By Karen Ramsey
The natural world is an amazing self-sustaining system, effortlessly transitioning matter from one useful state to another throughout its lifecycle. In nature anything organic can, and will, eventually break down and be recycled through that system, even something as hard as bone. When we dispose of organic materials like food waste outside of that natural cycle, though, we cut short the useful life of those items.
Today, the majority of organic waste that we produce ends up in landfills. Many of us imagine a pile of trash steadily decomposing over time, maybe just a little slower than in nature. The reality is that most landfills in the U.S. compact and cover their contents on a daily basis in order to reduce pests and odors. This means huge amounts of organic material wrapped in plastic bags are packed into an oxygen and moisture free environment where they never fully break down. Samples taken from landfills have shown surprisingly well-preserved items like 40-year-old hot dogs, or 25-year-old heads of lettuce (Grimes, 1992).
Our discarded food has to go somewhere, but how do we get rid of it in a more environmentally friendly way? Composting is the process of recycling organic matter, like food, and allowing it to break down into a nutrient-rich substance that can be used as fertilizer that restores the health and fertility of our soil. An alternative to tossing food and organic matter in our garbage, it allows us to bring it back into the natural food cycle and ensures this waste can continue to provide value and extend its useful life.
There are a variety of composting methods we can use, each with pros and cons, and each with various limitations on what can or can’t be composted. Regardless of the method you use, there are some items that are universally compostable and some that are universally not:
Always Compostable Items: vegetables cooked or raw, all non-citrus fruits, egg shells, coffee grounds, loose leaf tea, uncoated paper products like printer paper or newspaper, or cardboard.
Never Compostable Items: pet litter, dog, cat, or human feces, diapers, sanitary items, metal, glass, hazardous waste, non-plant-based plastics, and charcoal or coal ash.
Beyond that, the list of what can/can’t be composted will depend on the method you use to compost.
Setting up your own composting system in your backyard using compost bins, tumblers, or even just an open pile is one of the most common ways to start composting. Because home composting involves a smaller volume of content, it typically doesn’t get as hot or active as larger-scale commercial composting will. This results in a relatively slower process, and there are limitations on what can physically break down in these systems. Bones, hard seafood shells (like oysters), or fruit pits, will not break down at all. It also means that things like meat, dairy, oil, or grease should not be included because they will have more time to generate odors, attract pests, and can throw off the chemistry of the pile. Too much onion, garlic or citrus peels can slow down the composting process as well.
So, what can you put in my home compost? Any vegetables or fruit (except citrus), cooked or raw, including peels and stems are perfect for composting. Coffee grounds and tea leaves are a great addition as well. Even some things you might not think of like paper towels, newspaper, shredded printer paper, and cardboard like pizza boxes will all boost your compost pile. To balance out all the “green” nitrogen-rich food scraps, you can also include sawdust, leaves, and wood chips.
Grass clippings can go in the pile, but only if they haven’t been treated with herbicides, which could impact any plants you use the compost for later.
Vermicomposting is another option for home composting that uses worms to more quickly break down the compostable materials. It has the added bonus of growing worms, which your kids and your garden will love! The restrictions on vermicomposting are similar to the general home composting list. One key difference is that citrus, spicy foods, garlic, onion, peppers, or anything acidic or caustic should not be added at all. These materials can irritate the worm’s skin or alter the acidity of the materials to the point where the compost is uninhabitable for the worms.
An alternative to do-it-yourself composting is to use a curbside composting service. These services have been growing in popularity in the Kansas City region over the last several years. Commercial composting services typically use large volume composting methods that ensure the compost generates enough heat to actually break down bones and other materials that can’t break down with home composting.
Each service will have slightly different lists of what can/can’t be composted, but generally they will allow everything you can compost at home plus meat, dairy and bones. Other items that take a long time to break down, like avocado or fruit pits, can also be added.
Most companies will provide a list of what they allow or don’t, so it’s always best to check their specific requirements. For instance, some companies will allow dryer lint or small amounts of grease, while others may not.
Most composting services will provide a bucket and lid, which they’ll pick up either weekly or every other week (bi-weekly). Differences in services will typically come down to price, the details of what items can be composted, whether they provide a clean bucket or just empty your bucket each time, and what they do with the food waste they collect. Researching those four points to find a service that best fits your budget and philosophies are key.
Food waste accounts for almost 25% of what goes into landfills in America. (EPA, 2020) Reducing the amount of waste created—and recycling the remaining via composting—are key to extending the lifecycle of your food.
What’s your plan for recycling food waste in the coming year? Share it with us! #WasteNot2021
Karen Ramsey co-founded Food Cycle KC, a curbside composting company, with her husband in 2019. On their farm in Eudora, Kan., they recycle this food waste into high-quality compost that they provide back to local community gardens and urban farms to facilitate local agriculture.
EPA. (2020, December 10). Sustainable Management of Food. Retrieved from EPA: https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/sustainable-management-food-basics#what
Grimes, W. (1992, August 13). Retrieved from New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/13/nyregion/seeking-the-truth-in-refuse.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm