A Quick and Dirty Guide to Composting

Marley Flueger

Worldwide, we waste nearly a third of the food we produce. That’s enough to feed two billion people, more than double the amount of undernourished people on the planet. At a fundamental level, food waste is an issue of equality, justice, and dignity. Every person deserves the right to nourishment.

The United States wastes more food than any other country: research suggests the average American wastes about a pound of food each day. For comparison, folks in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia toss around 10 pounds in an entire year (36x less!). Some of this waste happens upstream - on the farm, during processing, or in transit - but nearly a quarter of it happens in our kitchens. 

Food waste is also a major contributor to the climate crisis. Food rotting in landfills releases methane, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

Landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the United States, producing 17.7% of total methane emissions. The United Nations has declared slashing methane emissions a top climate priority for the next decade – and reducing food waste is one way we can all play our part. 

How can we avoid food waste?

Everyone on the planet suffers from the climate impact of our food waste – even if they contribute very little to the problem. As people who live in richer nations, here’s how we can play our part in the solution:

  • Shop Smart: Only buy what you need, and what you’ll eat. Buy ripe produce if you’ll use it quickly, and not-quite-ripe items you plan on eating later in the week. 
  • Eat Perishables First: Plan your meals around groceries with the shortest lifespan; save shelf-stable dinners for later. 
  • Store Food Effectively: Know the best storage methods for different foods to keep them fresh and tasty longer. 
  • Eat Ugly Food: About 20% of produce is tossed because it doesn’t meet supermarket cosmetics standards. Imperfect Foods delivers those ugly, tasty items right to your doorstep. 
  • Understand Expiration Dates: Expiration dates indicate quality, not safety – you can still eat food that doesn’t show signs of spoilage after the specified date.
  • Use Food Scraps: Get creative with leftover bits and pieces. Sauté veggie leaves and stems, make bone broth or vegetable stock, or use citrus peels as air freshener.

What we can’t save, we can compost

We can’t always avoid food waste, but that doesn’t mean we have to toss it. Most organics are compostable and will break down naturally in the right conditions. 

Composting is easier (and less stinky!) than you may think. It also has numerous environmental benefits:

  • Reduces Landfill Waste: We can compost nearly 35% of the material we throw out, reducing our global waste stream (and landfill emissions).
  • Healthy Soil: Compost can be mixed into home gardens to boost soil health and moisture retention. Compost makes plants more resilient and can even help dirt sequester carbon.
  • Less Chemical Use: Nutrient-rich compost, also referred to as “black gold” is a cheap, environmentally-friendly alternative to synthetic fertilizer.
  • Reduce Emissions: Organic waste is responsible for 17-18% of preventable landfill emissions. Methane accounts for nearly a tenth of total US emissions, so this matters. 

Ready to scrap food waste? There are several pathways to composting. The right choice for you depends on where you live and what’s accessible to you. Let’s take a closer look. 

Option #1: Compost Collection & Drop-Off Services

More than one-third of the 1,000 largest cities in the US have some kind of composting program. Together, these programs service over a quarter of the US population. 

These programs are either municipally or privately run and include curbside collection and drop-off sites. Some cities offer multiple options, and most are available to both renters and owners in single- and multi-family dwellings. (Check here to see if there’s composting in your city)

Municipal Compost Programs 

While they’re far from wide-spread, more and more cities and towns offer municipal composting programs. (7% of US cities offer curbside collection and 6% have drop-off sites.) These options are often the lowest-barrier to entry, as they’re offered alongside other municipal waste services. 

Programs vary city to city. Some provide special compost bins and collect food scraps just like trash and recycling, while others require residents to bring their food waste to a designated drop-off site. A quick Google search is the easiest way to check if your city has an active program.

Private Compost Services

If you don’t have a public option, a local business may offer composting services. (12% of US cities have privately-run curbside collection and 5% have drop-off sites.)

There are hundreds of private composting services in the United States, particularly in urban areas. A few popular providers include CompostableLA in Los Angeles, Block Bins in Chicago, and Bootstrap in several East Coast states. 

Find a program: explore CompostNow’s list of compost pick-up services in the US and Canada, or this Litterless database of private and public composting (curbside and drop-off).

Compost Programs for Apartment-Dwellers

If you live in an apartment or condo, your building may already participate in a curbside pickup program or compost right on-site. Ask about your options and how to get started.

If your complex doesn’t compost, get your neighbors together and lobby management for a municipal or private pickup bin. Voila! Now your whole building can compost. 

If you can’t get management on board, some curbside services offer bundled pickups for folks in the same building. Explore your local options and ask other tenants if they’re interested in co-composting.  

Storing Food Scraps

If you’re composting outside or using a pick-up/drop-off program, you’ll need a place to store your food scraps in between trips to the bin. Rotting food is smelly, so pick a stainless steel or ceramic pail with a tight-fitting lid. 

Option #2: Home Composting

If there isn’t a composting pickup program near you, you’re not out of luck. There are home composting options for every type of residence and lifestyle – even if you’re an apartment dweller! 

“If you read online about home composting, it can seem pretty complicated –  but all you need is a box to throw raw vegetable waste, coffee grounds, and leaves or grass into. Turn it over every now and again and it should soon start looking like compost.” - Nick Reavill, Joro Head of Engineering

Indoor Composting

If you don’t have a backyard or sizable balcony, you might need to compost indoors. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to break down your food waste without stinking up your kitchen. 

Tabletop food digesters are crock pot-sized devices that pulverize and break down organic material. While they hold less than other composting systems, both the VitaMix FoodCycler and the Lomi Home Composter can turn food scraps into fertilizer in just a few hours. 

Want to dip your toes in before buying a spendy appliance? Countertop bins, like ones from EcoCrock and NetZeroCo, are great for small-scale composting and storing food scraps before you drop them off elsewhere.  

Outdoor Composting 

If you have the space, outdoor compost systems hold more waste than indoor ones. Plus, they won’t clutter up your kitchen.

  • Classic Compost Bin: With the right ingredients and regular stirring, a simple compost bin breaks down food in just a few months. These straightforward systems are generally the most affordable. 
  • Compost Tumbler: Tumbler units allow you to stir and aerate by turning a handle instead of sticking your hand in a smelly bin. Prices range, but simple setups are usually quite affordable. 
  • Worm Composting: With this method, worms chew and poo your food waste into nutrient-dense fertilizer. Try the Urban Worm Bag, a stackable worm bin, or make your own out of garden bags. 

To go even more eco-friendly, look at secondhand options on your local craigslist or Facebook marketplace group. 

What to Put in Your Composter

While most organic materials are compostable, some aren’t suitable for home setups. Reference the list below for what can and can’t be composted. For a backyard bin, shoot to have three to four times as many “browns” as “greens” for optimal decomposition. 

Note: these guidelines generally apply to compost pick-up/drop-off, too – but be sure to check with your specific program. 

Using Finished Compost

You can use your compost to fertilize all your houseplants, patio containers, and outdoor garden. Even so, you may end up producing more than you can realistically use.

Do you have a balcony or window where an EarthBox could go? Is there a community garden nearby? Perhaps your building landscapers (and landlord) would appreciate it for building beautification. Compost is usually in short supply – so spread the joy! 

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