Photo by Antonis Achilleos
I gag at the smell of trash. I abhor moldy food. I can’t keep a houseplant alive, let alone a garden. I think it’s safe to say I am the least likely person to compost, and yet I’ve become nearly evangelical about how easy it is to do and its unexpected benefits. In theory, of course, I was aware that composting is good for the planet, that it keeps trash out of landfills and greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. It’s just...the slime and the stench of old food.
I rolled my eyes when my local sanitation department first announced it was joining the several hundred U.S. cities that offer organics recycling. When the garbage men dropped a shiny brown plastic organics cart on my curb, plus picnic-basket-size compost bins, one for each apartment in my building, I felt resentful—yet another unsavory sorting chore in the kitchen, yet another barrel to haul out to the curb. The accompanying pamphlet suggested keeping the bin of food gunk in the freezer to limit odors and pests. This struck me as utter bullsh*t (its own kind of compost!) because I wasn’t about to sacrifice space in the freezer, where precious leftovers/future weeknight meals live, for trash. Knowing myself—and my gag reflex—I repurposed a 4.5-quart airtight OXO Pop canister...and was amazed at how quickly it filled up.
Compost is organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow. Food scraps and yard waste together currently make up about 30 percent of what we throw away, and should be composted instead. Making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Coffee grounds, onion peels, eggshells, plate scrapings, used paper towels—even chicken bones and meat scraps (which are often no-nos in backyard composting)—piled up, and every two or three days, we’d dump the OXO into a Glad compostable kitchen bag, then relay it to the outdoor bin. At first I found this deeply annoying. But I soon realized that, since having a special spot for slimy coleslaw and past-due moo shu, we hardly ever needed to take out what we now call “the trash trash.” In my family’s greatest streak, it once took three weeks to fill a single 30-gallon bag (roughly 85% of its volume was bubble mailers from Amazon).
What if you have a disposal?
If you’re among the 50% of Americans who have a disposal, switching to composting might truly be a hard sell—but the environment will thank you for the extra effort! “Disposals require additional water and energy,” the NRDC’s Balkan explains. If your home is on a public wastewater system, food scraps join sewage and go to treatment plants where, “by the time the process is done, most of the biosolids left over get landfilled.”
Not that my house is unique: “Food scraps are the largest, heaviest single category of a household’s waste stream,” says Elizabeth Balkan, the director of the food waste program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in NYC. As they decompose in landfills, they emit methane gases. Balkan also explained something that I’d noticed—or not noticed—emanating from my OXO: The scraps actually didn’t reek to high hell. Organics recycling, she says, “smells less offensive than mixed refuse.” (Should I blame the Amazon mailers?!) The other non-hidden benefit of my bin was that I could clearly see what we were habitually wasting, like stale half baguettes or family-size jars of marinara that had gone fuzzy with mold. “You gain an awareness of what you’re wasting,” Balkan says. And that, in turn, makes me less likely to fall for the deal on the jumbo-size anything when I’m at the grocery store. Our kitchen trash no longer smells like death. We’re saving money. We’re saving the planet, in our own small way. What took me so long?
Granted, it’s easy for me to do all this when a municipal truck comes every week and hauls the waste away for me. But Balkan points out that a little light googling can tell you where you can drop food waste in your area—a farmers’ market, a community garden, a local farm or even some libraries. The Advanced Placement track for organics recycling would be to start my own raccoon bacchanal compost pile in my postage-stamp backyard. I could use the resulting nutrient-rich so-called black gold natural fertilizer in my struggling little garden or offer it to friends with greener thumbs than mine. That just might be this summer’s challenge.