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How to Properly Compost and Recycle

Composting your food and yard waste, and recycling your recyclable "stuff," are among the simplest yet most powerful ways to reduce your environmental footprint and help the Earth. As a bonus, the compost you can easily create from kitchen scraps like coffee grinds and vegetable peels is phenomenal to add to your flowerbeds and vegetable garden. As it stands, the majority of Americans (72 percent) do not compost their food waste, but 62 percent said they'd be willing to if it were more convenient.1

Residential food composting programs are currently being tested in a number of U.S. cities, including New York City, Austin and Milwaukee, and more than 180 communities collect food waste from residences.2 Many of the programs started out by allowing residents to add food scraps to their yard waste recycling bins. However, it's easy to start composting at home, even if your community doesn't offer curbside pickup.

Why Compost?

On the surface level, composting doesn't sound like a glamorous or even all-too-important topic. Yet, dig below the surface and you'll quickly realize that diverting a banana peel here and a pile of spoiled greens there from U.S. landfills is a very big deal. Food waste is actually the second largest component of waste sent to U.S. landfills, making up 18 percent of the waste stream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).3

Yard trimmings make up another 7 percent. When combined, this organic waste makes up the largest share of U.S. trash, more than any other material, including paper and plastic.

In all, the food waste alone amounts to more than 30 million tons of waste entering U.S. landfills every year. This is particularly tragic since food and yard waste is easily recycled via composting. Aside from helping to conserve limited landfill space, cutting back on the amount of organic matter entering landfills leads to a reduction in methane gas emissions.4

And, when applied to soil, compost adds valuable organic matter, a crucial gift since topsoil loss and erosion are major concerns in the 21st century, leading to watershed problems and threatening "our ability to sustain life on Earth," according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).5 ILSR also notes that amending soil with compost improves water retention, reduces chemical needs and improves soil quality and structure.6 Even the U.S. EPA lists the following benefits of composting:7

Enriches soil, helping retain moisture and suppress plant diseases and pests

Reduces the need for chemical fertilizers

Encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create hummus, a rich, nutrient-filled material

The Marin Carbon Project in Northern California has also revealed how valuable composting can be to communities on a larger scale. "The research has demonstrated that a one-time application of compost can sequester almost 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre per year," the Environmental Defense Fund noted, adding, "It has the potential to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 28 million metric tons per year if compost can be applied to just 5 percent of CA's [California's] rangelands. That's equivalent to removing nearly 6 million cars from the road."8

Home Composting 101

Are you ready to begin reaping the benefits of compost in your own backyard? You can compost in a pile, in a box or a ready-made tumbling composter bin. The latter is very convenient and can be purchased at home improvement stores for anywhere from $100 to $200. Less expensive options include making your own from wood, recycled plastic or even chicken wire.

Tumblers (rotating drums) are great because they make aeration a breeze — all you have to do is turn the drum every few days, which takes less effort than turning a pile with a fork or shovel. They are also much faster to compost; you can get great compost in as little as one to two weeks, while the piles may take many months to digest. Many local municipalities also have bins available for a reasonable price. For the best moisture and temperature regulation, select bins that hold at least one cubic yard.

Your compost zone should be conveniently located, as close as possible to your source of raw materials (kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, soiled paper products) where it won't be too much of an eyesore. If you are using piles or bins, I recommend having two of them as then you'll have a place to put fresh scraps while one full "batch" of compost finishes curing. The key to creating compost without unpleasant odors or attracting rodents lies in its makeup.

It's not an exact science, but, "If you create the proper balance of materials, you'll have aerobic conditions, and the microorganisms that thrive there break down scraps with little to no odor," says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist in the National Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) Food and Agriculture program.9 The formula she refers to is 2 to 3 parts "browns" to 1 part "greens," such as:

Browns (2 to 3 parts)Greens (1 part)

Shredded newspaper and other paper

Fruit and vegetable scraps

Dead leaves

Breads and grains

Food-soiled paper (but not coated paper)

Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags


Grass clippings

Branches and twigs

Crushed eggshells

The U.S. EPA recommends a slightly different balance of equal parts browns to greens, along with water; the key is not to get bogged down with adding an exact amount but simply to make sure you're adding a variety of organic materials in the general ratios described. You can also add in the soil as a starter and to help reduce any odors.

The EPA adds, "You should also alternate layers of organic materials of different-sized particles. The brown materials provide carbon for your compost, the green materials provide nitrogen, and the water provides moisture to help break down the organic matter."10