Brad ‘N’ Butter: Reducing waste to create free soil

MOVE columnist Brad Spudich builds a compost bin

Take a look into your trash can (or just take my word on it) and you will probably notice that you’ve got an extensive amount of food in there. As Americans, we put a lot of food into landfills, which eventually turns into methane gas. And when I say a lot of food, I mean millions of tons.

Besides the more conspicuous solutions, one of the easiest and cheapest ways to minimize food waste is by composting. Composting is nature’s way of transforming food and other materials into a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer. It only takes 30 minutes to create a bin for composting, and it can be done on an extremely low budget. By building your own compost bin, you easily reduce your waste and preserve natural resources.

The only things you need to start composting are a bin and a drill. The bin can be a plastic storage container, trash can or whatever you can find with a lid — preferably something 18 gallons or larger. If aesthetics are your thing and you don’t want to use a plastic tub, you can build a bin from scrap wood or buy a compost-specific container. If you don’t own a drill, there’s a good chance you can borrow one; ask your neighbors, landlord, Peer Advisor, friends or even see if there’s one where you work. The size of the drill bit isn’t important, as long as you can create holes small enough to deter rodents and other animals.

Aeration is vital for the composting process, so you need to drill plenty of holes in your bin. Drill holes one or two inches apart on the top, bottom and sides. Once you’ve done this, most of your work is done. All you need do is find a spot for it and you can start composting.

Small containers give you the convenience of being able to put your bin almost anywhere. Try to find a dry and shady spot for your bin and somewhere your neighbors won’t have to look at it all day. Ideally, you can place your bin near your kitchen so you can conveniently toss your scraps, but you can also place a bowl or bin in your kitchen specifically for compostable materials.

To begin the composting process, you need “brown” materials, which are rich in carbon, and “green” materials, which are rich in nitrogen. For a bin that effectively decomposes, you will want to keep a 3:1 brown-to-green ratio. Dried leaves and grass are a great starting point for your brown materials, as well as finely shredded cardboard, newspaper, dryer lint, napkins, used coffee filters and used potting soil.

Once you’ve placed your brown materials, you can begin adding green materials from your kitchen: fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells and even bread. Never add dairy products, greasy and oily foods, meat, plastics, or metals. If you’re confused as to whether you can compost something, chances are you probably can, but there are many resources online as to what you can and can’t use, like this.

For larger scraps and materials to adequately break down, you should cut them into smaller pieces. The composting process is fastest when you alternate layers between carbon and nitrogen materials and wet and dry materials. Be sure that you bury your food scraps beneath dry materials to deter insects, animals and foul smells. Once you have your materials in place, just let the process begin. It is also important to add a bit of water to your compost so that it is moist, but not too wet. You want to avoid your compost from drying out or being soggy. When you add new materials to your bin, turn the compost mixture for aeration and to mix the materials.

Once the composting process takes place, the material will be warm while microorganisms break down the materials. A bin with a proper carbon-to-nitrogen ratio will produce rich, dark compost within a month. Compost is finished and ready to use when it is dark, crumbles easily, has no chunks of waste and is close to air temperature. Compost is great for improving soil quality and can be used to top off potted plants and grow your own food.

Despite the low cost and simplicity of creating a compost bin, some people are afraid that it will smell. With a proper brown-to-green ratio, it is easy to avoid having any odor. If a pile has an ammonia-like smell, that indicates an excessive amount of nitrogen, which can be fixed by adding more brown materials. Some bins don’t decompose or heat up due to a lack of air, moisture or nitrogen. These are all easy fixes and only require turning the pile, adding water or adding food wastes.

Composting is a vital and simple step towards living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. With just a bit of free time and few materials, you can drastically reduce your food waste and create organic, nutrient-rich material that benefits the earth.

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