HOW TO COMPOST — HOT NOT ROT

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Not to be confused with its smelly cousin rotting, composting is the biological decay of organic matter—such as food and yard waste—under controlled conditions.

In New York City, about 1/3 of landfill waste is actually compostable. As landfill, organic matter degrades into methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Restaurant food waste, expired produce, household organics and plant matter are all made of vital nutrients that can be used to regenerate soil instead of feeding climate change. It can even be used to create renewable energy through biogas.

Want to start composting? Here are the pros, cons and how to's of different ways. You can tap into composting services or go the DIY route.

1) Drop off & Pick up

Depending on where you live, your municipality may offer compost drop off or even pick up. Local government benefits by saving money on landfill costs and can use the compost as free fertilizer for public parks and green spaces. It's a win-win.

Composting programs have designated drop off locations or provide special carting bins that get serviced weekly. New Yorkers can sign up for rodent-proof NYC Department of Sanitation composting bins that get serviced weekly. Pick up is currently available in Manhattan, South Bronx, or for apartment buildings with 10+ units in any other borough. The collection bins are kept with your building's recycling and trash bins. Participating residents also get a small indoor collection box to transfer compostables. This service is for residential buildings only, Composting for commercial spaces is done through private companies, and there are also food donation services like City Harvest.  

If you can't get residential pick up service, an alternative is to collect your compostables in a portable indoor holding container, then dump them weekly at a collection site. These are conveniently located all over the City.This is what I'm currently doing. Before there were dozens for sale in Home Depot and Target, I found my lovely stainless steel compost pail while traveling in India—its intended function is a milk pail. I love that the brand name is "Devi" (goddess in sanskrit).

Here in NYC, we are lucky to have a thriving farmers market that offers compost drop off throughout the five boroughs. You can recycle your organic matter and buy fresh produce from local farmers at the same time. Rinse (your compost container) and repeat. 

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2) DIY Indoors with Your Very Own Bin

The most rewarding hands-on way to compost indoors is also the most exotic because the activator is…worms. First you’ll need a bin, which can easily be made by drilling holes in a plastic storage box or building your own wooden bin. Bins must have a lid to create a moist, dark environment for your wiggly new friends, plus holes for drainage and ventilation. Not feeling the DIY calling? Bins can also be bought readymade. This is one popular model, and here is a cool one I found on Etsy. If you live in New York, you can buy a simple premade one from the NYC Compost Project.

 etsy slick indoor composter

etsy slick indoor composter

Next, prepare your bin with bedding material such as leaves, potting soil, or one-inch strips of newspaper. Bedding should be moist but not wet. Now you're ready for your new roommates. The best worm for composting is the red wiggler, or red worm. They can be bought online at Gardener's Supply (this source is a certified B Corp), or if you're a NYC resident, through the composting pros at the Lower Eastside Ecology Center.

There are a few rules to follow, but for the most part, once your vermicomposter is up and running, all you need to do is keep adding your food scraps and renewing the bedding material as needed. The worms and nature's chemistry do the rest. Soon you’ll have a rich natural fertilizer known as vermicompost. Alright, alright. It is mostly worm feces, but it smells pleasant enough and doesn’t harbor dangerous bacteria. In fact, it's packed with beneficial microorganisms that boost plant growth and resilience.

On the cons side, vermicomposting is a commitment, somewhat like pet ownership. But it can be a great learning project for kids, and fun for science geeks of all ages. It's also conveniently done at home as opposed to having to add "drop off compost" to your errand list.

3) DIY Bokashi Style

Developed in Japan, the Bokashi method ferments food waste with a special mix of microorganisms or "starter". Bokashi bins don't require worms. Just sprinkle your food scraps with the inoculated starter (like cultures for yogurt) and let it do its thing for 7 to 10 days (note, you may need to drain off liquid as it develops). A possible con, the finishing step requires burying the fermented waste in soil, meaning you'll need access to a bit of green space or a large potted plant. A pro to bokashi is that it can break down meat and dairy, unlike the worm approach. It's also fast and compact, well suited to small living spaces.

4) DIY Outdoors with Your Own Bin

If you’d rather not share quarters with your compost, and you have an outside space or live near a community garden, you can opt for outdoor composting.  Make sure you choose a rodent-resistant composter design, intended for urban use, like this recycled plastic one. Or instead you can get your DIY on.

 outdoor composter, 100% recycled plastic

outdoor composter, 100% recycled plastic

The caveat for outdoor composting in the city is, in a word, rats. The City of New York seems to have successfully developed their collection bins to be impervious when used properly. While commercially sold bins may be rodent resistant, odds are that rats can find their way into them. That said, I didn't turn over every last stone in my research, so please let me know if you find an effective rodent proof design so we can share solutions.

The end product of outdoor composting is humus, a naturally occurring organic element in soil. Humus, not to be confused with tasty spread hummus, is an essential component of healthy soil. Even in cities, where most soil is under concrete, humus is needed to enhance the health of gardens, house plants, and street trees.

Outdoor composting systems are pretty low maintenance. Keep in mind, they also take a longer time to process feedstocks than indoor systems. The primary things to watch out for are: 

  • moisture levels that are damp, not dry or wet
  • adequate are flow, by turning the compost
  • don’t add meat (unless doing bokashi), grease, or woody materials
  • keep the internal temperature between 50 to 80 F, best for the chemical processes for controlled decomposition

True, there can be an “ick” factor to composting but it can be easily outweighed by the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping recycle valuable nutrients back into the web of life instead of contributing to the monumental volume of organic waste going to the biological dead-end of landfills. Oxygen-starved, the landfill environment suffocates the natural decomposition process. So, if you’d rather not have every banana peel and egg shell you’ve ever tossed preserved for eternity, why not give composting a try?