Inefficiencies abound at every link in the American food distribution chain.
It is estimated that 7% of all produce grown is abandoned in the field, and almost 50% of what is picked never leaves the farm due to cosmetic deficiencies, despite being edible. Yet more nutritious food is discarded en route to markets and distribution centers, and once at the market over $15 billion dollars of fresh food is tossed thanks to the nebulous “sell-by”concept, which leads to perfectly good food being sent to the dump more out of a need to look good than for any concern for customer’s health.1
Yet all of that pales in comparison to what happens once the food gets to our homes. The average American tosses out between 16 and 25 percent of the food that they bring home, which amounts to a staggering yearly average of $2,200 down the drain. Some food waste is inevitable, but our present arrangement is almost comically poorly-designed, and places an undue burden on our planet.
The Compost Solution
In response to this rampant wastefulness, a growing number of Americans of all ages, classes, and backgrounds have discovered a way to radically draw down their trash and, in turn, reduce their overall carbon footprint. More and more people are diverting their unused food from the waste stream by composting at home and advocating for composting programs for their municipalities.
When done correctly, composting food helps to create rich, nutrient-dense fertilizer for farms and gardens, doesn’t smell, and has the added benefit of encouraging more mindful shopping habits that emphasize whole foods over packaged and processed alternatives.
Here’s a little primer on how to get started with your own home composting project, and tools to encourage your town, city or county to empower its citizens with the resources to make the process even easier.
How To Compost At Home
The foremost challenge in composting is keeping the discarded food sanitary and your home free of the smell of rot. There are a few ingenious solutions to that hurdle.
The first is a countertop system to deal with food scraps as you create them.
Almost any food that you don’t want to eat is good fodder for soil – though you should take precautions. The low pH of citrus means that you can create a separate pile for it, and cooked meat and fish can potentially nourish parasites that you may want to avoid. So focus on the plant foods: the scraps and the leftovers. You can either use a regular sealed mason jar and napkin, an affordable aerating jar like this one on Amazon, or keep it in the freezer to totally eliminate odors until you are ready to dispose of it outside.
Once your bin is full is where the paths separate depending on if you are a city dweller or a homesteader in a suburban or rural area.
For the many of us who live in cities, you need community and/or municipal support to compost: either an outdoor system at your local community garden, or in a dedicated bin at your neighborhood farmers’ market that will send the compost to be utilized in urban gardening projects.
Many cities including New York and Portland have recently taken the step of adding food scrap bins to their waste removal services, supplying buildings with bins that get picked up by a separate team and delivered to large-scale composting facilities to be processed. In other cities like LA and Chicago, activists have picked up the slack and created community compost pickup and processing organizations.
Composting In Your Own Yard
For those with a yard of their own, the responsibilities (and the benefits!) extend further. Once you’ve filled your bin, you need to begin the process of turning that stinky, mouldering food into luscious brown fertilizer. There are a number of different approaches to this that all work well if done if four principles are followed: the right ingredients, air circulation, consistent moisture, and adequate volume.
A great breakdown of the differences between manufactured compost bins, compost tumblers, wire collectors, wooden bins, pallet bins, and multi-bin systems can be found here. The alternative to all of them is to ‘go natural’ and to process the food scraps right in the ground with trench composting, raised-bed garden integration, sheet composting, or the covered windrow method. Within a few months, your old scraps will have turned into the fodder for future delicious produce and a healthy garden.
Compost For All!
No matter where you live, by taking the time to compost your food and yard scraps you are making a difference in your local environment by lightening your waste load and turning what would be trash into healthy, rich soil—a treasure for all of us who love the Earth and want to help it flourish.