Admittedly, I never read this children’s book Where Does the Garbage Go?, but this photo makes me laugh. (This was taken on a service trip to Treasure Beach, Jamaica where 24 of my college peers and I volunteered in an elementary school.)
And it presents, I think, a very important question. Where does the garbage go? According to EnvironmentalistsEveryDay.org who cite the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American discards four and a half pounds of garbage every day (that’s an average 31.5 pounds per person, per week, and 1600 pounds per person, per year!), and up to half of the amount may be food trash. Read: food “trash” that is still usable and can be returned to the earth to nourish more food. Without going into more jaw-dropping, guilt-inducing statistics, as an aspiring gardener and environmentally aware home cook, I want to try to do what I can to minimize this waste.
So, what am I doing to minimize my environmental impact? One thing I’m psyched about is composting. And I’m not talking about your grandmama’s composting style (though there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that). In this post, I’ll show you how I do it. *Side note: I once did a stint with vermicomposting. More on that another time maybe.*
First, my snazzy stainless steel compost crock resides under my sink for easy access:
I picked mine up at TJMaxx, but you can find them at places like Bed, Bath & Beyond, cooking stores, smaller grocery stores, and specialty shops like Blue Ridge Eco Shop. Whatever model you get, make sure it’s got a tight fitting lid with charcoal filters–this prevents your food scraps from smelling up your kitchen. Seriously, no smell.
Whenever I cook, I gather my food scraps into a little pile, usually on a paper towel for easy collection. During clean-up, I dump that pile (paper towel and all) into the compost crock. Easy peezy!
Every couple of days or so, as the crock starts to get full, I take it outside to transfer its contents to my Envirocycle compost tumbler, which, happily, matches our green curbside garbage bin (the tumbler is also available in black and natural). Here is where the magic happens:
As you can see, it’s pretty compact. The top circular container opens via a small door on the top with a “critter proof” latch. It also has a couple of slits on the wall directly opposite this opening which allow compost “tea” (basically, juices from the compost) to flow into the squarish base. Said base has wheels on the top to allow you to spin the composter, mixing up the decomposing matter inside. It also a small spigot to allow you to pour out the compost tea to use for fertilizing your plants. Unlike compost “piles,” this model is easy to aerate (just give it a spin), the compact design helps maintain a warm temperature which speeds the breakdown, and it’s easy to collect liquid gold from (with compost piles, and elaborate procedure is needed to create and harvest compost tea from the decomposing matter).
So here’s what it looks like after I add all my stuff (more on what that “stuff” is in a sec):
And here’s what it looks like after I’ve closed the door and given it a whirl or two:
Really, there’s nothing gross about it. Sure, I’ll see an occasional worm or several. And once these crazy mushrooms showed up after a heavy rainstorm. But the only thing that’s in here is food and lawn scraps and paper products–all of which biodegrade in nature anyway. The beauty of the compost tumbler is that I can a) watch this decomposition process in a confined space, and b) harness the incredible nutrient benefits this compost will offer for my future garden and other houseplants!
As for what to put in…the goal is to maintain a 50-50 mixture of “greens” and “browns.” Greens being your “wet” matter like food scraps, and browns being “dry” matter such as paper towels, shredded newspapers, cardboard egg cartons, leaves and small twigs, coir, and dry leaves. This means that when I add a crock-full of food scraps, I also shred up a lot of newspaper to go with it. Magically, if you maintain this ratio, the compost won’t smell foul, it will just smell like fresh dirt. If it does start to smell, add more browns.
But there are certain food scraps to avoid. I only add fruit and veggie scraps, eggshells, tea bags, and used coffee grounds (well, actually, I don’t drink coffee, but if I did, I would). I do not add oily things (or veggie scraps that have been drenched in oil), dairy products, meat products, or large amounts of bread products. The list of things to avoid is mainly to deter critters, pests, and odors. *Side note: while animal manure is desirable in fertilizing crops, this refers to chicken, horse, or cow manure primarily. If you have a dog or cat, their doo is not recommended for household composting (though there are alternatives such as FlushEze, biodegradable, flushable poop bags, also available with a snazzy fanny pack).
So far, I’m still on the first round of adding stuff to my compost tumbler. So I haven’t yet harvested the compost and been able to use it on my crops. But when I turn over my small backyard garden plot this fall, I plan to make use of these nutrient-rich remains of my cooking endeavors. The manufacturer explains that once the tumbler is about 75% full, with frequent rotation it should all break down into readily usable compost in 4-6 weeks. Sounds pretty reasonable to me. I’d say this is certainly a worthwhile investment. It makes me feel better about not wasting the things I buy, gives me a sense of ownership with my DIY/can-do attitude, and, over time, it will more than pay for itself in the large amounts of natural fertilizer I will be able to use (and therefore avoid buying from a store).
Admittedly, this is just one small thing to help appease my own conscience and improve the environment around me. But if none of us took action for fear it was “just one person” or that it wouldn’t make that much of a difference, we’d never get anywhere. Individual actions add up! So share your ideas! What are you doing (or, what do you plan to do) to make your world a little greener and cleaner? Is composting something feasible at your home?