How to Start Composting to Reduce Food Waste
Deborah Eden Tull has 18 years of experience as a sustainability coach and meditation teacher, and she’s also the founder of Mindful Living Revolution. Her approach to sustainable living is a unique combination of peace and environmentalism that emphasizes the interconnection between personal and planetary well-being. Deborah was also a guest speaker at the 2017 Bioneers Conference.
In The Natural Kitchen (Process Media, 2010), Deborah Eden Tull lends her expertise as an organic farmer and chef to the Process Self-Reliance Series by offering simple, life-changing ways for urban dwellers to create a more mindful relationship with their food and the environment. The following excerpt, of Chapter 3, covers how to begin reducing food waste in your kitchen and putting any scraps to use with composting.
I once worked at a school in Massachusetts where the students were being raised with an inspiring degree of eco-awareness. Some of the kids came up with the idea of posting signs on all of the school’s trash cans that said “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AWAY.” Consider the impact such signs could have in your own house! What might you do differently in your kitchen and home with this daily reminder? How would we relate differently to the food we cook and consume with this daily reminder?
The key elements in bringing the practice of zero waste in cooking are:
• Shopping responsibly.
• Making it a habit to cook with the whole vegetable.
• Preparing vegetables and fruit mindfully, using techniques that create less waste.
• Turning all the food waste we do create into useful nutrients (as in stock or compost).
Reduce food waste by shopping responsibly. Always check out dates on what you purchase, store food by placing the newest food at the back of your pantry and the oldest at the front, store food appropriately regarding temperature and sun/ shade needs and clean out your pantry and refrigerator weekly.
Here are more tips for how to reduce food waste in your kitchen, starting with your shopping trip:
• Buy food for just one week at a time.
• Follow conscious menu planning and the recycling of leftovers into meals as discussed in Chapter Six.
• Choose to eat what needs to be eaten over “what I want to eat right now,” if reducing waste is truly a priority.
• Pay attention and keep an eye on your inventory.
• Instead of putting produce scraps into the compost, consider making stock when you have time.
• For families, consider the value of teaching your kids this attitude of mind to train them to be stewards of sustainability
Using the Whole Vegetable
Years ago, I spent time in a macrobiotic community where I was taught to appreciate and use the whole of every vegetable I consumed. In the practice of macrobiotics, it is acknowledged that different parts of a vegetable—for example, the turnip root and the turnip stem—offer different nutrients and forms of energy.
This awareness is honored by cooking with every part of every vegetable—rather than using just the florets of broccoli, for instance—and tossing the rest. This practice ultimately provides the base for creating zero waste in cooking.
Using the whole vegetable requires creativity and might include using carrot tops for stock or decorative garnish, using broccoli stalks to peel and steam with your dinner, or saving lemon and orange peel to use as zest for salad dressings and baking (orange and lemon peel bring a special zing to so many recipes).
Consider that if you currently tend to buy bagged, pre-prepped vegetables, such as broccoli florets, it may be time to give up this habit. What happens to the stalk from the broccoli that gets pre-prepped and bagged? If we are serious about sustainability, it is a necessity to address this waste.
Follow these suggestions for preparing vegetables:
BROCCOLI—Peel the stalks carefully with a peeler, slice or chop the stalk and serve it raw, steamed, or in a soup. Chop the leaves and sauté them just like chard or kale. Prepare the florets for steaming or serving raw. Odd-shaped pieces of broccoli can be set aside for a blended soup or to chop up into a salad. You might also cook all parts of the broccoli into a creamy blended soup.
CAULIFLOWER—Follow the idea for broccoli and cook both the leaves and head.
CHARD or other greens—Prepare the leaves by washing and chopping them, then separately, finely chop the stems and steam or sauté them either with the greens or separately. The greens can even be served surrounded by the edible and colorful garnish of the stems.
BEETS (roots and greens)—Wash and prepare the roots and greens separately. Either gently peel the roots or scrub them well and leave the skin on. You can also boil the root, with the skin on, to soften it and peel it off by hand. The stems and greens can be finely chopped and steamed or sautéed. Consider serving the beet roots on a bed of greens.
TURNIPS—Follow the suggestion for beets and prepare both roots and greens. There is no need to peel turnips if you scrub them well.
CARROTS—Wash and prepare the roots and tops separately and either add the carrot tops to soup or stew or serve them as a garnish. Consider, for the dish you are preparing, is it necessary to peel the carrots?
After you have prepared your vegetables, there are also many reuses for food scraps before they get composted. These range from making stock to creating garden amendments to making homemade paper. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Creative Uses for Food Scraps
• Egg shells and coffee grounds are great in the garden to deter pests.
• Orange and lemon peels are good for deodorizing your countertops and cutting boards.
• Lemon, lime and orange strips can be used as decorations in drinks (or grated and used for cooking and baking).
• Potato and avocado peelings can be used to reduce eye puffiness.
• Beet ends make amazing ink stamps for kids (and adults) to use for art projects.
• Daikon root can be prepared for dinner, while their tops are used to turn your bathtub into a natural cleansing spa. (This is one of my favorite things. Visit Mina Dobic’s website to learn how to do this.)
To Make Stock:
I like to keep a bag of scraps for stock in my fridge, where the scraps will stay fresh (just a few days at a time) until I can make stock. I include garlic/onion peels, veggie scraps and seeds from squash/pumpkins I have cooked (seeds make a delicious nutty-flavored stock!). I leave anything that is particularly dirty or aging for the compost. Wash all of the scraps, place them in a large pot and fill it with purified water until the scraps are covered, cover the brew with a lid and bring it to a boil. After it boils, simply turn it down to simmer, gently lift the lid a bit and let the stock cook for the next hour. When finished, let it cool a bit, strain it, compost the scraps and use the stock to make soups, cook rice, veggies, stews, etc. You can store the stock in glass jars in the fridge for up to four days.
Mashed Vegetable Medley
I like to collect scraps such as broccoli stalks, the leaves of cauliflower and other vegetable scraps I need a use for, then cook them up in a little water and simmer for about 10 minutes with garlic and herbs. After, they should sit covered for a few extra minutes. Sometimes I add one chopped potato or root vegetable for a more creamy consistency and I then blend the mixture up into a soft colorful mashed potato alternative, adding a little sea salt and olive oil, coconut oil, or butter if desired. This is a delightful, nourishing and nurturing treat and an easy way to use all of the vegetable. It has the softness and savor of mashed potatoes, with even more flavor and more vitamins.
The Final Stage: Composting
Once we have used the whole vegetable, brought attention to how we prepared the vegetable and brought awareness to creative uses for scraps, we can take the final step and compost our food waste. As a fourth grader discovered at a composting workshop the other day, “Wow! We can turn our trash into something useful! I want to do that!” Yes and beyond that, we can turn our waste into something beautiful, practical and nourishing.
Composting is a fundamental part of radical recycling and the ultimate “giving back.” Composting is easy, free and the reward is phenomenal… a reduction in your trash output by 50–75% and beautiful, rich, organic matter for your soil and plants. Compost feeds the soil vital nutrients, aids in water retention and encourages earthworms in your soil.
How Does the Compost Ecosystem Work?
Composting creates a mixed balance of nitrogen, carbon, air and water, which forms a decomposition process that feeds new life. How wonderful that we can take our old food and waste scraps and use them to feed new food! All we need to do as the composter is to follow simple steps to keep these elements of nitrogen, carbon, air and water in balance and to monitor the decomposition process. Here is an in-depth explanation of how to compost:
What Can I Put in My Compost?
If you set up a conventional compost system (either an outdoor hot pile, an underground pile, or an actual compost bin), you can put in everything from vegetable and fruit scraps, grains, dairy and pretty much all foods except for meats and heavy oils. If you have a worm bin, you can put in fruit and vegetable scraps (except for a few kinds I will mention later) and if you use the bokashi system, which I describe below, you can actually compost meat scraps as well.
What Makes a Good Compost Bin?
A good compost bin has proper aeration, is well-protected, is easy to turn and easy to harvest from. I personally like the Garden Gourmet for an urban/suburban household first-time compost bin, because it is easy to put together, easy to use, and is made of recycled materials. At the time of this book’s writing, the city of Los Angeles offers a compost bin for half the price (about $20) but I tend to choose products made of recycled material whenever it is an option.
Other designs you can consider are a barrel composter, which has a bar that turns the compost, rather than having to use a pitchfork to stir things up. You might also build your own compost bin. My favorite is a three-tiered bin with one section for throwing in scraps for the first part of composting, a second section for transferring the partially composted material when the first bin is full, and a third section to transfer it into again, with a special sifter to perfect the final product. This kind of bin is ideal if you have a larger amount of food scrap to compost.
How Do I Get Started?
First, decide what kind of system is best for you. For a four-person family that cooks regularly, I recommend a simple standing bin, along with a worm bin, or perhaps a hand-made three-tiered bin if you have a large backyard. The most important features for a standing bin to have are sufficient air flow, a sturdy cover to protect the bin from animals, and an easy design for attending to the compost process, aerating and collecting the finished product.
For someone living in a small apartment alone, I recommend a worm bin that can fit in your kitchen or on your balcony. For anyone who eats meat, I recommend a Happy Farmer. The Happy Farmer is a system similar to composting that can be used indoors and can process all food scraps—meat included—through an anaerobic fermentation process, which is different than the conventional composting process. This system is called bokashi, which is a Japanese term meaning “fermented organic matter.”
If you are a meat eater who cooks a lot, you may need to also have a hot pile or bin that sits in your backyard. I also recommend a Happy Farmer if you are the “neat and tidy” type who finds the idea of composting repelling.
If you have a large backyard or a plot of land, then you can compost the old-fashioned way and build a hot pile and simply build more piles as needed for the amount of food waste you have. A hot pile is an intentional heap of compostable materials created outdoors in such a manner that generates all of the heat required for the process of composting. There is an appropriate composting system for every situation and new designs make it easy for everyone to compost today, whether you live in a tiny apartment or on a large homestead.
Composting As a Daily Practice
For me, composting is a daily practice of compassionate self-discipline. I’ve been composting for almost 20 years and, even though I love the composting process, still, every now and then, when I’m in a hurry, I hear a voice say, “but I don’t want to take that extra step… I have no time.” I hear that voice and use it as a flag to check in with myself. Am I really about to choose laziness (face it, that’s all it is) over making a conscious choice to take care of the world in which I live? Becoming aware always energizes me. Rather than letting laziness control me, I remember that I have another choice, and that is to remain true to my commitment to be an earth steward. And, the reality is, it only takes a second!
What Do I Need To Begin?
• A compost bin!
• A sunny spot for a conventional bin or a shady spot for a worm bin
• A pitchfork
• A starter, such as already-made compost (from another batch of compost you have made or that you buy at the store) or Compost Inoculant (i.e. Dr. Earth compost starter). Manure, such as chicken droppings or bat guano, as well as green comfrey leaves, also serve as compost starter. Note that while starter is not a necessity, I have found that it improves the process and is especially helpful for the first month of the composting process.
• A scissors or pair of shears
• A closed container to store kitchen scraps in before delivering them to the compost, which can be placed on your kitchen counter, in a drawer, or in the fridge
• A source of “greens” or nitrogen and a source of “browns” or carbon. (It is smart to have a space set aside next to your bin for collecting carbonaceous materials.)
“Greens” or Nitrogen includes:
• Veggies, fruit, grains, dairy, all food scraps other than heavy oils and meat… so adding a little oil is OK but if you are a heavy fryer, don’t dump huge amounts of oil into your compost. Leftover lasagna, soup, salad, bread, all of it can go into your compost.
• Coffee grounds (include the filter if you use unbleached)
• Tea bags (without the tag unless it’s eco-friendly)
• Grass clippings
“Browns” or Carbon includes:
• Napkins and paper towels that are unbleached and not dyed
• Leaves (disease-free only)
• Shredded newspaper
• Weeds (but watch for seeds)
• Wood chips (use sparingly, high carbon)
• Sawdust (use sparingly, high carbon)
Things which go into your compost and can be added to your food bucket, but are neither “greens” nor “browns.”
• Laundry lint
What Else Can I Add?
• Dr. Earth Compost Inoculant
• Bat guano, rabbit droppings, chicken manure
• Ready-made compost
More on Coffee Grounds:
Coffee grounds can be an excellent addition to a compost pile. The grounds are relatively rich in nitrogen, providing bacteria the energy they need to turn organic matter into compost. Used coffee grounds, approximately 2% nitrogen by volume, can be a safe substitute for nitrogen-rich manure in the compost pile.
What Cannot Go In:
• Anything that takes longer to decompose, e.g., coconuts. Put these in your green bin.
• Large seeds like avocado seeds. How about planting them instead?
• Any kind of meat
• Dog or cat droppings
• Food peels containing pesticides
For a Worm Bin, What Do I Need?
• All fruits and vegetables (including citrus and other high-acid foods)
• Vegetable and fruit peels and ends
• Coffee grounds and filters
• Tea bags (even those with high tannin levels)
• Grains such as bread, crackers and cereal (including moldy and stale)
• Eggshells (rinsed off )
• Leaves and grass clippings (not sprayed with pesticides)
All You Need to Do:
All you need to do is to lay a few inches of carbonaceous bedding, such as dried leaves, at the bottom of your compost bin. Then each time you dump your “greens” or food scraps in the bin, you add a sprinkle of inoculant or ready-made compost, you cover the greens with an equal amount of browns, so they are well protected, you turn your compost with your pitchfork to aerate it, and you monitor. Every now and then check your compost to to see if it needs moisture. It should ideally feel slightly damp like a wrung-out sponge.
The Ideal Balance:
The ideal balance that creates fertile, sweet-smelling compost has a C:N ratio somewhere around 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, or 25–30:1. If the C:N ratio is too high (excess carbon), decomposition slows down and you might notice your pile drying up or “just sitting.” If the C:N ratio is too low (excess nitrogen) you can end up with a stinky pile.
Different ingredients we put into the compost bin have different C:N ratios. Our job is to pay attention and adjust what we are adding to keep things in balance. For example, adding manure or grass clippings may lower high C:N ratios. Adding wood chips, dry leaves, or paper may raise Low C:N ratios.
Below are the average C:N ratios for some common organic materials found in the compost bin. For our purposes, the materials containing high amounts of carbon are considered “browns,” and materials containing high amounts of nitrogen are considered “greens.”
Estimated Carbon-to-Nitrogen Ratios
Browns = High Carbon C:N
Ashes, wood* 25:1
Cardboard, shredded 350:1
Corn stalks 75:1
Fruit waste 35:1
Newspaper, shredded 175:1
Peanut shells 35:1
Pine needles 80:1
Wood chips 400:1
Greens = High Nitrogen C:N
Coffee grounds 20:1
Food waste 20:1
Garden waste 30:1
Grass clippings 20:1
Vegetable scraps 25:1
*Please note that ash is not helpful for acidic soil, so be aware of the pH of the soil you are working with before applying this to your compost in large amounts.
How Long Will My Compost Pile Take?
While the amount of time it takes to make compost varies, depending on the balance (of nitrogen, carbon, air and water) in your pile, in my experience regular composting can take from 3–6 months to produce a finished product. A worm bin may take 1–2 months to fill and then 3–5 months to fully compost. The bokashi fermentation system takes two weeks for the initial breakdown and then at least two more weeks to be compost.
Do I Need to Add Water?
Ideally your compost will have an equal mix of nitrogen additions which provide moisture and carbon materials that are dry, so that it will be a nice crumbly consistency. If it’s not, you can add water as needed. An easy way to do this is to use the leftover water from rinsing out your food scrap bucket.
What’s the problem if my compost smells?
Too much nitrogen and not enough air will make the compost too acidic and this results in a foul smell. In this case, just add carbon and aerate your compost.
What Do I Need to Know to Create a Healthy Worm Bin?
To get started, you will need about 500 g. of worms or 2000 worms. They can be purchased online or through an organic gardening source and typically cost from $40–$50. Worms like a diet of veggies and fruit, plus 30% carbon (shredded newspaper, paper towels, envelopes, etc.) Worms don’t like bread, onions, garlic, meat, dairy, or large amounts of grass or leaves. If you take on worm composting, it is your job to take care of the vermiculture ecosystem in order for the worms to thrive. I have suggested books and websites on vermiculture on the Resource List, and I recommend that you read up for more information.
Here is some advice from my own experience: If you notice fruit flies forming around your worm bin, add a nice sprinkling of lime and wait a day or two. Additional carbon (shredded newspaper, paper towels, envelopes, etc.) can be helpful too. A handful of lime of gypsum once a month also assists the decomposition process.
Worm tea is so potent that it can actually be harmful if not diluted. Dilute it about 1:10. Worm castings don’t have to be diluted. They can be mixed with potting soil or applied directly to soil and plants as you would apply regular compost.
But I Don’t Have a Garden. What Will I Do With My Compost?
Feed it to your indoor plants. Feed it to your trees. Give it to your neighbors. There is never a shortage of uses for good compost. As we will discuss in Chapter Four, our soil is desperate for nutrition. Creating compost out of food scraps is one way of giving back to the soil, reducing trash and creating more of a closed system on the land you live on.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Natural Kitchen by Deborah Eden Tull, published by Process Media, 2010.