Posted on May 8, 2019
“Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” said Yohanan Ben Bag Bag, a Jewish sage living and writing in the first century. To him, the Torah encompassed the entire universe, and to understand its wisdom, one must read it over and over, uncovering a new layer of meaning with each turn of the scroll. As we prepare to celebrate Earth Day on April 22, and as we develop a better understanding of our stewardship of the earth, this metaphor has a surprising parallel on a physical, actionable level: composting.
Why compost? Here in the United States, a family of four loses on average $2,275 annually in food waste. According to the National Institute of Health, America wastes about 40% of the food we produce. The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that food scraps are the number one item sent to landfills in the U.S., contributing to 25 percent of methane emissions, and 14 percent of all municipal solid wastes. This waste also costs $1.3 billion annually to transport.
In contrast, composting – the process of breaking down biodegradable organic matter – reclaims that food waste as a resource, producing healthy, nutrient-rich soil that can be used for landscaping, in house plants or, coming full circle, to grow more food. Therefore, one important way to reduce our carbon footprint is to compost as much of our food waste as possible.
Like studying Torah, composting takes a little knowledge and practice. But once you get a few basics under your belt (like what “green to brown ratio” means or which foods to leave out of the compost bucket) it’s a surprisingly straightforward process, and anyone can do it. And if composting conjures up the idea of smelly, rotting food, you should know that this usually only occurs when the compost pile is not properly mixed or aerated. A well-functioning compost bin, with a good mix of green and brown materials, smells like soil, not rotting food, and has few insects around it.
The most common way to compost is to dispose of food and yard waste in a compost bin (either homemade or store-bought) and “turning” or rotating it with a shovel or pitchfork to aerate the pile, which helps things decompose. Another composting method, vermicomposting, harnesses the power of worms, putting them in a bin with the food scraps and using them as a sort of workforce. This eliminates the need to turn the food scraps, because worms aerate the pile as they wriggle through it, looking for another delicious orange peel to snack on.
What to Compost
Choosing the correct ingredients for your compost bin is crucial. It’s important to strike a balance between “green,” or nitrogen-rich material, like old food scraps and yard waste (such as grass clippings), and “brown,” carbon-rich material, like fallen leaves and old newspaper. These materials create the perfect environment for bacteria and worms, turning what would otherwise be thrown away into valuable compost.
In this context, “green” means nitrogen-rich materials that provide important proteins and amino acids that are necessary for cell growth in the compost pile. These include:
Fruit and vegetable scraps
Coffee grounds and filters
Natural tea bags and looseleaf tea
Cooked rice and pasta
Stale bread, tortillas and pitas
Stale potato chips or other snacks
Spoiled tomato paste
The term “brown” refers to materials rich in carbon, which work as both the energy source and the basic building block of microbial cells within your compost. Here are some “brown” materials that you can include in your compost bin.
Untreated wood sawdust
Black and white newspaper
Used paper napkins and paper towels
Unwaxed cardboard, ripped into small pieces
Paper bags, shredded
Cereal boxes, shredded
Unwaxed, used paper plates
Nut shells (except walnut shells)
Do Not Include
Meat or dairy products (these produce foul odors and attract animals)
Diseased plant matter of any kind
Cat litter or other animal wastes
Indoors or Outdoors?
Now that you know what you can and can’t compost, think about where you want to site your compost bin. Overall, outdoor composting is the best way to get started. It’s the simplest method of returning old materials back to the ground, and it requires less maintenance than an indoor setup. If you choose to start your compost pile outdoors, you can use a homemade or purchased bin in whatever size you like. You can also simply fence off or otherwise enclose a small area outside. If possible, try to site the pile discreetly, as a gesture of consideration for your neighbors.
Indoor composting is an easier option for those with limited or no yard space. And because indoor compost bins are protected from the cold, they can also work more consistently year-round than outdoor ones. A garage or basement is a great location if you don’t want the bin in your main living space. You can purchase specialized composters from gardening companies, but these aren’t strictly necessary to compost. A large, sturdy plastic container, such as a clothing storage bin, with a secure lid, will work just as well. Drill some holes along either the top or the sides of the bin for ventilation. Make sure they are smaller than the diameter of a pencil to ensure that the worms don’t escape, or cover the holes with some mesh screen.
Once your bin is set up, fill it with a light layer of garden soil or recently finished compost. Add a layer of soil or compost in between the layers of green and brown materials to help create a suitable environment for the bacteria needed to trigger the composting process. You can find compost starter at most hardware or gardening stores.
Indoor composters will also need to purchase red wiggler worms (Latin name: Eisenia fetida), which do the best job of converting food wastes into usable compost. Some good sources include Gardener’s Supply Co. (gardeners.com), or Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm (amazon.com). For indoor composting purposes, red wigglers are preferable to earthworms, which are also known as nightcrawlers, so be sure to purchase red wigglers specifically. Outdoor compost piles will naturally attract worms on their own, so it isn’t necessary to buy them if you’re starting yours outside.
Whether you compost indoors or outdoors, don’t forget to turn the contents of the pile at least once a week, to ensure there’s enough oxygen feeding the bacteria and worms in the middle of your compost. As the microorganisms in your compost begin to work faster to break down plant matter, they give off more heat and carbon dioxide, which is essential to the composting process. Turning the pile also helps alleviate any odors, especially if you remember to cover your “green” materials with carbon-heavy “brown” ones.
If you compost outdoors, regularly turning the contents of your bin is also one of the best ways to keep it warm and productive throughout the winter, when cold weather often slows down the composting process. Turning the materials evenly distributes oxygen, allowing the helpful bacteria at the center of your pile to thrive. Also, adding more material to your pile during colder months further protects the center, allowing it to remain active.
One way of getting into the habit of regularly turning the compost bin, is to keep a container with a lid on your kitchen counter for food scraps, paper towels, and other commonly used compostables. (If odors are a concern, you can purchase special compost buckets fitted with charcoal filters to suppress any off-putting smells.) When you empty the bucket into the compost bin every few days, you can mix your bucketful of materials into the existing compost, aerating the pile at the same time.
Put Your Finished Compost to Use
Finished compost does not have to be collected all in one batch. Most people who compost choose to section off their bin or create multiple bins in order to always have compost at different stages. This means you would always have some compost just starting off at the same time as compost that is ready for use.
So once you’re finished making compost, what do you do with it? Compost can be mixed in with the existing soil in a garden bed, making it more nutrient rich and improving drainage. You can also treat it as mulch, spreading it around plants and trees. After a few days, it will begin to break up and absorb into the soil. Sprinkling compost on your lawn provides nutrients to the soil, making it healthier and better equipped to hold water. Repeat this process a few times a year and your lawn will appear greener and thicker, without chemical fertilizers.
Originally published in the March-April 2019 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.