If you cook a lot (especially vegetables), you probably also have a food scraps problem. Preparing your food from scratch, with all that peeling, chopping and scraping can leave you with quite a bit of biodegradable waste. So what can you do about it?
Firstly, you might want to think about the fact that you don’t really need to skin too much off your veggies: a good scrub can render the average potato or carrot quite clean and edible without the waste of peeling, especially if you are buying organic. However, with the risk of pesticides lingering on the surface of veggies, it is advisable to do some peeling and give those veggies a good wash.
Composting your scraps, via a process of aerobic decomposition is the best way to return to mother earth the energy that went into growing and preparing your food (especially if you have a veggie garden). If not, maybe after you master composting, you might feel like starting a small garden. This can easily be done, even on your porch or balcony if you’re tight on space. Composting is nature’s way of recycling and involves breaking down biodegradable organic waste (like food) back into it’s nutritious inorganic soil-like self.
Compost Bins and Tumblers — the basics
There are several commercially available composting bins and tumblers that make composting fairly easy. The classic open-based compost bin has side vents to aid circulation and a tightly fitting lid to keep out local wildlife. When using a bin, you need to be careful to add ample amounts of dry, shredded carbon rich material like newspaper, leaves or cardboard to stop your compost from getting damp and smelly. Nature Mill are at the top end of the compost bin manufacturers and are ideal for apartments or small homes as they are compact and do all the work inside (without worms). If you really want to splurge, why not get the unusual space ship-shaped unit called the Green Ecomposter and learn the art of apartment composting on a budget from Mike over at Urban Organic Gardener.
While composting can be done very easily in a yard by piling scraps in a corner or placing them into a hole in the land and letting nature takes it’s course. You can also use a compost bin or easily construct one. It should be designed to maximize access for turning with a pitchfork or spade. If you are good with wood, you may want to try one of these designs for your yard. And if you’re not that handy, you can make a simple compost bin from a roll of chicken wire, and even grow things on the outside of it. In outdoor compost piles and pits, worms will occur naturally to assist the decomposition.
Maintaining your compost pile
A smelly compost is a sign of anaerobic decomposition. You don’t want that because it will take longer, become very hot and smelly, and your neighbors might start to complain! You can use grass clippings, but be careful not to add weed seeds to your mix, or when you apply it to your garden, a weed crop may ensue. Never add animal droppings, meat or dairy products (not a problem for vegans!) to your compost. Besides increasing the smell, you may attract pests or introduce diseases or parasites that you don’t want spreading to your garden or coming into contact with yourself.
The compost tumbler is a clever device that halves the time it takes to create a rich, loamy compost. You simply tumble it daily and your scraps turn into soil in a matter of weeks (it may take longer in cold conditions). Like the bin, you still need to add equal quantities of dry shredded material. Instructables have a great how-to guide to making your own or you can purchase one at your local hardware store.
Vermiculture (Worm Bin Composting)
The magicians of the compost world are worms and vermicomposting is a great alternative to traditional compost piles, especially for people living in smaller spaces. The benefits include all weather composting (since you can keep the compost bin indoors or in a sheltered area), no need for turning or watering and the production of compost is considered richer in nutrients than what’s produced via a traditional compost pile. If you choose to grow your own worms, you need to treat them like your pets, protecting them from heat and cold and making sure they get enough to eat. You can get commercially made worm farms in removable layers, good for smaller spaces. Or you can make your own, with a ventilated lid and using fine chicken wire to separate the worms from the soil (worm castings) that falls out down beneath them. Ideally, they will need to be kept inside, in a garage or laundry. Instructables have a great “worm condo” guide.
Vermiculture for Vegans
If you’re vegan who is ethically against all animal use, you may have concerns with ‘using’ worms for the specific purpose of producing compost. This is up to your personal beliefs at the end of the day, but several vegans that have a garden have found a middle ground by making holes in the compost bin that allows the worms to escape (if they wanted to). Further, many consider a worm bin safer for worms compared to a traditional outdoor compost pile, which has to be watered and turned frequently and can end up causing more harm to the worms that have entered the pile. Let’s also not forget that if maintained with care, worms in a worm bin or a compost pile are still performing their ecosystem services in the same environment as nature has planned for them.
In summary, remember that composting is easy and can be done by anyone, whether you have a sprawling backyard or a tiny apartment. Further, it can give you a healthy garden while saving you money by producing your own nutrient-rich fertilizer. Lastly, composting has several environmental benefits ranging from drastically reducing the amount of solid waste that ends up in landfills each year to greenhouse gas reduction and soil enrichment. The Environmental Protection Agency has some great ideas that can help you get started as soon as you’re ready.