Compost for all! Choices for the city or suburbs

brown paper bag in the freezer
© Margaret Badore

In this edition of our continuing Town & Country series, Margaret and Katherine compare their experiences with composting. Surprisingly, Margaret finds there to be many easy options in New York City, but Katherine is still figuring out the best approach for her backyard bin.

Margaret: Easy freeze

I started researching composting options in the city for a story in grad school, but really my interest was pretty personal. I was fed up with throwing all my eggshells, vegetable cuttings, and tea leaves in a plastic garbage bag, with the knowledge that it would eventually end up mingling with toxins in a landfill. At the same time, new soil formation can’t keep up with agricultural soil degradation, so the problem goes beyond the creation of trash. It seemed wrong that these scraps weren’t being returned to the cycle of nutrients that feeds us. So, I set out to learn about how city dwellers can turn their food waste into good dirt.

Composting without a backyard seems like a daunting task, but in New York there are actually a lot of options. Some community gardens accept table scraps for their compost bins. Some parts of the city are now part of the municipal pilot program for curb-side compost pickup. For those who want the full service, you can also pay to have your compost-ables collected.

The easiest solution for me is to take advantage of one of the many compost drop-off points. There’s a compost drop-off at most of the city’s green markets, plus there are a number of super-convenient commuter drops near subway stations. Even though I don’t commute, the Tuesday morning commuter’s drop is the best for my schedule. From there, I let the professionals from BIG!Compost (the organization that runs my drop-off in Queens) handle the rest of this good dirty work.

You’re probably wondering: does keeping compost in your apartment smell terrible? Nope, I keep it in the freezer, which kills the smell. I use a brown paper bag, which can also be composted, along with soiled napkins, fruit peels, coffee grounds, tea bags, and the occasional moldy or stale bread item.

I’ve been collecting scraps for compost for about a year now. The coolest part is that my roommates are willing to participate, my boyfriend and his roommate have started doing it, and I may have even converted a few other friends along the way.

Katherine: I thought composting was supposed to be easy!

The big compost heap at the back of my yard is both a source of great pride and embarrassment for me. I’m proud because my composter diverts a large portion of waste from my family’s household garbage. At the same time, I’m embarrassed by the compost heap because I’m not very good at composting. On hot summer days, it smells really bad. On snowy winter days, the overflowing frozen vegetable scraps are unsightly.

I thought composting was supposed to be easy. For the past three years since moving to this house, I’ve diligently added vegetable scraps, tossed in water to keep it humid, added yard clippings and other sources of carbon, but the vegetable scraps don’t seem to break down well. When I dig down into the bottom to scoop out the very little rich, black soil that’s there, it always comes out with chunks of half-decomposed corncobs, eggs shells, and peach pits. Being the rather inexperienced gardener that I am, I toss it on the beds anyways, much to the delight of my young children, who dig up the food scraps with the excitement of archaeologists.

For a while I blamed it on the climate. Here in Ontario, we get six months of cold weather, four months of moderate weather, and two months of hot weather. That doesn’t give the composter much time to break down the vegetable scraps. Then I had a conversation in February with Shawn Williamson, a zero waste lifestyle expert and consultant. Williamson also lives in Ontario, albeit a few hours south of me, but he relies heavily on composting to break down nearly 75 percent of his family’s waste.

Williamson explained his system to me. He uses a black plastic composter that opens at the top, just like the one I’ve currently got. When it’s full, he transfers the contents to a compost tumbler to finish it off. In one month, it goes from “composty solids” to complete soil, thanks to the help of two pounds of earthworms that also live in the tumbler.

I realize I have a lot to learn about composting in order for it to become a truly efficient way to deal with organic waste, but I’m inspired by Williamson’s composting success. As soon as it stops snowing (yes, even though it’s mid-April, I’m writing this post in the midst of a blizzard), I plan to stock up on a tumbler and a batch of worms in hopes of having greater composting success this summer.

Tags: Composting | Zero Waste