Composting can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. It is an easy way to save money while helping reduce waste in landfills. Recently, I explained how to set up compost bins in your yard to turn your biodegradable garbage into natural fertilizer for your garden. The next step is to get used to separating the trash that goes into your compost from what goes into your garbage can.
Most of today’s adults have been through a similar change of habits before, when we learned to separate recyclables from garbage back in the 1990s. You’ll get used to it as you find what works for you! Here are some tips to help make composting easy.
Use a Small, Non-Fancy Container
Collect food scraps in your kitchen in a container that’s easy to move and doesn’t take up much counter space. It should hold about 4-6 cups. That’s enough for the scraps from preparing a typical meal, and you want it small enough to move to your preparation area and then tuck out of the way the rest of the time.
Why not fancy?
A special container that cost a lot or is very pretty will only frustrate you when it gets messed up! You want something basic and easy to clean. Ideally, have two or more interchangeable compost containers so that you can use one while the other’s in the dishwasher.
It’s handy to have extra containers when you’re prepping a whole lot of produce (like enough free apples to make 7 pies) so you don’t have to take out the compost midway through the job.
My family uses quart yogurt buckets. We always have more than we need because we eat about a quart of yogurt a week. (Our policy is to keep about 3 empty buckets in the kitchen, take one as needed for other household uses like diluting vinegar to wash my hair, and take the rest to church, where people can use them to bring home leftovers from parish events.)
If you make your own yogurt like Katie and you’re really great at not buying anything that comes in a big plastic container, just snag someone else’s unwanted containers! Watch the recycling bin at work for something useful. Ask a friend if you can have her plastic coffee can when she’s done with it. Swipe that antique Tupperware your mom won’t throw away.
Remember that this container is holding stuff you don’t eat, so it doesn’t have to be made of food-safe material!
Does it need to have a lid?
It’s much easier to drop scraps into your compost (and therefore more likely that you’ll do it) if it’s open, than if you have to take off a lid with your juicy, knife-wielding hands! Also, we found that our food scraps seemed to build up more of an odor in a covered container.
We have not had trouble with bugs unless we leave scraps (especially fruit) in the kitchen container for many hours.
Put It Where You’ll See It
Any habit is easier to establish when you’re constantly seeing something that reminds you. Put your compost container in plain sight in the kitchen. We keep ours next to the sink, where we see it when we’re washing produce before cutting it. Another good option is to put it near the trash can so you’ll see it before you drop your scraps into the trash.
Of course, when you want your kitchen to look really tidy for guests, you might tuck the compost bin under the sink. You might even want to keep it out of sight all the time after you’ve gotten into the habit of separating your trash.
When you’re setting up to prep some produce, peel hard-boiled eggs, or crush 18 garlic cloves into the soup, set your compost container right near your work area. Now you can drop the scraps in there as you work! This is usually easier than carrying them to someplace else in the kitchen, especially if you have multiple people in the room.
Be Clear on What You’re Composting
At first, it can be difficult to remember all the things that make good compost. (See my previous article for a list.) Post a sign to remind your whole family! There are lots available online, or make your own. This one is nice and clear–and it’s from Harvard University, to add some class to your kitchen!
We haven’t had a sign since the era when we lived with housemates. As each of our children started to be more independent, we explained that “food scraps nobody can eat, except cheese or fish, go in the compost, and so do paper towels.” (If you eat meats other than fish, you’d say, “cheese or meat.”)
That’s been enough to get them to do it right most of the time–and because the compost container is up on the counter, while the trash can is on the floor, mistakes tend to be in the direction of putting compostables in the garbage rather than the other way around.
We had pet gerbils when our son was little, and we had a rabbit before he was born. Both types of pets could eat certain vegetable scraps. Rather than try to pick scraps for pets out of the compost, it was best to divert those scraps immediately after they’d been generated: The parent peeling a carrot would put an appropriate amount of peels into a cup and tell Nicholas to take them to the gerbils.
Check the Compost when Cleaning Up the Kitchen
You probably have some sort of routine for putting away leftovers, putting dishes into the dishwasher, wiping counters, and so forth, either after you finish eating or after you finish cooking. By keeping your compost container in plain sight, you’ll be reminded to empty the compost into your outside bin if the container is full or includes anything that has a strong odor (onions, garlic) or will attract fruit flies (melon rinds are their favorite!).
Some meals generate more compost than others. If you’ve collected only, say, two eggshells and a zucchini stem and a glob of coffee grounds, you don’t have to take that outside right away. It depends on how much it will bother you if it stays in the kitchen until the next meal or overnight.
When you take out your compost, some of it may stick to the inside of the container instead of falling neatly into your outdoor bin. In the warmer months, when our rain barrel is operating, I use water from the rain barrel to rinse the compost container–putting my thumb over the hose makes a thinner stream to loosen stubborn stuff.
In winter, I try tapping the container against the bin. If that doesn’t work, I nudge stuff out with my hand and then wash my hand and the container when I get back inside.
Taking out the compost is a great chore for kids! Anyone old enough to walk from the kitchen to the compost bin can do it.
Compost when Cleaning Out the Refrigerator
No matter how hard you try to avoid food waste, once in a while you’ll find something that got lost in the back of the fridge and is no longer edible. If it’s not meat or dairy, you can compost it, even if it’s moldy. Just set it aside in the container it’s in, and transfer it directly from there to your outdoor compost bin. (Bring a spoon out with you so you don’t have to touch the yucky stuff!) There’s no point in getting smelly, spoiled food all over your compost container. Also, you don’t want to release the smell of it into your kitchen any more than necessary.
If the odor of spoiled food or fruit flies buzzing over the compost are annoying you in your yard, put a layer of dead leaves or shredded paper on top of the offensive stuff. These “brown” materials also help to balance the “green,” wet stuff so that the compost decomposes well.
What About Outside the Kitchen?
Some people have a compost container in the bathroom for hair from the shower drain, hair from the electric shaver, toilet paper tubes, cotton swabs, and things like that. We’ve never done this. We feel we’re not generating enough compost upstairs to make maintaining a separate collection bin worthwhile.
Instead, we bring the cardboard tube down to the kitchen compost. Unlike food scraps, that cardboard and the thin paper wrapped around the toilet paper roll are dry, not messy, so they can be set down somewhere until you’re ready to take them downstairs.
In winter, most of my potted plants are in the bathroom (because there’s a skylight) and I sometimes remember to put bits of hair on top of the soil in a plant pot to biodegrade there. (Hair contains lots of nitrogen, great for plants.) But the rest of the time . . . we just don’t bother.
It’s great to attend to every detail of environmental responsibility when it works for you, but if the details seem too annoying, focus on the bigger picture! In most homes, most biodegradable waste comes from the kitchen.
When we had our rabbit and gerbils, though, pet litter/bedding made up a significant fraction of our compost. (Only vegetarian pets’ waste is safe to compost. Cats and dogs have dangerous bacteria in their waste.)
I did daily cleaning of the rabbit’s litter box by scooping droppings and wet litter into an old yogurt bucket, which I carried to the compost bin. Then I put the lid on the bucket and tucked it behind his cage. Twice a week, I emptied the entire litter box and the under-cage tray into the compost. For the gerbils, we had two terrariums, and after moving them to the clean one we’d empty the dirty paper shreds into the compost.
I Wish Everyone Could Live This Life!
Several years ago, during the lunch break in a long meeting at church, my friend Barb Curlee designated a bowl for everyone’s apple cores, orange peels, paper napkins, etc., and said she’d take them home to her compost bin. I thanked her for the opportunity to reduce my garbage just as I would at home.
Someone else said she’d recently started composting and was loving “this life of taking a little more care of things.” Barb said, “I wish everyone could live this life! I thought it would be harder, but it feels so much better.” I agree completely! Every change I’ve made to use resources more wisely has ended up being easy once I got used to it and making me happier.
I hope you’ll add composting to your kitchen stewardship, too. Remember that making use of the bits left over from our food is a way of being grateful for the delicious plants God gives us and helping to nourish our Earth so that it can continue to feed us.