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How to Compost at Home: Nitty Gritty

By Caddie Bergren, '13

I live in a place without curbside compost pick-up. What’s the easiest way to compost at home?

Asked by Cynthia Fielding-Singh
Tucson, Ariz.

Americans generate about 34 million pounds of food waste per year and, as of 2010, only 3 percent of that was composted. But spurred by success stories such as San Francisco’s 18-year-old curbside composting program, municipalities across the country—from Portland to New York City—are gradually adopting similar programs. Between recycling and composting, San Francisco estimates that it diverts 78 percent of waste from its landfills. Portland’s residential composting program, launched in 2011, cut the amount of waste going to landfills by a third in the first three months.

Such programs are expensive to implement, though, so depending where you live it might be a while before you see a compost truck coming down your street. Still, you can reduce your home’s environmental footprint simply by composting the food scraps from your kitchen. And, as a bonus, your garden will benefit from the free, homemade fertilizer.

For this purpose, vermicomposting is recommended over yard composting for a few reasons. First, traditional compost piles take up a lot of space: One square meter is the minimum, and that can be difficult to come by in many urban and suburban areas. Also, for best results, a pile needs to be established all at once so that the material is ready for use at the same time. Daily scraps from cooking dinner should not be continuously added to an outdoor pile, which is why worm composting is arguably the best solution for food waste.

A healthy worm farm takes some work to get started, but once it’s going, the little wrigglers basically take care of themselves. They need moist, fibrous bedding such as newspaper strips or coconut fiber, and will need to adjust to their new home for a few weeks before you can feed them very much. After that, you can start collecting food scraps in a container on your counter each day. The worms will eat just about anything you give them, with the exception of fatty, oily or meat-based products (those will have to go to the landfill or in-sink garbage disposal). Because they consume the material so quickly, the dreaded odor of decaying food is not an issue, and the compact size of the worm box means it can be tucked away discreetly in any room of your home.

As the worms eat through your daily leftovers, they create two products: compost tea and castings. Over time, excess moisture drips and collects at the bottom of the bin. Store-bought vermicompost systems generally have a spigot to easily dispense this “tea.” The liquid consists of a concentrated mix of nutrients that, diluted in a watering can, is perfect to fertilize plants every few months. Worm castings, which look like your standard dark brown, earthy compost, can be harvested regularly from the bin and mixed with soil to improve its aeration, water infiltration and nutrient levels.

Nationwide, vermicomposting’s popularity is on the rise, and a growing number of local resources can help you get started. Some counties and cities will actually subsidize the price of worm bins for residents. They recognize that the more people who compost, the less food waste they have to haul to the landfill (and the lower their costs). A quick Google search for vermicomposting in your area can help connect you to good local resources, and even save you some money.

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