First: my enviro disclaimer:
I consider myself to be a bit of a lapsed environmentalist - it was very important to me when I was in my 20s, so I got a couple degrees in environmentally stuff, and then sort of burned out. I found the obsession of other environmentalists to be overwhelming, and didn't like the idea that for many issues, there just isn't a good answer and tradeoffs were often as bad or worse. I have been slowly trying to get back into the swing of things in a balanced way, looking at one aspect of our lives at a time. First, we adopted a Meatless Monday and mostly organic diet, then I upgraded all of our cleaning and personal use chemicals when I was first pregnant and still feeling productive (here). This year is all about reducing our trash, and specifically compost. I do not want to be preachy - and in fact really despise unsolicited advice -- so please don't take this as a preachy holier-than-thou thing. My goal in most life aspects is to try to make one small step towards doing a better job- so this is just the smallish step for us for this year.
Generally, most food scraps and yard clippings are sent away in our trash and ultimately sent to a landfill. This is a problem for a couple reasons:
- Food waste and yard clippings are currently 20-30% of the volume of our trash. Many cities, and large East Coast ones in particular, are out of places to put their trash, so they truck it many miles to mega-landfill facilities. Not only does this mean that we're turning more nice land into really gross land, but we're burning more fossil fuels to get it there.
- Once it arrives at a landfill, the organic materials are covered with other trash, preventing a free flow of air, so they decompose anaerobically (meaning without oxygen). This type of decomposition produces methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, 20x more powerful than plain carbon dioxide. If those same materials are able to decompose aerobically (in the presence of oxygen), then they instead produce carbon dioxide, which is less potent.
- Farming is roughly a process by which seedlings pull nutrients and water out of the soil in order to build big nutrient-rich things like leaves and fruits. So, the soil left behind is inherently less nutrient-dense because the nutrients are in the leaves and stems and tomatoes. So the farmer has to add back nutrients through the process of fertilization, which can be done with organic or otherwise friendly materials, or can be done with some really strong chemical fertilizers that often just run straight into our waterways creating other havoc downstream. (This isn't true of all plants - some plants actually pull nutrients out of the air and put them in the soil - but they usually aren't food plants and I would say they are generally not very attractive plants either, so not stuff you likely want to grow in your garden).
look at this fun flower
So I have really wanted to compost for a long time - I actually took a college class on farming and found the whole process to be really inspiring. I waited patiently through several apartment years, and when we finally bought our house - I bought a composter that day. It arrived in early January - long before we'd unpacked any boxes or we'd even really looked at the yard or thought about the garden. I put the massive thing together, hauled it outside, and immediately started dumping our kitchen scraps into it. I bought a little ceramic vessel to sit on the counter and collect the scraps until I could eagerly carry them outside to put them in the composter. I cannot express to you how excited I was to finally get started.
But it didn't work as well as I had hoped. First, I would forget to empty the counter-top container, which would inevitably fill up with bugs and slime. Second, I would forget to water or turn the composter, so it dried out and didn't do anything. Third, I failed to add other types of materials, so the composter started to smell and get gross. Spouso has been threatening to get rid of the thing since it arrived, which is heartbreaking - so this year I'm committed to making this thing actually work.
better soil makes prettier flowers
I really want this to work this time, so I started out with some basic research. I found a bunch of great sites, here, here and here. The gist is pretty simple:
- You need a space for the compost to go. If you have a big yard, then you can just dump it on the ground or in a fenced-off area, but if you don't have a lot of space or live in a city, then you probably want a tumbler like mine.
- You need a mix of materials. "Green" materials are nitrogen dense, like kitchen scraps. They need to be balanced with "Brown" materials, which are carbon dense, like leaves and paper. You don't want anything with meat, dairy or animal waste or you'll attract rats, and you do want the materials to be chopped up or this will take forever.
- For this equation to work, it needs plenty of water and oxygen, so keep the pile moist and turn it often.
A Second Try:
So, with the wisdom of my prior mistakes, I've been slowly trying this again for the past couple months or so. I moved the composter to a new location, closer to the hose so it can get watered more regularly, but hidden from sight. Instead of the counter-top container that didn't get emptied often enough, I've been using a colander. It just collects the scraps of the day and gets dumped during the evening kitchen cleanup, so nothing has enough time to get nasty, and I can't forget to empty it because I can see the grossness clearly. Every week, I add whatever paper was shredded and some torn-up news print, plus a good douse of water and then I give it a couple turns.
this morning's kitchen scraps
So far, we're doing ok. It doesn't smell and doesn't seem to attract any vermin. There are a few bugs in the composter, but they aren't coming outside or causing issues and appear to be the correct ones that are needed for this process to work. If all goes well, I should have my first batch in a couple months, hopefully during the summer so that I have time to start a second batch.
the composter is tucked away in the corner- mostly out of sight
The downfall of my early environmentalism was the feeling that you had to be 100% consistent and get it perfect, or there was no point in trying. Obviously, that's stupid. Just because I don't like to eat salads for every meal doesn't mean that I give up vegetables altogether and eat nothing but pizza-wrapped bacon cookies. (mmmm- now i'm totally thinking about it). Like everything else that we know we should do - it's better to do a little than nothing at all. So, I'm giving this another go and hoping that it works this time. Happy Earth Day!