Composting Beginners Guide To Be More Zero Waste!
Making the choice to start living a zero waste lifestyle is one of the most important things you can do live sustainably and help preserve the beautiful ecological balance of planet earth, simply by taking a page out of Mother Nature’s book. Composting your waste is one of the most impactful ways for you to do this. However, as with any lifestyle change, living a low waste lifestyle doesn’t just happen overnight. In order to go from producing an average of 4.5 pounds of trash each day to eliminating A LOT of your personal waste, you’ll have to start somewhere. But you will eventually find that this doesn’t require an enormous effort, but simply just a little bit of discipline and making a commitment to your “Why?”
So Why Live Zero Waste?
Maybe you hate seeing plastic grocery store bags and water bottles littering your favorite hiking trails. Or maybe you’re tired of inhaling the fumes of rotting food scraps in your garbage bin, waiting for trash pick-up day. Possibly you came across a blog, just like this one, and were shocked to find out the enormous amount of waste a single person generates and wanted to do something about it. Regardless of your reasons, it can be quite sobering to realize the negative impact we have on our planet with the collective garbage we create.
Did you know that Americans produce as much as 250-400 million tons of landfill-bound waste each year? Right now, there are currently 3,000 active landfills in the U.S. constantly being filled with our junk. They too will eventually reach their maximum capacities, just like the 10,000 retired landfills littering our countryside that had reached their limits. These literal garbage mountains aren’t simply just rancid-smelling eyesores.
- Americans produce enough garbage in one day to fill 63,000 garbage trucks.
- The waste created and sent to landfills in the U.S. has TRIPLED over the past 60 years.
- A single person on average throws away 1,200 pounds of compostable material each year.
- 40% of food goes to waste.
- Organics that end up in a landfill produce methane gas, which is the same gas that cows produce (20x more harmful than Carbon Dioxide).
- 36% of landfill waste in the U.S. is paper or cardboard, all of which is compostable.
- Landfills emit global warming methane into our atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that is almost 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
- Landfills create toxic substances that seep into our soil and groundwater.
It’s irrefutable simply throwing away our garbage into our trash bin impacts our daily lives as well as the environment as a whole. But one very simple and effective way to mitigate these negative effects and reduce our over-reliance on hazardous landfills is by taking the waste you produce and transforming it into useful compost right from the convenience of your own home!
What Exactly Is Composting
Decomposition is a natural process in which organic matter is broken down and recycled back into the earth as a nutrient-rich soil amendment. A composting system simply allows you to tag team with Mother Nature and accelerate the process by taking the mixture compostable material and regulating the amount of air, sunlight and water it receives. Composting our personal waste products, instead of tossing it in the garbage, is an eco-friendly method to reduce what we send to the landfill to your own personal benefits. Let’s say you eat a watermelon from your home garden and left with melon rind. With your own composting system, you can now reduce your garbage by over 30%, by tossing those scraps into a compost bin that will naturally turn them into an organic, nutrient-rich fertilizer which you can use to grow even more watermelons! Congratulations, you just completed the circle of life!
What Are the Benefits of Composting?
In the U.S. alone there are over 13,000 active or retired landfills, all of which produce incredible amounts of air, soil and water pollution. When we toss our food and other organic waste scraps into a compost bin, instead a garbage bin, we mitigate our impact on the environment. And don’t underestimate the earth-saving potential of composting. Consider the fact that 40% of all food goes to waste. This adds up to a 30 million ton grocery garbage mountain sent directly to landfills each year in just the U.S. alone!
Below are only some of the many wonderful environmental benefits of reducing our personal waste through composting.
- Reduces potent global-warming methane emissions created by landfills
- Reduces landfill toxins and pathogens that pollute our soil and groundwater
- Recycling scraps into usable compost lowers your carbon footprint
- Enriches soil, helping retain moisture and suppress plant diseases and pests
- Helps remove oil, grease and other toxins from storm water runoff
- Returns organic nutrients back into the environment and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, saving you money
- Encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create humus, a rich nutrient-filled material
- Proven to promote higher crop yields and increase soil moisture retention, saving you water
- Can be used as a weed-resistant mulch
What Is My First Step?
You will first need to decide what kind of composting container will work best for your living situation and your preferred method of composting. The great news is there are so many options to choose from, you can have a compost system whether you live on sprawling land or a teeny tiny apartment. You can use a regular old stationary compost bin to toss your composting scraps into. It’s low maintenance and holds a large capacity, but there’s no ideal method to mix and aerate the pile. This makes for a slower process that can take as long as 3-4 months for the compost to be ready. You might also consider worm bins, a popular choice if you live in an apartment building without land for an outdoor option. This method allows you turn your table scraps into useful compost material by cultivating special worms that essentially eat your garbage.
But my personal favorite and method of choice is a tumbler bin. Tumblers are large containers that sit on legs, and a handle on the side to spin it. This lets you easily mix the contents within it so you can aerate the pile whenever you need to. This means that with ideal conditions, you can get good nutrient-rich compost in as little as 3-4 weeks’ time!
Of course you can skip a bin all together and create an open air compost pile. Simply use a pitchfork to mix and aerate your pile when necessary. You may want to consider picking a discreet location with visual barriers and enough distance from neighbors in case your compost starts to get a little smelly.
Where Should I Place My Compost System?
Healthy compost requires the right amount of sun, water and air to decompose properly, and where you place your bin plays a big part in how efficiently and effectively you are able to turn your table scraps into “black gold” for your garden! So while you plan out the ideal location for your compost bin, there are a few things to consider before you choose its site:
Make sure you have at least a 3 square foot area for your bin and gardening tools such as a pitchfork and enough room to maneuver a wheelbarrow for transporting your stockpile.
Ease of Access
Choose a spot that you can comfortably toss your table scraps and other organic materials into. If you have trees or a home garden, you may want to find a happy medium between your house and your plants.
Choose a spot with moderate sunlight and easy access to a water supply. Heat and moisture is essential for your mixture to decompose properly. Try to find a location on your property that your water hose will reach in a partially shaded area. Your compost also needs air to breakdown its contents into yummy plant food. Pretty much any compost bin you buy will have a ventilation system to circulate the air. Make sure you place your bin in a spot where the vents are not blocked by vegetation or structures such as a wall or fence.
Bare ground is perfect as the compost liquid (leachate) will quickly and easily be absorbed into the earth. Avoid placing your bin on cement that prohibits drainage from reaching the soil, or need wooden structures that can rot when in content with the decomposing debris and material.
What Can I Compost?
Before you start tossing scraps and waste into your new bin, you will need to understand some composting basics so you will know what can and can’t toss into your pile. Composting is strictly for organic nitrogen-based (greens) and carbon-based (browns) materials. A proper breakdown process requires your bin mixture have roughly 50% brown to 50% green.
Examples of Green
- Vegetable scraps
- Fruit scraps
- Nut shells
- Egg shells
- Coffee grounds
- Tea bags
- Grass clippings
Examples of Green
- Dead tree leaves, branches and cones
- Sawdust and hay
- Untreated wood
- Shredded mail
- Paper egg cartons
- Cork material
- Vacuum cleaner lint
What Shouldn't I Compost
This is not to say all organic materials should enter your compost bin. The decomposition process requires the necessary help of microorganisms, which are susceptible to certain bacteria. So it’s important to keep your bin free of items such as:
Examples of Things Not To Compost
- Meat and bones
- Dairy products
- Fats and cooking oils
- Treated wood
- Dog and cat poop
- Diseased plants
- Grass clippings sprayed with pesticides/herbicides
- Plastic products
How Do I Start and Maintain My Compost Pile?
You have your bin and picked the perfect spot to place it. You are now ready to start composting at home! Starting and maintaining healthy compost system is fun to learn and incredibly rewarding! Below are 5 basic composting steps necessary to turn your organic scraps into a rich-mature compost soil.
You will want to start by filling your bin in 3-6 inch layers, alternating between nitrogen-based green material and carbon-based brown. I personally like to fill our compost bin with 50/50 green and brown mix, and it seems to work the best for me. It’s also worth mentioning that the smaller the pieces are, the faster your compost cycle will take. So if you have a shredder, you can really speed things up!
Add water every other layer, but not so much that it becomes waterlogged and soggy. You simply want the layers to feel moist. Continue layering and watering in this manner until you are happy with the amount inside your bin. There may be times when you will need to add more water during the cycle, if you notice your pile is getting too dry.
Your compost needs air in order to decompose efficiently. Turning your compost regularly mixes up the materials and aerates the contents of your bin. Pitchforks can be used to turn open air systems. And if you can find one small enough, you can use it for stationary bins. Tumbler composting bins have a handle on the side that you use to rotate the bin and turn the materials inside. We love this feature on our tumbler.
You will need to repeat some of these steps during each compost cycle in order to maintain an ideal environment for the decomposition to take place. Take note of how your batch looks, feels, and smells to clue you in on what needs to be added to maintain a healthy pile. If the pile feels too dry and the compost has stalled, add more water. If it starts to smell like rotten eggs and/or feels slimy, add more brown material and turn to offset the greens and aerate the pile.
Living a low waste lifestyle requires a dedication to The 3 R’s to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle what we use and consume. That is why we love composting so much! We can reduce the waste we create, by recycling our compostable scraps, and reusing what we create in our bins to benefit the earth, our plants and gardens, and our lives altogether!