After I posted the photo of the compost bin featured earlier today, I realized that there was a glaring Compost Error in plain sight: a plastic baggie. Lo and behold, in my haste to upload something–anything!–to stay on schedule today, I had overlooked a hideous violation of Compost Code. But, as a firm believer in Teachable Moments (and unnecessary capitalization, apparently), I’ll take hold of this one.
First of all, why compost?
Growing up with a cute compost bucket under our kitchen sink and a cool, gross black compost bin out back, I never questioned it. What I later pieced together was that our compost pile was a good part of the reason why we could use (and reuse) paper (compostable) bin liners for regular trash (there was nothing icky to require being thrown out), why our trash basically never smelled bad, and why we had so little of it.
One of the things I learned about other people at college was that they typically lined trash cans with plastic bags. But wait, I remember thinking. There are companies that mass produce a waste product… just to contain other waste products? Actually, yes. Incredible. If you compost, you can make do without any of that–pardon my French–shit.
And, in turn, compost will augment the good shit you need for your garden. Even if you don’t have an in-ground garden, you can still used finished compost in a container garden or you can just allow the heap to break down, maybe giving finished compost to a neighbor. (If you don’t generate a lot of compost-ready waste, you won’t be producing much finished compost, so it can just be a way of saving landfill space.)
As much as these sound like hippy do-good reasons to compost (or do they? my hippy filter’s off right now), they’re good for you too. Plastic bags for trash cans are unsightly and costly. They’re also annoying as hell to deal with and seem to have a propensity for breaking whenever something really gross has sunk to the bottom. But guess what? Basically all of that wet stuff is compostable, which you know because it’s rotting in the bag. Instead of spilling rotten tomato guts all over your toes in the middle of the night as you hobble out to put the trash out, you could turn this icky goo into plant food.
Other good reasons to compost? It can make you more mindful about food waste (how much are you scraping off your plate?) and at the same time, it means that the unavoidable waste of some cooking processes is less, well, wasteful. If you’re paying for something, you might as well get value out of all of it, right? Now even your banana skins can earn their keep.
In conclusion, not composting is silly. So you’re convinced. But how does it work?
The highly non-technical answer is that basically organic stuff (and I don’t mean USDA-certified-organic, but ‘organic’ in the sense of ‘living’) breaks down, but a lot of the nutrients are still viable and when everything gets jumbled about due to bacterial processes in the compost heap, the resultant compost (‘finished compost’ to distinguish it from ‘active’ or ‘in progress’ compost) is solid plant food.
To get this magic to happen in your life, you only need a container to put scraps (preferably a container with a lid) inside your house, and a compost pile to take the scraps to outside your house. So two containers. Although you can get by with an unstructured pile to throw scraps and a bowl or something to put them in in the kitchen (as long as you take it out every day). So technically you don’t even need a container. At the veggie co-op at my college, we just opened a window and threw stuff out to the ground there. (Okay, we were aiming for the compost bin right under the window, but it didn’t always work out, except the compost itself still did, so… there.)
And now to the biggest question about composting: what can I compost?
This can seem really daunting or even scary. Somehow.
The biggest “rule” is to avoid plastics and proteins. Plastics, like the plastic baggie I dug out of the compost bin shortly after taking the instagram photo I’ve got up here. (The Household is still getting used to this thing.) Paper can be OK (like wet-from-water-soluble-matter (not oil) paper towels? fine), but paper with a plastic coating or waxy coating should probably go in trash or recycling. Oil, milk, cheese, and meat should not go in compost. (If you have a worm composting system, you can throw out this guideline, but that is Pro Level Composting and this post is really for absolute beginners.)
Excellent compost material: banana peels, tea bags, apple cores, snapped ends of green beans, carrot tops (though the leafy green of carrot tops can be used in soup or is a great treat for rabbits!), celery ends, that carrot you forgot about at the bottom of the “crisper” drawer that is no longer crisp, fruit and veggie scrapings from most meals, stale bread…
I tend to be very loose when it comes to what I’m willing to compost, but I make up for this by doing a lot of chopping and shredding of stuff that is questionable–breaking stuff like napkins into smaller pieces helps them break down faster. For a personal compost pile, I figure you might as well go for it. If you’re composting in a co-op or sending your compost to a city collection or something though, for heaven’s sake know and follow the group policies.