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Plastic Free July Day 12: Composting

home composting zero waste

(Back to the challenge summary)

Today we're going to learn from Zero Waste California how to start composting at home!

What does composting have to do with plastic?

Well, food waste often leads to garbage bags, and garbage bags are completely unnecessary in a zero waste home.

Even if your local garbage company picks up compost, composting at home is a great way to not only get nutrient rich material for your plants, but you can be sure that no harmful pesticides or herbicides made their way into your compost.

For cities that do not have a compost pick up service, this is an easy way to prevent food scraps from entering landfill, the last place they belong!

Now, let's get one thing out of the way: it's not a good idea to toss meat or dairy products (or fats) into your compost pile. Those items can be composted by Recology, so save your produce and garden scraps for your own compost and the rest to be picked up.

2 methods to compost at home

home compost zero waste plastic free

Nitrogen boils at 77.4 Kelvin  and Carbon's atomic number is 6. Take the square root of the carrot and multiply it by leaves. I'm just kidding. I wouldn't do that to you.  It's funny, I put off composting for so long because of how complicated the internet made it seem. I suffered from acute analysis paralysis.

Composting is extremely easy, and there are various techniques you can use depending on how much room you have available, ranging from balcony garden to multiacre farm.

If you *must* have a ratio, here you go: 2 Parts Carbon to 1 Part Nitrogen.

Carbon = dried leaves, shredded paper, straw. (These items are called BROWNS because they are dry)

Nitrogen = food scraps, grass clippings (These items are called GREENS - because they are usually wet)

Here, I made a diagram: for every bucket of food scraps, you essentially need two buckets of shredded paper or dry leaves.

compost ratio browns and greens

 

Rotating Composters

There are many composters available for sale, at home improvement stores or online, like the rotating composter.

rotating composter

We got our first composter for about $100 and it has never reached capacity. For reference, I live in a household of two very hungry adults. For a family of three or four, this should still be sufficient.

The rotating composter I have is separated into two sections. You fill up one at a time. So when one is full, you move on to the second one, and let the first section rot. You can add the compost as needed: every meal, daily, weekly, etc.

Pros:

  • Good for small spaces
  • Keeps odor mostly contained
  • Doesn't seem to attract large flies
  • Very easy to use.

Cons:

  • Made out of black plastic
  • Not good for farms or large families
  • Somewhat difficulty to assemble (watch youtube videos!)
  • Must be rotated regularly (daily)

Worm Bin Composting

worm bin composting

My DIY ghetto-fab worm bin composter

My second compost bin was created out of two old plastic storage bins that once held Christmas decorations. Over the years, both the lids on these bins shattered and the bins were pretty much useless without a top. After watching some youtube videos, I realized I could repurpose them into a worm composting bin!

Here's how I made it

1) Poke several hole-punch sized holes on the bottom of ONE bin. This will be your worm bin and will go on top of the other bin, which we will call the tea bin.

2) In the tea bin, place 4 rocks, bricks, or in my case I used mini terracotta pots, in each corner of the tea bin, to allow the worm bin to have something to drain into. As you can see from the photo, the worm bin is just slightly higher than the tea bin.

3) Stack the worm bin on top of the tea bin. Cover the worm bin with something that allows air flow but keeps out large pests. I used whatever I could find - an old window screen.

Can we use any kind of worms?

For worm bins, you must use a type of worm called Red Wigglers. To find them in your area, check Google. I had to find a local supplier! I call him my worm guy.

Compost Hack: Save your coffee grounds!! Coffee grounds aid worms in digestion!

For a super thorough guide on worm bin composting, check out the EPA's guide.

Now, start filling the worm bin.

You will be creating 3 layers:

Bottom Layer: Shredded Paper

It is recommended to use shredded paper for the first layer of the worm bin. Soy ink newspaper, paper bags, paper towels, tissues, etc. will work. I collected the cardboard toilet paper rolls and paper wrappers from Who Gives A Crap in small trash bin in the bathroom for about 6 months. Since it was just my partner and I, I could assure nothing unsanitary went in that bin, just paper items and silk floss. 

shredded paper compost bin zero waste

Middle Layer: Food Scraps

Assemble your food scraps in an even layer on top of the paper layer. Over the course of a month or two, I began collecting food scraps into a large metal bowl which was stored in the freezer. This metal bowl works well for me, but there are also tins and bins available to collect and transport your scraps before they reach the compost bin. I found this to be kind of gross. Freezing scraps in a metal bowl works best for me.

Top Layer: Dried Leaves

For the top layer, I finish the pile with dried leaves. This was the easiest step. I just went around my yard with gloves on and stuffed a bunch of fried leaves into a bucket until I had enough to cover the pile by about 5 inches. It took less than ten minutes. I added all three layers in the same afternoon.

Notice the 2:1 ratio?

I let the bin sit for a few days before adding the red wigglers. Repeat the process as needed, adding a layer of food scraps and covering with a layer of browns, ideally leaves. This will protect the worms and compost from pests and help the compost pile heat up.

The compost produced is a result of the worm castings, which is basically... poop. (Can I get through one blog without writing about poop? The answer is, no.) No one likes to live in their poop, in fact, it becomes too concentrated for the worms if not removed. Keep their habitat happy and healthy with fresh greens and browns, and lots of coffee grounds.

Oh gosh, more rhyming.

*Tip* Always keep a pile of leaves on hand to cover your food scraps in the worm bin.

What is the Tea bin for?

"Tea" as in worm tea, is the liquid collected from the compost process. Without a well draining area, the compost could flood and kill the worms. The holes in the worm bin provide an escape for that liquid.

But don't throw it away! That is what the second "tea" bin is for. Every week, pour out the worm tea into a container or watering can. Worm tea is extremely nutrient rich! Water your plants with it!

Wait, Can't I just throw my scraps in a pile, cover it with leaves, and it will eventually be compost?

Yes, actually. Absolutely.

compost in the ground zero waste

(Photo Credit: http://www.naturallysimpleorganics.com/)

Just keep that 2:1 ratio in mind, and you can literally just toss your scraps into a pile, cover it with leaves, rotate it now and again, and eventually you will have compost.

How long does it take to go from food scrap to nutrient rich compost?

It can take anywhere from 2-6 months to complete the entire process. This depends on heat, humidity, and keeping that ratio balanced. The happier the compost pile, the faster you will get compost. Warmth, Nitrogen, and Carbon make compost piles happy.

Here's a great video showing how to start a larger compost pile from a girl who just *gets it*

 

Troubleshooting

Help! My compost is slimy and/or smells funky

This probably means you need more carbon. Add some dried leaves and mix, this should help balance things out. This often happens after adding too many grass clippings, so go slow! Add small amounts over time.

My compost pile is too wet!

Adding dried leaves and shredded cardboard should help dry our your pile!

My compost pile is too dry!

Do the opposite, add more greens, like food scraps.

Can you compost nut shells?

It takes years for shells, especially pistachio shells, to biodegrade in most composters. If you don't have a facility that can compost these shells, wash them (because salt is bad for plants!), let them dry, and line the bottom of your potted plants with the shells to keep your soil well-drained.

Happy Rotting!

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