I finally got tired of watching my food scraps go into the trash bin, especially since they are a primary component of said trash bin’s contents and are so easily diverted from the waste stream. As the Food Waste Prevention and Recovery Resolution passed by the Austin City Council last December details, “food scraps comprise roughly 14% of the waste stream going to our landfills, contributing to the national tally of nearly 35 million pounds of food sent to American landfills annually and according to the EPA, food waste is now the single largest component sent to American landfills”. Brittany also wrote a great blog on the food waste problem, which can be found here. Rather than see this resource further clog landfills, I decided to make use of it by composting, through which it can go on to fuel more plant growth. DFHS already does this in the dining halls across campus and has reduced post-consumer waste by 48% since Spring 2007 by going tray-less in J2 and Kinsolving.
Here’s some information on the larger problem of food waste and in.gredients, a local business that works diligently to keep food out of our landfills! The UT Concho Community Garden and the UT Microfarm are also avid composters. If you decide to donate your compost make sure to follow their guidelines, which are also a great source of information on composting. I encourage all to attend the upcoming gardening lessons that they will be providing during the Fall Semester. As a pupil of one of the garden’s composting classes I can say they are an informative and enjoyable experience. Also, cycling composters. Enough said.
Picking a Bin
I conducted a bit of research on apartment composting and decided that building a small balcony bin (based upon the instructions of this DIYnetwork article) would be the most economical option and would adequately suit the amount of food waste generated. There are a multitude of pile, bin, bokashi, and tumbler choices when it comes to setting up your compost system. I’d advise picking the one best suited for your food scrap production and home setting, as outlined in this fantastic City of Austin literature on composting basics. After fruitlessly browsing craigslist I opted to visit the Goodwill on N. Lamar in search of a medium sized plastic storage bin. To my slight surprise and great fortune there were a number of fitting containers. I opted for this $4 one. It might need some aesthetic improvements.
Also, just in case you were wondering, it is not recommended that you enclose small children in this bin.
Building the Bin
The mixture of food scraps (excluding any meat, dairy, or greasy foods) and other organic material that will be turned into compost will require oxygen to decay in the desired fashion so as to limit odor problems and ensure that adequate decomposition takes place. To ensure proper aeration and drainage it is crucial to drill at least 8-10 small holes on the top of your bin and a similar number in the bottom.
I have also drilled small holes in the sides of the bin to allow for additional air exchange. You will want to periodically turn your compost (at least once a week) to ensure that all of the material is sufficiently aerated and to keep the temperature of the compost material optimal. A small hand trowel should take care of things nicely. Underneath the bin I’ve placed a lid from a similar storage container to act as a drainage pan for any excess fluids.
Filling the Bin
Now the bin is ready for compost materials. I first added a layer of dry leaves to fill the bin ¼ of the way. I then used some nice garden soil to fill the bin up to the halfway mark. Now I will add food scraps, but only that from plant sources (animal products do not break down easily or odorlessly in most home composting systems) and mix it all up to get the ball rolling.
A few things to remember
- your compost should be damp, not sopping, but slightly moist to the touch. Dehydrated macro and micro-organisms don’t do a lot of eating and make for a slow pile.
- maintain the proper balance of carbon-rich (browns and blacks) and nitrogen-rich (greens and coffee grounds) materials in your bin, the ideal ratio of C:N is 25-30:1; further information here on the science of composting
- turn your pile regularly (as often as every other day and at least once a week) to aerate pile and ensure even decomposition
- maximize surface area of materials by shredding paper and cardboard and mulching larger woody pieces
Well, there you have it, a full and working compost bin. I encourage all to work out a composting solution that fits you, be it a collection service or a home bin. The City of Austin offers a home composting rebate, which I would certainly encourage all to take advantage of if applicable. If you are going to be placing your bin outside, try to place it in a relatively cool and shaded area to retain moisture and to avoid killing helpful organisms. Do you have any tips, tricks, or stories you’d like to share about composting? Feel free to comment below!