Make composting your next sustainable project

key takeaways

  • Organic recycling is required in California starting in 2022.
  • California is the second state after Vermont to enact a statewide composting mandate.
  • Composting helps reduce methane emissions from organic materials decomposing in landfills.

In California, dinner cleanup has become more complicated. Beginning January 1, 2022, California residents must compost their food waste as part of the state’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

California is the second state after Vermont to ban residents from throwing food scraps in the trash. Organic waste in landfills emits 20 percent of the state’s methane, a pollutant 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the California Department of Resource Recovery and Recovery.

Lawmakers hope the new mandate will reduce the pollutants that have contributed to the climate crisis Californians are experiencing first-hand. Compost can also significantly improve contaminated soil and enhance its water retention, thereby increasing crop yields and aiding reforestation.

Methane is a greenhouse gas from livestock, natural gas and landfills. At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more than 100 countries signed a pledge to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030.

“Whether it’s composted or landfill, food scraps will decompose,” Natalie Hoidal, a vegetable and local food education master at the University of Minnesota, told VigorTip whether food scraps’ have been composted or sent to landfill. But landfills account for about 15 percent of U.S. human-related methane emissions—the third-largest source of emissions in the United States.

“Landfills are more likely to be anaerobic and therefore oxygen-limited,” Hoidal said. “Under these conditions, you’re more likely to get methane as an output than carbon dioxide.”

Whether you live in an area that requires organic recycling or you have a personal goal of starting composting this year, getting started is easier than it seems.

“It doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy, anyone can compost,” Hoidal said.

How do you start composting?

Composting is “the breaking down of organic material into a more stable form,” Hoidal explained.

The term “compost” can refer to both the actual decomposition process and the final product, she said. This decomposed organic matter provides the soil with nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium.

However, the amount and type of nutrients may depend on the materials used to make the compost. It can also take several years for compost to actually add these nutrients to the soil.

To start composting, consider the space and resources you have. Investigate composting options in your community. Some areas offer curbside compost pickup, while others have weekly locations where food scraps can be dropped off.

For indoor systems, find a covered container that can sit on the counter, refrigerator, or freezer. There are plenty of compost bins online, but you can use recycled plastic containers or even kraft paper bags. If you plan to bring your compost to a community drop, double-check to confirm which materials are accepted before you start adding to your compost bin.

If you have an outdoor composting space, first decide where to store your organic waste. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends composting in “a dry, shady location near a water source.” Once you’ve found the location, decide whether you want to stack or use a dumpster. Consider using pallets or wire to create a fence around your stake.

Depending on where you live, a lidded litter box may be the best option for keeping animals away from composting. You can buy an outdoor compost bin or build your own. A large plastic bucket, trash can, or trash can will do. Be sure to drill a few holes in the bottom for drainage.

“One of the best systems is multi-heap. You can add stuff to one pile, and when that pile starts to get full, leave it alone and start adding to your next pile,” Hoidal said. “If you keep adding new materials, it’s hard to get to the point where it breaks down completely.”

It’s important to turn over the compost every few weeks, she added. Unlike landfills, aerated compost piles have enough oxygen so they don’t produce a lot of methane. You can buy a rotating compost bin that you can shake by hand to aerate the pile. Otherwise, use a pitchfork or shovel to turn the pile.

A successful outdoor composting system requires green and brown organic materials, air (from rotating piles) and water. Organic materials that can be composted fall into two categories: green materials and brown materials.

What can you compost?

Green materials include:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps (such as banana peels and apple cores)
  • eggshell
  • grass clippings
  • coffee grounds and tea bags
  • fertilizer

Brown materials include:

  • twigs and sticks
  • egg carton
  • falling wood chips
  • Cardboard (e.g. used pizza boxes can be composted, but tear off the grease before disassembling the box)

“There is no perfect composting system, but generally you need about three parts brown material and one part green material,” Hoidal said.

After adding the green and brown ingredients to the pile, add some water to keep everything moist. Use a “squeeze test” to determine the right amount of moisture. Experts say compost should be about 60 percent moisture. To test your compost pile, grab a handful of organic material and squeeze. Ideally, only a few drops of water will come out. If your pile looks too wet, add more brown material. If the pile seems too dry, add more water.

Moisture helps organic materials break down. However, the entire process of making usable fertilizer for your garden from compost can take anywhere from two months to two years.

Does home composting really matter?

While a home compost bin may not solve the climate crisis, experts say it can make a difference.

“If you do it well, of course you can. Especially if you don’t have municipal collection and compost available,” Dr. Sally Brown, a research professor in the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, told VigorTip.

Organic recycling has been required for decades in Seattle, Washington. Beginning in 1988, the city banned yard waste. In 2015, the city began requiring residents to keep food scraps out of the trash.

When Seattle launched its composting program, which included food waste in addition to yard decorations, some residents were concerned that the compost would attract rats, Brown said. But it didn’t happen.

For a home composting system to make a difference, composting tools and educational materials should be more readily available. Food companies can also help foster change by using compostable materials.

Brown suggested that improving food containers and packaging could make composting easier, such as removing non-compostable stickers from produce.

Composting, even small-scale composting or litter boxes, keeps organic materials out of landfills and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Americans composted 25 million tons of waste in 2018, according to the EPA. Composting as well as recycling and other landfill alternatives saved more than “193 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.” The EPA says that’s akin to “removing 42 million cars in a year.”

“reduce [methane] Emissions now buy us more time to deal with the more drastic changes that need to happen,” Brown said.

what does this mean to you

While starting composting may seem overwhelming, it’s manageable. Start by deciding where you want to compost and what you want to do with the decomposed material. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect, and it takes time to get into the habit of putting food scraps in the compost bin instead of the trash can. EPA provides additional resources to help you start composting at home.