If you took all the trash that the U.S. produces in one year and spread it out over an area of land, that area would be as big as the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona put together. On average, 2/3 of American household waste can actually be composted. So without taking industrial waste into account, if everyone composted, that huge pile of trash would only cover Nevada and Oregon.
Newby Island Compost Facility in Milpitas, California
Photo taken by Emma Hutchinson
While recycling has been going on for several decades, compost is actually a fairly new and lesser known form of waste diversion. The main idea behind compost is that by putting biodegradable materials like food scraps in the right environment, we can turn them into a high-quality soil product that can be used by farmers. Compost turns trash into treasure, so to speak. Here are some general rules for what you can and cannot compost:
WHAT YOU CAN COMPOST
- Food scraps
- Tea bags (without the string and tag)
- Paper cupcake/muffin liners
- Yard trimmings, plants, and other natural materials
- Disposable food containers and utensils that say “compostable”
- Pizza boxes
WHAT YOU CANNOT COMPOST
- Food containers that do not explicitly say “compostable” (this includes containers that say “biodegradable” – these containers are often not compostable). In general, compostable containers and utensils must be certified by BPI.
- Plastic bags, wrappings, etc.
- Human and pet waste
- Glass, metal, foil, Styrofoam, cans, stone, etc.
- Chemicals and batteries
A compost facility can improve the local economy, facilitate community building, and increase sustainability. However, most municipalities are not lucky enough to have a local compost facility, and instead have compostable materials picked up curbside along with recycling and trash. But not to fear – even if you don’t have a local compost facility, as long as you have the space you can still make your own small compost heap right outside your home!. You can then use the soil that you generate on your own garden, indoor plants, or you can share it with your neighbors. The best way to generate high-quality soil is to hire some help, a.k.a. buy some small detritivore friends. Detritivores are organisms that break down organic compounds, like your food scraps. The best detritivores for this purpose are worms. Now, before you protest, just look how happy and healthy these worms look in a compost heap:
Composting worms are different from the long, slimy ones you randomly encounter on the sidewalk – these are called Red Wiggler Worms, and are only an inch or two long. They stay in your compost heap, with no way to escape, feed off your food scraps, and help you generate a high-quality soil product. This type of composting is called “vermicomposting”, and doesn’t smell or attract flies like other types do. Here’s how to start your own vermicomposting heap in your home:
- Buy your Red Wiggler Worms. One way to do this is to order them online through Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm. If you’re just starting a small heap, ordering 500 worms (which only costs $16) is probably the best way to go. Uncle Jim’s will send the worms to you in the mail.
- Get a large plastic storage bin with a top, and drill small holes in the top so your worms can breathe.
- Put a mixture of soil, shredded newspaper, and water in your bin.
- Put your compostable materials in the bin. You will get the best results if you cut up your food waste into small pieces before placing them in the bin (so that your critters can actually chew the pieces). These worms tend to like greens the best, and don’t like apples very much. Keep in mind that the best materials to use in this setting are fruits and vegetables, tea bags, food-soiled paper, and small amounts of yard trimmings. It’s best to avoid using meat and dairy, since they are more likely to generate odor, and food containers, since they take longer to break down.
- Add your worms! Keep track of what your worms like and don’t like, and monitor their progress.
Composting is a win-win-win situation for you, your worms, and the planet. Have fun with it and let us know how your compost operations are doing!
*Thank you to my sister, Laura Hutchinson, for help on how to set up a compost heap, as she did a science fair project a few years ago in which she set up a vermicompost operation and monitored the worms’ progress.
A lot more helpful information about methods and mistakes of home composting can be found here:
Other resources used:
About the Author:
Emma Hutchinson is a world traveler, a musician, and a nature lover. She is a college sophomore studying Earth Systems at Stanford University, and sees herself as a future communicator between scientists, economists, policymakers, and the general public to tackle environmental issues. Her past experiences have included a research position with Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences, a summer internship at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8 office, and a TEDx talk at a youth event in Denver. For more articles by Emma, click here!