Let's Break it on Down
I have been composting at my house for 15 years. Composting is a great way to reduce your input into the trash stream as you recycle organic materials into new soil.
Reduce Your Trash Footprint
According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2015, the USA composted over 23 million tons of material. While composting may not be as common as recycling, that amount represents over 13 percent of the total annual municipal solid waste generated in the USA. But more composting progress can be made because we combusted into energy and landfilled over 55 million tons of food and yard trimmings instead of composting it (1).
Set Up Your Compost
If you have even a small piece of land, composting is easy to do. In our kitchen, we have a small composting can into which we put our compostable items. I empty that into the active compost bin at least every two days, depending on how much we've cooked.
I have seen some very simple compost designs that were really just holes in the ground, and some very complex three-bin designs that required a lot of engineering and maintenance. My design is in-between.
I built my compost from 2x4 wood. I started out with a single bin of alternating rows of wood, 4x4 feet long. But as trees grew, my bin didn't get enough sunlight, so I built a new, bigger, double-bin version and relocated it to a sunnier spot. One bin is soil from the previous season that needs to cure, while the other bin is the active one where I put our materials in. I have a liftable barrier that separates the two bins that has some plastic sheathing to separate them.
I start every season in the spring once it gets warm enough, usually early May in New England. I shovel out all the compost from the soil bin into my garden using my wheelbarrow. Then I lift the barrier between the bins and move all the active material that overwintered into the soil bin, cleaning the active side all the way down to the bare ground. This part is heavy work because the compost is fermenting, wet, and pretty heavy mud, especially at the bottom of the bin. This whole process takes at least half a day. I put my barrier back into place and then my active bin is ready for this year's crop of compost while the soil side breaks down all summer and over the winter and becomes ready by next spring.
I have seen many bins as rotating cylinders, which seems like a really good idea, but I've also read that they can get heavy and hard to spin. I have a damaged old blue rain barrel that perhaps someday I can turn into such a device. Otherwise, if you have the money, you can find rotating compost bins online for starting around 100 dollars.
What to Compost
We compost vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grinds, and pretty much anything coming out of the kitchen that is not a foodstuff. We also compost the greasy sides of pizza boxes and all those materials marked as compostable from grocery stores. We compost all grass trimmings and tons of fall leaves. You should avoid putting in meat, oils, and the like because you will attract wildlife.
Another distraction this summer has been some annoying chipmunks who have started to mine my compost. I tried putting a few window screens on top, which I got from our transfer station, to discourage them but found they have recently chewed through the screens. Next season I am investing in chicken wire to surround and cover the active bin, which will put an end to the chipmunks' feast unless they tunnel in from underneath.
Our compost requires minimal maintenance. I try to keep the compost moist and often throw in dirt and twigs to help keep the airflow up and promote the breakdown of materials. This summer has been really hot with not enough rain, so the compost is not breaking down too well so far. I have watered the bins intermittently but there is a lawn irrigation ban so I minimize using water for this. Like everyone in New England this summer, I hope that our rain patterns return to normal. I also try to turn over the top of both bins every few weeks with my shovel to spread out the breakdown process. If you have time for this, I find it promotes a more even process, but it's not mandatory.
Every year we get about 7 wheelbarrows full of great organic compost. That usually suffices to replenish our modest 10x10 foot garden with about 6 inches of new soil. I estimate that if we did not compost, we would have to throw out at least 15 to 20 percent more trash because we eat a lot of vegetables.
I also enjoy composting because it connects me to nature's cycle of breaking down the old and using that to create the next generation. As I get closer to retirement, this theme resonates strongly with me.
If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to try composting. You are helping mother earth and you'll get your own great soil to boot.
(1) EPA. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-07/documents/2015_smm_msw_factsheet_07242018_fnl_508_002.pdf