones, nutshells, citrus), removing pathogens through an anaerobic process that is contained within a simple plastic container. All this means one thing, no smell, no mess, and no pests.
It is also among the fastest ways to treat food waste and make compost, plus there are a few added bonuses as well. The best way to use the systems is to have two airtight containers with spigots, which are ideal to be kept under your sink or in another cool, dark place in your home. You’ll also need some active bokashi bran, which is layered over your food waste.
The bokashi bran is activated with beneficial bacteria, which help ferment the contents of you bucket. This produces what’s known as bokashi tea, which you will need to drain off once every three days or so. The good news is that this tea can be used to fertilize your plants or even clean your drains, with the bacteria and acids creating a highly effective organic solution that’s great for clearing gunk from your sinks, shower, or toilet.
Once your bokashi bin is full, you’ll need to let it sit for two weeks. In the meantime, you can start filling your second bucket. After about two weeks, the content of your bucket will be fully fermented, which means its ready for the final stage. At this point, you have a choice of what to do with the contents of your bucket depending on the kind of space you’re working with.
First, if you have a garden, you can simply bury it, and in a few weeks, it’ll turn into highly nutritious soil. Second, you can set up what’s known as a soil factory, essentially a series of containers that allow your fermented waste to turn into compost which you can then use directly on your garden beds or in your plant pots. Third, you can simply place it around a tree in your garden, with the tree benefiting directly from the bacterial content of your waste.
Finally, and if you cannot make the other options work, you can actually trash it with a relatively clean conscience. The fermentation process essentially renders the organic materials inert, meaning that if it does go to landfill, it won’t release harmful gases such as methane and CO2 during decomposition. In fact, you’ll even be helping to propagate beneficial bacteria in landfills, helping to reduce their environmental impact in your own small way.
Today, there are many options available for consumers who want to compost, and our guide outlines just three of the most popular ways. For more information on composting, check out the EPA page here.