An Introduction to Composting (with Free Printables!)


"Eugene tosses 40 million pounds of food into the local landfill each year. Half of this food waste comes from homes. Composting food waste allows us to use this material for something useful while also reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

Beginning October 1, 2019, customers who have residential garbage service will have the option to put food waste in their yard debris bin instead of in the garbage. This citywide program comes after a successful three-year residential curbside food waste collection pilot program that included 1,500 households in four Eugene neighborhoods. The mixed food waste and yard debris will be turned into nutrient-rich compost by local processors." source

If you’re local to Eugene and you’ve got a yard debris bin, it’s time to put that thing to good use! As of October 1, 2019, our yard debris bins can be used as compost bins for green materials. Not sure what counts as a “green material”, or even what the heck composting is? I'm no scientist, but I am a passionate composter with access to Google, so here's a breakdown:

Before we get into the nitty gritty, I want to say that the destruction of the environment is not solely on consumers to repair. Corporations play a HUGE part, and without industrial change, consumers alone will not be able to fix this issue. However, we do have some say in our course of action, and our action has potential to inspire big change. My thing is: why not do what we can? And consumers aren't completely alone in our efforts to push change: the EPA's Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal plans on reducing food waste by 50% over the next 10 years!

So, why compost? Food waste is a major problem, and not just because it's wasted money and resources (although you're throwing away ~25% of your groceries a year—that's a lot of dollars!). Since the 70s, food waste has increased by 50% because of our newfound reliance on convenience, our steadily rising standards for beautiful produce, our steadily expanding refrigerators, and a lot of other avoidable reasons. Seriously, produce just keeps getting prettier and fridges just keep getting bigger. (Side note: If you're OK with ugly produce, give Imperfect Foods a try!)

Another frustrating fact: ~20% of consumer food waste can be chalked up to the terms “use-by” or “best before”, which cause 90% of Americans to dispose of perfectly fine food. source We've picked up a lot of bad habits when it comes to nurturing ourselves (and our planet). Let's pick up a good one! Composting is nature's way of recycling organic material into a rich soil component, fondly referred to as "black gold" by gardeners. Compost does wonders for gardens, it's free soil, and it sure beats a landfill.

What does wasted food do to our environment? When food waste decomposes in a landfill without oxygen, methane is born. Methane is ~20 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, rapidly contributing to the destruction of our ozone layer. Wasted organic material also creates a large amount of groundwater pollution when rain falls on these landfills, which allows for toxic chemicals, such as ammonia, to develop. These chemicals can end up in our drinking water as well as our lakes and rivers, killing the living organisms that inhabit those environments. source

What goes inside a compost bin? Composting requires three basic ingredients inside your bin: greens, browns, and water. The brown materials provide carbon for your compost, the green materials provide nitrogen, and the water provides moisture to help break down the organic matter. source

Greens: This includes materials such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds. The nitrogen in green materials provides protein. Science says the ideal ratio of carbon to nitrogen is 25 to 1, but your pile should consist of roughly equal parts brown to green materials since green materials are so concentrated. A good rule of thumb is that each time you add a batch of nitrogen-rich ingredients, add roughly 4 times that amount in carbon-rich ingredients (in volume, not weight). Too much nitrogen causes odor, which can attract some nasty critters.

Browns: This includes materials such as paper, dead leaves, branches, and twigs. The carbon in brown materials provides energy for the microbes. Adding more brown materials, such as shredded paper or dead leaves, is the perfect solution to a smelly compost, which will keep pests away. Your compost heap requires a lot of brown materials to heat up the compost, but not too much. Too much carbon will cause the pile to break down too slowly.

Water: Water provides moisture to help break down the organic matter, as well as regulates the pile's temperature. Like brown and green materials, too much or too little water can hurt your compost, causing it to decompose too quickly or not quickly enough. The holes in your compost bin should allow the water to drain. Standing water is not good for your compost.

On Eugene's Curbside Food Waste Collection Program Due to contamination concerns, Eugene's Curbside Food Waste Collection Program will not be incorporating non-organic brown materials into their program. Food and plants only. Apparently consumers aren't great at determining what is and isn't compostable, especially when it comes to paper products like plates, cups, forks, etc. However, you can still include yard debris, like dead leaves and twigs, to give your bin a carbon boost.

The awesome thing about this program is that the city is encouraging all food scraps, making our jobs as consumers a piece of cake (which we can later compost!). And you don't even have to stir it! All the work is done for you, at no change to your normal yard debris collection day. At-home composting tends to involve stricter rules, like limiting meat and dairy products to keep pests and odors away, and weekly stirring for aeration. It also comes with the burden of witnessing the decomposition process, which sometimes maybe involves hundreds of maggots that you wish you had never seen (even though they're actually pretty helpful in the compost heap!). Curbside composting reaps all of the benefits with hardly any of the effort. And your garbage can won't be full of expired food! AND you get to buy a cute kitchen compost pail for your new adventure! It's a win-win-win.

For an easy reminder on what nitrogen-rich scraps you can dump into your yard debris bin, print out this infographic and keep it next to your kitchen compost pail! Click on the image to open the printable PDF file:

And if you're a backyard composter like me, here's a printable for us:

My husband and I have been composting for just over a year. The process is FASCINATING. There's something magical about turning a bouquet of anniversary flowers into hearty soil for our garden. At first Kyndl was pretty sure I was just keeping a bin of rotting trash in our yard, not totally sure when it was going to turn into something useful, and definitely not sure it was worth the strange bugs and the mouse he found inside it that one time (yikes, keep the lid on tight!!). But, right on schedule, this spring the soggy scrap paper and decaying banana peels turned into rich, dark, odorless soil. We’re still learning, and our heap is definitely not perfect (hence the scarring maggot situation), but I’ve challenged myself to understand my role as a consumer, and composting was a relatively easy place to start significantly reducing my food waste. Plus, I don't have to buy compost for my garden anymore!

The stats on recycling are pretty grim. Roughly 9% of plastic is actually being recycled, while the majority of it is sitting in landfills, expected to take ~400 years to break down. source This is why environmental activists have shifted the focus from promoting the “recycle” to the “reduce, reuse” parts of the famous slogan. We're blowing through resources, and with Amazon 2-day shipping and all that has come with the explosion of e-commerce, our instant gratification society can’t keep up with the amount of waste we’re producing. Finding ways to limit our plastic use, reduce our food waste, and source reusable solutions to single-use plastics is the most effective course of action we can take now.