How To Start Composting : Life Kit Whether you've got a small apartment or a big backyard, there are ways to compost your kitchen scraps in any space. This episode is your starter for how to compost your organic waste into rich soil. Also, how to get the right mix of greens and browns and what you can and can't compost.
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How To Compost At Home

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How To Compost At Home

How To Compost At Home

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Hey, everybody. Before we start today's show, I want to say here at LIFE KIT, we know this is a really difficult time for everyone. Things are uncertain and stressful, but we're grateful to be able to bring you the tools you need to navigate life right now. One of the reasons we're able to bring you tips about money, family and health during this time is because of our listener donations. So please, if you're able to, give what you can to your local NPR station today. Head to donate.npr.org/life to get you started.

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LIESEL CHRISTIE: Hello. I love your show so much. My name is Liesel Christie (ph). I live in Santa Rosa, Calif. The neighbor that we normally get together with is staying in her house, and we're staying in our house. But we each have a game of Bananagrams, which is like Scrabble, but faster. Every week or so, we get on FaceTime on the iPhone, and we play Bananagrams together. And we all start at the same time. And then when everybody is done, we turn the phones so that we can admire each other's work.

Thank you very much for your show. You're bringing a smile to my face during some really difficult times. Thank you. Goodbye.

JULIA SIMON, HOST:

If you're one of the millions of Americans now stuck at home because of the coronavirus, maybe, like me, you are cooking more now than you've ever cooked in your entire life. Every single meal and snack is taking place in my kitchen. And my food scraps are piling up. I am meal planning. I am trying to reduce my food waste, but I just cannot eat a banana peel. I cannot eat the top of my pineapple. But instead of sending those to the landfill, there is something I can do with my food scraps that will help fight climate change.

I'm Julia Simon. Today, the NPR LIFE KIT for composting. It doesn't matter if you're in a suburban home or in a tiny apartment. There are many different ways to compost. Anyone can do it. We're going to teach you how to turn those banana peels into beautiful, earthy compost in five simple steps.

To find out more, I called up Leonard Diggs. He's the director of operations of the Pie Ranch farm in California. Are you in Santa Cruz right now?

LEONARD DIGGS: I am.

SIMON: I mean, if you have to shelter in place...

DIGGS: It's beautiful.

SIMON: Leonard started composting in the '70s. But he says, today, the need to compost is more urgent than ever.

DIGGS: The real key is that if we don't do it now (laughter) and if we are constantly allowing our waste to build up in landfills, well, we let off some of the gases that affect the climate.

SIMON: About a quarter of our solid waste is food scraps. And when that ends up in a landfill, it's trapped. Your banana peel is rotting. It's not getting any oxygen. So in addition to carbon dioxide, or CO2, it starts releasing methane, this really potent, heat-trapping greenhouse gas.

The difference is that with compost, when your banana peel starts to break down, it does make some CO2, but a lot less than what you get in a landfill, and it makes almost no methane, so it's way better for the climate. Plus, Leonard says, all that organic material in a landfill - it's just unproductive.

DIGGS: Things gets stuck. We then trap all of this potential in a place where it can't be used.

SIMON: But if we turn that organic waste into compost, we can take that and make fertilizer. Compost nutrients stimulate microbes in the soil and improve soil structure, which keeps plants healthy and keeps the soil more resilient to drought and climate change. Chemical fertilizers just can't feed the soil in the same way. They're like giving plants a vitamin instead of actual food. And by being rich with organisms and nutrients, compost helps the soil actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere.

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SIMON: So there are a lot of reasons to make compost. Takeaway One - select your food scraps. Of course, you're not trying to have food scraps. You know, we're trying to reduce our food waste, and LIFE KIT has a great episode about that. You should check it out on our website. But again, for most of us, some food waste is inevitable. And you're just not going to eat your avocado skin - or I don't think you would.

Avocado skins - they are OK for composting, but not all food scraps are OK. On the phone with Leonard, I went in my kitchen, and he told me what was OK and what wasn't.

OK. Let's see what we got. OK. So I see a banana peel. I see a skin of salmon. I brought three pineapples into quarantine with me - you know, you can never be too careful - so the top of the pineapple. Are all those things things I could put in a compost?

DIGGS: Everything I heard, except the salmon skin.

SIMON: Leonard says fruits and veggies are fine, but meat and dairy products - that's asking for trouble. He says you've got to ask yourself...

DIGGS: Do you attract rodents? Do you attract animals to your pile?

SIMON: OK.

DIGGS: And meat products are likely to do that.

SIMON: Other things that might attract animals or flies - cooking oils, bones, any cooked foods with a lot of, like, butter and oil. Leonard says best to stick with fruits and veggies. You can also throw in yard clippings, old flowers, eggshells, even tea bags and coffee grounds.

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SIMON: And this is a good place to point out that food scraps alone are not compost. I think a lot of us think, oh, yeah, I'll just take my food scraps and throw them onto the dirt and then they'll decompose. And theoretically, yes, they would, but it would take a really long time. The difference between a pile of food scraps and compost is you're deliberately layering it to speed up the decomposition process. Leonard says your food scraps - they're part of a structure.

DIGGS: It's what I like to call the staging (laughter) of the compost.

SIMON: (Laughter).

DIGGS: You have to be prepared to stage it.

SIMON: You might want to separate your food scraps - the ones that are more wet from the ones that are more dry. And we'll get to why wet and dry are important later. But the point is you're going to need some sort of container.

DIGGS: And it doesn't have to be, you know, all the things that you find online that are, you know, really cute - little ceramic containers, little plastic containers. It can just be an old milk carton.

SIMON: Also, if you want to avoid insects or odors in your kitchen, you can take your food scraps and do what Leonard's mom does.

DIGGS: You know, my mom does something really kind of interesting. She has this old Cool Whip container. And she throws all of her vegetable scraps into that Cool Whip container, and she puts it in her freezer.

SIMON: No bugs in the freezer. So now you have your food scraps all stored, maybe sorted. This leads us to Takeaway Three - figure out where you're going to make your compost. For this step, you've got to think about the space you're living in. I think a lot of us in quarantine won't have trouble with this step. I think we're thinking about our space a lot.

DIGGS: You know, and I think that's an important consideration - is that not all of us have backyards. You know, that's a privileged thing to have a backyard.

SIMON: Totally.

DIGGS: Some of us live in small spaces.

SIMON: So with a small space, if you don't have a backyard, you can still make compost. You can take your food scraps and make compost communally.

DIGGS: That maybe goes to a neighborhood community compost pile or goes to our community garden compost pile.

SIMON: Of course, in the age of coronavirus, in your community garden, you want to make sure it's open. And if you're doing something with neighbors, you want to make sure you're practicing social distancing.

DIGGS: You can go out there separately, too. You can text each other and say, I'm going to the pit.

SIMON: (Laughter).

DIGGS: You know, it's going to be free in a few minutes, you know?

SIMON: So that's a communal option. If you want to break down your food scraps in your own apartment, you can think about worms - vermicomposting, as it's called. It's very doable in a small space. You could do a 5-gallon box. You can buy worms online. You could get them shipped right to your door.

Another small space option - fermenting your food scraps with this Japanese method called Bokashi. All you need is a container you can seal, a mix of Bokashi bacteria to break down your scraps. We're not going to get into the nitty-gritty of worms and fermentation on this episode, but we have links to them on our episode page.

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SIMON: Also, it's important to remember that if you're in a small space, it isn't the end of the world if you want to take your food scraps and give them to somebody else to compost. Some cities will pick up your compost for you, or you can ask your local grocery store or farmers market. See if they have programs to take your food scraps.

In the end, really anything is better than sending those food scraps to a landfill, where they'll make heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

So that's small spaces. If you do have an outdoor space, you can make a traditional compost in your backyard at home. Leonard says it really doesn't have to be complicated.

DIGGS: I think keeping it simple. And I think that you can MacGyver, as people like to say, this with what you have available.

SIMON: An old trash bin, an old wooden chest. Of course, you can get a bin online, or you can create the pile naked or bare.

DIGGS: Without anything holding it, anything supporting it.

SIMON: So we're at Takeaway Four. Now you are going to make the compost mix. We will start with the greens and browns theory of composting.

DIGGS: Ah, yes - greens and browns.

SIMON: Greens add nitrogen to your mix. And nitrogen is a crucial element for microbial growth. Microorganisms, we should say, they're the real heroes of this process. They do the heavy lifting of decomposition. So nitrogen in our greens are mandatory. And this is where your food scraps come in.

DIGGS: So the greens are literally usually green, like the lettuce - you know, the leftover lettuce, the celery top, the celery bottom.

SIMON: OK. Now, your browns - these are more carbon-rich. Carbon is also a key element. And for browns, think egg cartons, newspapers, dried leaves, pine needles - a lot of brown things. Another thing Leonard says to remember is that greens are typically wet, browns typically dry.

So when you're layering, you want the dry browns on the bottom and the wet greens on top. That'll keep you from making this sopping, wet puddle. Leonard says the browns really help with something called aeration. That's basically allowing the air to flow.

DIGGS: They're going to let the pile aerate. They're going to let the water run through without making it a big wet puddle.

SIMON: Yeah, it kind of reminds me of like when you're making a fire. You know, you need to, like, make some architecture in there so that the air kind of comes and makes it bigger. Is that a good metaphor?

DIGGS: That's a great analogy. It gets built with twigs and then stacked with some bigger twigs and then stacked with the bigger logs to allow that airflow to happen - allowing the water to flow through.

SIMON: We should say it's not just all your browns on the bottom and all your greens on top. It's called layering for a reason. You have the browns and then the greens and then the browns and then the greens. And you keep your layers to about an inch or two, maybe a little brown on the top, which will keep away the flies and the odors.

There are some pretty common ratios you'll hear of volumes of greens to browns. You'll often hear 3 to 4 parts brown to 1 part green, or you'll hear 2-to-1. Ultimately, you always have more browns to greens. You really need that dry brown to sop up the wet.

Leonard says it's not an exact science, so you have to finesse it with what you have. If you have a bunch of wet rotting cucumbers, you're going to need to layer more twigs or newspapers - that dry stuff - to stop it up. The key thing - have a balance, keep that air flowing. Again, Leonard says it's really about allowing those microorganisms to do their thing in your compost - break it down.

DIGGS: If a hundred percent of it is water, then nothing's going on. The microorganisms can't work. You got this soggy, smelly pile. So drainage makes a difference, but there's got to be some moisture.

SIMON: And by the way, remember how we said that composting reduces greenhouse gases? This is how, because unlike in a landfill, you're allowing the air to flow. So you don't get those microbes that make methane - that potent greenhouse gas. So it's way better for the climate.

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SIMON: The final takeaway - now you are going to wait for that decomposition. As for how long, I asked Leonard. OK, you're seeing me at the beginning. I have my sweet potatoes and my banana peels. How long am I thinking I'm going to wait?

DIGGS: If it's hot, you could get there in two months pretty easy.

SIMON: Wow.

DIGGS: If it's cold-made, you could be there six months. And for every component to break down, it might be a year.

SIMON: To keep things moving quicker, you'll probably need to turn it. Move some things around with a stick or a spade. Remember the fire analogy. You've got to make sure the air is flowing, that it's wet but not too soggy. As for how much you turn it, you probably have to turn it less if you have the right ratio of greens to browns. Typically, the more compost you have, the faster it will go. Leonard says to know when it's done, try smelling it.

DIGGS: I love smelling the finished compost. It just smells so - oh, gosh - woody, earthy, but also a sweet smell sometimes or sometimes a sour smell - depends on what you make of it - and the feel, too - how fluffy it is.

SIMON: Then you can take that fluffy compost, put it in your garden or maybe a plant on your windowsill. You could also donate it to your local community garden. Of course, if you donate, be sure to text ahead. Stay 6 feet away from your fellow composters.

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SIMON: So to recap, to compost, the first takeaway is figuring out what food scraps to keep. Fruits, veggies, flowers - that's all great. Don't keep the dairy and the meat and the fish and the bones, all that oily cooked stuff.

Takeaway Two - you don't need a fancy container. You can keep your food scraps in the freezer.

Takeaway Three - work with the space you have. You know, worms or fermentation in a small space, or you could use your backyard. You could have a heap or a box.

Takeaway Four - balance your greens and your browns, your wet and your dry. Keep it wet, not too soggy. You want that balance.

Takeaway Five - wait. Turn it. Tend to that fire. Help that decomposition. And voila, you have some good-smelling, earthy compost in your hands.

Of course, we know this takes patience. Finding that right balance can take some time. You might run into unexpected things. We don't want you to try and give up, so we have resources on the NPR website, npr.org/lifekit. Check it out.

And here, as always, a completely random tip, this time from Todd Grabowsky (ph).

TODD GRABOWSKY: If you ever need to peel a lot of garlic - let's say 10 or 15 cloves at once - what you can do is you can get two lightweight bowls. And you can put your cloves of garlic into one bowl and then invert the other bowl on top so you have kind of like a globe. And then you can just shake it vigorously for five seconds, and you'll find that the cloves will have peeled themselves.

SIMON: If you've got a good tip about composting or otherwise, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at lifekit@npr.org. If you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.

This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. Special thanks to Jeffrey Neal, Dan Charles, Bailey Anderson, Kate Scow and Jean Bonhotal for fact-checking. I'm Julia Simon. Thanks for listening.

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