How To Start Composting And Why It Can Help Our Planet

Food waste remains a prevalent and urgent problem. Food production alone accounts for ¼ of all greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the largest contributors to climate change. Our society generally holds the belief that yes, greenhouse gas emissions and food waste are bad, but typically lack the knowledge and resources to actually do something about it. Composting is a straightforward, actionable practice that you can manage day-to-day – but how exactly can you do it? Here, we’re breaking down the details about compost, so you can start doing better by our planet in a time when we really need it.

Starting at the Source – Reducing Food Waste

According to Feeding America, 40% of all food in America is wasted. That means around 119 billion pounds of food is wasted annually, equating to around $408 billion literally thrown away. Aside from the economic costs, food waste generates harmful carbon and methane emissions that contribute to climate change.

Changing the narrative around food is the best way we can help shape our output of greenhouse gas emissions and food waste, according to Chris O’Brien, Executive Officer of Hungry Giant. There, he spearheads waste reduction methods for commercial businesses that divert food waste beyond traditional composting. Hungry Giant’s technologies biologically stabilize and dehydrate waste in larger volumes that get transformed into valuable material that works just like compost. TL;DR: They take large amounts of food waste and reduce them down to be used as compostable material.

“The discussion has to go back even further before you get to composting,” says O’Brien. “The discussion needs to be: ‘Let's reduce our waste wherever we can. Let's consume what we can consume as edible. Let's not look at the ends of a piece of fruit as disgusting.”

Chef and Founder of west~bourne, Camilla Marcus, abides by the same sentiment. If we change how we think about food scraps and adopt sustainable habits around dining, we’re doing more for the Earth.

“The same way when you buy an item of clothing, you ask, “What does this go with? Where can I wear it?” Adopt that same kind of mindset about food,” suggests Marcus. “Billions of tons of fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, grains, and dairy either never leave the farm, spoil before it’s purchased, or are thrown away in various environments, from grocery stores to our home kitchens. The good news is, we can do something about it — through composting.”

Exercising practices that extend the shelf life of food is essential to reducing food waste, according to Marcus. This step comes long before even considering composting, and can impact the amount of food waste you produce in the first place. She recommends storing foods (especially produce) properly, and brainstorming new ways to repurpose leftovers.

“In our home, we love revamping leftovers by creating a whole new dish with them, always saving vegetable scraps (like garlic skins and carrot tops) to use later. I like to call it 'playing jazz in the kitchen,' and even my three kiddos join in on the fun.”

Responsibly managing your own food waste helps keep even more trash out of landfills. We’ve lost around 1,800,000 acres of American land to landfills that simultaneously emit potent and harmful greenhouse gasses, so reducing the volume of waste that gets stored in landfills is elemental to aiding climate change.

“If you put food in the trash, then it contaminates potentially recyclable plastics, cardboards, and other products that get mixed with the food waste,” says O’Brien. “By having food mixed in, you're actually exponentially increasing trash to landfill.”

What is compost?

So now that you know about food waste, what even is compost?

The official definition of compost is: “decayed organic material used as a plant fertilizer.” This might not mean much, unless you know that compost consists of decomposable greens and browns.

Greens (such as fruit skins and coffee grounds) are nitrogen-rich materials that facilitate decomposition through heat. Browns (think dry leaves and twigs) are responsible for keeping the microorganisms that break down your compost alive. Moisture and aeration are crucial to a healthy compost pile.

“I think a lot of people think that you can take food scraps and make compost out of it,” says O’Brien. “People don't realize that traditional compost is a mixture of minerals, rocks and all sorts of stuff that absorb and balance the composition of the material to soak up leachates and absorb moisture.”

Traditional composting ranges from open-pile compost, to collections, to enclosed bins. But with advancing methods and technologies, composting now goes beyond tradition, says O’Brien. “When you move material away from the microbially active, traditional compost, it opens up opportunities for multiple reuse.”

Hungry Giant’s technologies are somewhat compost-adjacent, dehydrating and grinding waste material to reduce volume by 80-90% that results in a dry, stabilized, NPK-rich (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – all valuable for fertilizer) product. They collect waste from universities, cafeterias, and offices, but their work with cruise lines is most transformative.

O’Brien’s company addresses food waste from ships that might have otherwise been dumped overboard into sea (per MARPOL Annex V) or off-loaded. Because their product is so dry, it can even be burned on-board as secondary fuel for cruise ships, further combating wasteful practices that may occur elsewhere.

“I think to the average homeowner, the average person at home composting is this all-encompassing word,” says O’Brien. “But the truth is, there's actually a lot of variations in what you can do with organic material, and you just have to work out what solution is best for you.”

How do you compost?

To begin composting, it’s important to first evaluate your physical space and mental dedication to the practice. If you have a large, rural backyard, setting up an open-pile compost or a big compost turner makes more sense than if you reside in a small apartment with room for only a small enclosed compost bin.

Composting at home is no small feat, so being honest with yourself about your commitment to it is crucial in executing it correctly.

It’s also super important to do some deeper research before you get started. Though you think you know all there is to know about composting, there’s a lot of nuance to be aware about.

“Consumers have good intentions, but they don't know the differences between different terminologies,” says O’Brien. “They might see some packaging that says ‘100% biodegradable’ and go, ‘that's great!’ But ‘biodegradable’ means that it could break down now, or in 500 years.”

Now that you’ve gotten down to the nitty-gritty, Marcus offers some useful steps in starting at-home composting:

  1. Identify your compost location: Choose a shady space in your yard and / or in your home to build your compost.
  2. Build your compost pile: Start your pile with your browns, such as twigs or wood chips to absorb extra liquids, then add your brown and green materials (food scraps) in alternate layers. Aim to keep the layers to 1-2 inches thick, and use a 3:1 browns to greens ratio.
  3. Maintain your compost: Your combined materials should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge, but be careful not to get it too wet — to do so, add enough browns and turn your pile every 7 to 10 days. Monitor its moisture, odor, and temperature, and make adjustments as necessary. Your compost is ready when it’s dark brown — when you’ve got your earthy compost, you can use it to plant on a windowsill or your garden.

First-time composters may not have a smooth process, and that’s okay. Learning to adapt to the needs of your compost pile takes time.

“You can have a lot of things that throw balance out,” says O’Brien. “If you don't have enough browns, if you have too much citrus skins, too much moisture, if you don't turn it enough – there's a lot of things that can go wrong. But, I'm not trying to scare people away from it. If you have the space, the time, and the inclination, a little bit of research goes a long way.”

Traditional, at-home composting isn’t a fit for everyone. Finding solutions that work for you on an individual basis and educating yourself on the practice is a great way to start. So, if you don’t know the first thing about it, and don’t really see yourself going in on a full-blown compost project, you can participate in low-effort collection or drop-off services, typically run by cities or other organizations.

What matters most is reducing food waste, then doing what you can to reduce its presence in landfills.

“Keeping food out of landfills can help us fight climate change,” says Marcus. “Whether you live in an apartment in the city, or have a backyard in the countryside, there are different methods of composting that you can start any time.”

“When people are used to doing things a certain way, it's very hard to habitually change,” says O’Brien. “Individuals at home, They're the ones that drive change, you know, it's people power.”

Products That Help You Reduce Waste + Generate Compost

Stasher Starter Kit

Stasher Starter Kit ($70)

Camilla Marcus loves Stasher Bags because they reduce plastic waste at home.

Another food storage tip she offers: "Keep potatoes, bananas and avocados away from the rest of your produce since they accelerate the ripening of everything around them. If you didn’t know, now you know."

Mason Jars

Mason Jars ($12)

Using glass materials to store your food is superior to plastic tupperware because it eliminates the need to buy new storage solutions when the plastic ones wear out. You can also use these leak-proof jars to store homemade jams, jellies, and pickling projects.

ECOlunchbox Wet Bento Box

ECOlunchbox Wet Bento Box ($40)

Every ECOlunchbox product is plastic-free and nontoxic, making them an excellent choice for food storage and even carrying your meals on the go. When closed, the containers remain tightly sealed so the contents will never go bad.

Bamboozle Bamboo Compost Bin

Bamboozle Bamboo Compost Bin ($40)

This lidded compost container is ideal for those living in smaller spaces who can't run their own compost. Use it to collect food scraps and other compostable materials before dropping them off at a local composting site. You definitely won't have to worry about odors, thanks to a charcoal filter lid that absorbs undesired smells. This piece is also crafted with biodegradable bamboo fibers for durability and low environmental impact once it's worn out.

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Illustration by Claire Shadomy

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Quotes have been edited for clarity.