Updated: Feb 12, 2021
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 292.4 million tons of trash was generated by Americans in 2018. Of that, 69 million tons were recycled and 25 million tons were composted. Using these figures, the average American produces 4.9 pounds of trash every day. While recycling is doing wonders for combatting the trash that inevitably is sent to landfills—or worse, stranded in the environment—composts are the perfect solution for organic matter, which makes up approximately 40% of trash in landfills.
You might ask, “Why should I compost this if it’ll just break down in a landfill?” This is a normal question to have when you might be surrounded by packaging advertising the words, “Biodegradable!” or “Plant-based materials!” The reality is not so simple, though. Data from several sources show that garbage in landfills does not break down. In nature, this organic matter would be exposed to fungi, bacteria, water, and oxygen—all crucial components in the equation of decomposition. In landfills, where organic matter may be trapped under plastic bags and styrofoam cups, there is very little exposure to nature’s biodegraders. Some scientists say that the matter just “mummifies” since it can’t break down properly. Scary, right?
This is where composts come into play. Leaves, food scraps, branches, dust, hair, and even some specially-developed plant plastics can all be broken down effectively with composts. If usage of composts was widely spread, then much of the waste sent to landfills would be eliminated and fresh compost would supply communities with the materials to build gardens and greenhouses.
When considering how to compost, you have a few different options. Composting at home has become popular, but there are also alternatives offered for indoor composting and composting drop-offs. These choices are different from place to place (for example, a big city may have a compost pick-up in lieu of drop-offs). See here for where you can drop off your food waste and here for composting sites in the Greater Lafayette area.
Compost is not something new—people have been using the rich “black gold” that was even used by George Washington! Composting is said to even go back to the Stone Age. The reasons why we use composts haven’t changed much, but the circumstances have.
Nowadays, composting is a necessary component in climate resiliency. Communities that have access to compost can use it for vertical gardens, lessening the need to ship food from place to place when you already have fresh produce at your fingertips. The carbon footprint of food waste and shipping would be dramatically reduced. Increased usage of organic compost is also better than using man-made, lab-generated fertilizers.
Composting strengthens zero-waste values, too. In a perfect society, nothing would go to waste because that’s how nature intends it to be. Landfills expel methane into the atmosphere which could be prevented. By using composts, we’re bringing back a circular economy and lifestyle that focuses on the long-term needs of the environment before the whims of ourselves.
For outdoor composting, simply gathering a heap is the simplest way to go. Because the content consistently biodegrades, the heap stays about the same size, no matter how much stuff you pile on top of it.
Rake fall leaves, mowed grass trimmings, and branches into a corner of your yard.
Use a compost pail to collect kitchen scraps.
Empty the compost pail every so often onto the composting heap
Still an easy solution for composting, a wire bin is perfect for starting out on your composting journey.
16-gauge galvanized wire fencing about four to five feet tall
Outdoor compost container (optional)
Wrap 16-gauge galvanized wire fencing about four to five feet tall in a cylindrical shape.
Use as-is or to line composting containers.
“Vermicomposting” creates a rich soil by implementing one of nature’s finest biodegraders—worms. Most people prefer to keep their vermicomposts outdoors, but it can also be kept inside.
2 dark-colored 10-gallon plastic totes with lids
¼” and ⅛” drill bits
Enough shredded paper to fill a bin
Spray bottle with water
1,000 Red Wiggler Worms
1 cup of food scraps (do not use garlic, onions, or hot peppers)
Drill about 50 holes in the bottom of each bin using a 1/4-inch drill bit. This is for drainage and through which the worms will migrate upward to the empty bin.
Create ventilation holes by drilling about 60 holes just under the top edge with a 1/8-inch drill bit, as well as about 50 holes in ONE of the lids.
Add half of the shredded paper, moistening it with the spray bottle. It should feel like a wrung out sponge. This is the bedding.
Add the worms. You can add a few handfuls of loose garden soil or leaves if desired, but it isn’t necessary.
Add food scraps and spread evenly.
Top with the other half of the shredded paper and moisten well.
Locate your bin’s ideal permanent place. The worms don’t like temperature extremes, such as really hot summers and really cold winters. 55-75 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.
Place the lid without the holes on the ground and place a brick in each corner, and set the bin on top of the bricks.
To feed the worms, pull away the shredded paper on top, pour in the cup of food, then replace the shredded paper so all food is covered.
Taking care of worm composts can be hard! For further reading, refer to the sources at the bottom of the page.
This one is for the organized people out there! Using this system, you can separate new scraps from the compost that is ready to be used. For materials and construction, refer to this PDF. If you’re worried that the materials are out of budget for this compost, try using free pallets, steel T-posts, wire, and hardware cloth instead.
For this compost bin, it’s just as simple as it sounds. If you’re not feeling super craftsy and don’t want a compost heap, try this option.
Old trash can
Drill or hammer
3-4 Cinder blocks
Dry sawdust, straw, or wood chips
Shovel or pitchfork (optional)
Drill or hammer holes into the sides of the garbage can. Holes should be about 4 to 6 inches apart and go around the entire circumference of the can. These holes will allow for aeration and drainage.
Drill or hammer holes near the center of the bottom of the can to allow excess water to drain from the bin.
Elevate the bin on three or four cinder blocks so it can drain easily.
Add 2 to 3 inches of dry sawdust, straw or wood chips to the bottom of the bin to facilitate drainage and absorb excess moisture.
Add organic wastes to the bin until it is full.
Water your compost bin by removing the top and spraying it with a hose. Too much moisture can be a bad thing. Your compost should be about as wet as a wrung-out sponge. If it's dripping, it's too wet.
Remove the bin from the cinder block platform and roll it around to mix the contents. Do this at least once every two weeks. If you have problems with the top coming off or the bin is too heavy, mix the compost with a shovel or pitchfork instead.
Don’t have the space outdoors for a large compost? That’s okay, too. Compost pails offer a solution to that. You can drop off the compost to a compost center in your area, give it to a friend, donate to local schools and gardens, or use it yourself in your own gardening adventures.
If you’re unsure what to compost and what to not, check out this list made by the EPA. Drop-off centers may also have guidelines for what they accept and what they don’t. Be sure to check those!
Select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin.
Add brown and green materials as they are collected, making sure larger pieces are chopped or shredded.
Moisten dry materials as they are added.
Once your compost pile is established, mix grass clippings and green waste into the pile and bury fruit and vegetable waste under 10 inches of compost material.
Cover top of compost with a tarp to keep it moist. When the material at the bottom is dark and rich in color, your compost is ready to use. This usually takes anywhere between two months to two years.
Freeze your indoor compost bins to prevent odors.
You need to get oxygen into your composts if they smell bad. Add more fall leaves and stir or poke the pile to get air into it. Microbes that can live in environments without oxygen create bad smells, and you want to encourage the other kind. If the pile is too wet or has too much green material it can smell. The solution is the same—add leaves or chopped up paper and stir. Some composters drill holes in plastic pipe and insert into the middle of their piles. This introduces air, and can also be used to get water into the middle of the pile.