Woman putting vegetable scraps into a compost bin
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Why Everyone Should Compost (Even If You Never Garden). But Good News: It’s Much Easier than You Think.

published Apr 20, 2020
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Raise your hand if you have a vague understanding of composting. You know that it’s virtuous and good for the earth, but maybe you think that because you don’t have a garden, it’s something that just doesn’t relate to you? Or, perhaps you think it just sounds too hard or complicated? Given the way that composting is often presented, both of those thoughts are understandable. But they are wrong. Everyone should compost — not only is it good for the earth, but it’s also good for your cooking.

Please allow me to stand on my (eco-friendly, totally compostable) soapbox for a minute so that I can do my best to change your mind about composting. Composting is not complicated at all, and everyone should do it (yes, even those of you who live in apartments without a single live plant) — especially now, while so many of us are cooking more at home and trying to stretch every grocery haul.

I grew up with crunchy, hippie-type parents (my mom sews reusable fabric pouches for wrapping presents in lieu of buying paper), and I also spent a year living, working, and cooking on an organic farm. I am very familiar with the art of decomposition, but I also think that most people shouldn’t deal with that at all. That’s right — I have a way for everyone to compost. Well, technically, it’s more like a way to contribute to a compost. See, you don’t actually have to make the compost (no worms, no turning, nothing too gross) — you just have to save your scraps and give them to someone else who will deal with them.

Here’s why every single Kitchn reader (hey, that’s you!) should compost, and the easiest way to do it.

Credit: Laura Hoerner

What Is Compost, Again?

Not to sound too simplistic, but let’s run over just what compost is exactly. It’s very simple: It’s re-homed food. Composting takes all organic matter (food, scraps, anything that can decompose) and breaks it back down into soil again. Compost is a particularly rich type of soil and organic matter that is extra-concentrated and rich with microbes and nourishment for growing things. But honestly the simplest way to think about composting is that it’s returning your leftover food back to the earth, to grow more food, instead of sinking it into a landfill.

3 Reasons Why Everyone Should Compost

So yes, composting is a good-for-the-earth way of dealing with kitchen waste. But honestly, there are more reasons than that to compost. Here are three of my favorites.

1. Composting makes you a more efficient cook.

This was the most surprising realization to me when I started composting at home as an adult. Once I started collecting my scraps in a receptacle on the counter, I was shocked at the volume. I realized how much food I was accustomed to tossing in the trash. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. So with the evidence staring me down, I began to get a little more frugal and creative. I started taking greater care in peeling veggies, conserving as much of the edible amount as possible for cooking. I asked myself what I might do with all of those peels and scraps (hello, stock). Before I knew it, I was stretching a week’s worth of produce to last one and a half, meaning less waste, more room in my grocery budget, and fewer trips to the grocery store (which is key right now while I’m trying to stay home to flatten the curve).

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the amount of waste we rack up just by cooking. Add in the leftovers-gone-bad, and we can all admit that we could be better at using up what we have, or eating food before it goes to rot. Making a commitment to compost holds us accountable to make financially smart and environmentally responsible decisions as home cooks. This all holds true, whether or not you ever actually cultivate a compost pile at home.

2. It makes your trash smell better (and your landfill lighter).

Making ecologically responsible decisions isn’t always easy if we don’t see the immediate benefits. For example, we might not consciously link a car ride (just to get out of the house these days!) with a direct, obvious impact on the environment, but it’s there all the same.

That said, most of us have trained our brains to associate separating trash and recyclables as a generally good (and easy) practice. Think of composting in the same category. Composting turns food waste into a usable product. This product enriches the soil, ultimately creating better-quality food, which is pretty awesome, considering the fact that it would just fester in a landfill otherwise. Plus, you’ll find that your actual trash smells better when there isn’t organic waste rotting away in there.

3. It makes you a part of the food cycle.

When you give food back to the earth through composting, you’re becoming a contributor to the cycle, not just a consumer. I guarantee that there’s a farmer in your community who will want your decomposing goodness. Why? Good old-fashioned organic compost is the most efficient and reliable way to boost soil health and fertility. Healthy soil means vegetables grow quicker, larger, and with more nutrients and better taste. It produces pastures with higher-quality grass for grazing animals, and it promotes soil that is biologically diverse and healthy (in other words, it’s a good balm for the damages of mono-cropping).

If you shop at farmers markets or are a member of a CSA, you are directly reaping the benefits of healthy and biologically rich soil. Of course you can support growers with regular purchases and by volunteering your time, but giving up your fruit and veg scraps is just one more way to show your farmers how grateful you are. If all that sounds like too much, there’s probably a citywide service that will come to you (more on that later).

Credit: Laura Hoerner

The Best (and Easiest) Way for Most People to Compost at Home Is … Not to Compost at Home

But now down to the real question: How do you compost at home? Do you need to do it yourself? Do you need a pile of carefully calibrated decomposing food behind your trash can or kids’ swingset? Absolutely not. The best way for the vast majority of people to compost is to have someone else do it for them.

That’s right — most of us just don’t need or want to be doing the labor of actually turning leftover food into soil and organic compost. Plus, many of us don’t even garden or have a way to use that compost at all. The game-changer in composting is to use a service, where you send off your scraps in a hands-off way. You’ve gained all the benefits: separating out your food scraps, becoming more aware of your food byproducts and waste, reducing your landfill footprint, and contributing to the cycle of growing food. But to actually make the compost yourself is not really practical.

So you’re saying I should pay for a whole other service to deal with compost? Yes. Although, if you pay by the bag for trash or recycling, as is common in some cities, you may find that the extra cost is negligible.

There are two major ways to use a service to compost. You can compost through a citywide utility, as is becoming more the norm in progressive, eco-minded cities. Compost may already be an expected process for you and offered right next to your trash and recycling pickup. Or, if you don’t live in a city that offers it officially, you can find private services that pick up and handle compost. Here’s how it works and what to expect if you use a service for your compost.

How to Compost, the Easy Way

First you need to find a service. Sometimes they will pick up right at your house; sometimes you need to haul your scraps to the farmers market or a drop-off. But regardless, here’s the general process.

Credit: Laura Hoerner

1. Save your scraps.

Your food scraps are the key part here. Clearly. On the list of things you can compost: fruit and veggie scraps, bread, tea leaves and coffee grounds, cereal, pasta, rice, and, honestly, pretty much everything you’d eat. And even things you don’t eat, like egg shells, paper towels, coffee filters, wine corks, and houseplant trimmings.

Related: The Most Surprising Things You Can Compost (In Other Words, Stop Feeling Guilty and Just Compost These!)

One big note here: If you’re giving your compost to a citywide service or a farmer (the method Kitchn recommends; more on this in step 3), make sure to check their specific list of what’s acceptable. Often services have a higher capacity and more resources to compost things you would find tricky at home (meat, bones, fat, etc.).

If you want to really earn a compost gold star, be sure to chop big pieces into smaller bits, so they break down faster. It isn’t necessary to cut each parsnip core into 78 pieces, but it’s best to avoid tossing, say, an entire pie into the compost.

Credit: Laura Hoerner

2. Use a little bucket in your kitchen, and a big bucket outdoors.

I recommend a two-part bin system. I use a small- to medium-sized bowl as my daily compost vehicle. Yours definitely doesn’t have to be fancy (honestly, I use a stainless steel mixing bowl). You could spring for a mini container specifically made for countertop compost, but you’ll be emptying it every day, so it’s not really necessary that your container have a lid or a charcoal filter. Still, some of them are pretty cute

You’ll also want to invest in a couple of 5-gallon buckets (there are a zillion options to be found online). Buy at least two, and be sure they have lids that can latch on securely! These buckets will hold the scraps you accumulate in the kitchen each day, and will be emptied once a week. (Again here, though, many services will just give you this bucket so check with them before buying one!)

Each night, you’ll grab the daily compost and take a short walk to your 5-gallon bucket. I keep my bucket in my garage, but I know people who store theirs outside, in a mudroom, or under their sinks. Drop the scraps and peels you’ve accumulated in the bucket and shut the lid securely. Making sure it’s closed tight is important to keep smells in the bucket and keep critters out of the bucket!

Credit: Laura Hoerner

3. Hand off your big bucket to the professionals.

As we say above, finding someone to take your compost is the key. A good first step is to call your local trash and recycling service or city municipality. Some cities (like Portland, ME, and San Francisco, CA), even offer compost pickup for free or a small fee, along with their trash and recycling services. If a pick-up won’t come to you, you’ll have to bring it to a farmers market or similar green service. Can’t find one of those? I guarantee there’s a farmer or two a short drive away that would happily accept your discards.

Whoever you end up going with, be sure to talk to them about their standards and requirements for scraps and sorting, so you don’t add extra work to their plate. Some questions to ask if you’re donating directly to farmers or farmers markets: What sort of container would you like this brought in? (Most will accept that 5-gallon bucket.) How often would you like this dropped off, and is there a specific day and time? Do you have any specific preferences for what can and cannot be put the compost collection? Do my scraps have to be organic?

If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with municipal compost pickup, be sure your container meets with regulation and place it at the appointed spot, such as at the end of your driveway. If you’re dropping it off to a local agrarian, snap that lid shut and head out the door. Also, some farmers or markets are willing to trade a small amount of finished compost for your scraps. (This is a huge boon to you if you want to garden at home, but don’t want to manage your own compost pile: You can work the finished compost into your garden beds to improve the soil health.)

I’ve noted that it’s ideal to own at least two buckets. This is because some farmers may ask you to leave the compost — bucket and all — so they can handle it in their own time. This will allow you to just drop it and get on with your day; you’ll have another one waiting at home. If you’re just dumping out your compost, gwash your bucket (or at least rinse it) and get ready to do it all again.

P.S.: If you DO want to learn the art of turning and cultivating compost at home, this classic read is a fantastic starting point.

Making Compost Easy Is Good for All of Us

And one last thought, in case this all sounds a little too easy. Bringing compost to someone else to deal with? A utility just like our trash? Yes, it’s good for us all for compost to be so easy, so expected, so much a part of our waste process. The more that services like these get used, the better it is for all of us, as cities and municipalities see the demand. It’s a feel-good choice that is also pretty easy. It doesn’t get better than that.

Do you compost? Do you have a pick-up service or bring it somewhere? Tell us everything in the comments below!