Compost. Let’s free associate for a moment here. Most people I come across have an initial inclination that leans most towards the “eww gross” face, because their first associate is with garbage. Decay. Rot. Well folks, all of that is true. But there is beauty there, too.
Composting is at its core an exercise in the belief that organic matter is reusable and recyclable. Rather than throwing away your organic matter in the garbage bin (in a plastic bag, nonetheless) where it is then carted off to far-reaching landfills by gas-guzzling sanitation vehicles, composting turns you leftovers and scraps into a nutrient-rich and vital additive to the soil. Think of it like the circle of life, from Lion King fame – composting represents that full-circle narrative of an item being consumed, then being recycled into something that helps new life to grow.
So, how does that work, exactly? A banana peel left to its own devices will indeed, decompose, but that’s not the same as composting. Composting is a proactive process that accelerates the decay of organic material by literally creating the perfect, happy home for those delicious microorganisms that do the dirty work of decomposition. Variables like temperature, moisture, and oxygen are controlled for by those doing the composting so that they stay at the ideal levels for those busy microorganisms.
Ok, so now that you know the nuts and bolts, I think that a lot of people still ask themselves a resounding “why?” when it comes to diving into this practice. Why is it important? Why is it worth the effort and energy? On top of composting being a great way overall to lower your carbon footprint and introduce lower waste practices into your home, there is a more tangible way to think about the environmental benefits. The important word to remember here is methane. Organic food waste that’s sent to landfills to decompose releases methane, which is quite a potent greenhouse gas. In this way, food waste is sneakily and insidiously a very real contributor to climate change. When we compost, we’re actively reducing the methane emissions from landfills, while also creating a regenerative product for the environment.
As far as what can and can’t be composted, I’ll provide general guidelines below. I always recommend double-checking with your local compost drop-off to make sure that you know what they accept (I use Grow NYC, and this is a great resource for NYC-dwellers).
What To Compost
Yard/garden trimmings (must be free from chemical pesticides)
Newspapers (shred first)
Hair and pet fur
Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
What Not To Compost
Dairy products (butter, milk, yogurt, etc)
Eggs (but the shells can be composted)
Fats and oils
Meat and fish (bones, scraps)
Clippings from plants that are diseased/insect-ridden
Waste (such as pet waste and litter)
Now that I have you readers hooked on implementing this practice in your own home, here’s the nuts and bolts for how to action it. Follow these quick and easy steps for composting at home (you can literally start tomorrow).
- Stickers – Before you recycle your accepted scraps, make sure that you take the grocery stickers off of fruits and veggies. If you don’t do it here, folks at the composting facilities will have to do this by hand.
- Storage – Based on where you live and how much space you have, you’ll have a very clear idea of how you can store your food scraps. For me, living in a studio in NYC, I don’t have outdoor space nor counter space, so my freezer is ground zero. I simply put my food scraps in a tupperware container or (dreaded) plastic bag if I happen to have one around and keep it right in the freezer. That means zero smell, and zero mess. For those in more spacious living arrangements, there are some beautiful options out there for countertop compost storage as well, such as this Bamboozle bin, and outdoor composters that can be kept in a backyard.
- Drop off – Check your local listings for compost drop-off sites (again, Grow NYC will be your best friend here, and NYC.gov also has site listings). Bring your container to the site during the prescribed hours, dump your waste, bring the container home, and do it all.over.again next week.
If you’re jonesing for a little more, whether that’s knowledge or experiencing the process firsthand, I cannot recommend finding a compost site to volunteer at more highly. I’ve worked at Red Hook Community Farm, which has the largest community composting operation in the country. They compost year-round, rain or shine (I’ve done this in the pouring rain, true story), and you can volunteer via their website on Fridays and Saturdays quite easily. It’s a pretty incredible operation, and they’ve worked really hard to create what they call a sustainable “closed loop” in their community. What I mean by that is, crops are grown at local urban farms, sold to members of the community, those members in turn bring their scraps back for composting, and the compost goes out to help local farms. On and on, in perpetuity.
All in all, this isn’t a hard sell, and I’m sure that those of you who want to adopt this practice either already have, or will. My hope is to shine a little bit of light on the ease of adoption with composting, and how you can make a pretty meaningful environmental impact with a small investment of time and energy on your end. Will one person composting save the environment? Obviously, not. But every person deciding to contribute less methane to the environment matters. And I believe that this mindset of recycling and reusing is one that transcends composting, and can begin to spread outwards and touch more and more facets of our daily lives.