One of the most powerful ways to combat global climate instability and environmental degradation is right at your fingertips: keeping food scraps out of the waste stream and instead giving them new life. Because in nature, there’s no such thing as garbage; it’s all recycling.
Think of a tree losing its leaves, which end up on the ground. Little critters (that’s a fancy scientific term, which I like to imagine translates as Tinius Buggiums in binomial nomenclature) use them to stay warm, munch them down, and then poop out rich soil. When the critters die, they get digested by other organisms, and their nutrients get absorbed into the tree roots. Or if they get eaten by birds, they get converted into bird poop, which also feeds the soil under the sycamore the bird was perching on.
When humans rake up and bag the leaves, or for that matter, mow a lawn and remove the grass clippings, they’ve broken the cycle. So to keep the trees and lawns alive, they may in turn replace the missing nutrients with synthetic fertilizer. And they need to find a place to store all the plastic bags full of yard waste.
Similarly, when we don’t return food scraps to gardens and farms, we create two problems that don’t exist in nature: where to put ever-growing heaps of trash, and how to grow food in increasingly depleted soil.
That’s where composting comes in — that is, putting the scraps in a place where nature can do its thing.
But what if you have little to no outdoor space, or live in an apartment? What can you do with your kitchen scraps then?
The good news is that there are many ways you can keep food scraps out of your waste stream even if all you have is a little space in a basement, garage, spare room, or even just on your kitchen counter.
So how can you start composting in your own kitchen? What are your options? What tools do you need? And how can you ensure you don’t end up with a kitchen that smells like the bottom of a restaurant dumpster?
Why Save Your Food Scraps?
As planet-friendly as a diet may be, if it’s generating a lot of food waste, it can still be a real burden on the planet.
When food scraps rot, they release methane, a greenhouse gas that traps 84 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Many of our landfills turn into huge steaming piles of methane-emitting organic waste, which seriously compromises any plans of reversing our ever-intensifying global climate chaos.
Some of our garbage is burned, and here, too, organic waste is a problem. When moist food scraps end up in incinerators, they require a lot of extra energy to keep the burner temperatures high enough to fully incinerate all the trash. The higher temperatures also contribute to the release of more toxins into the air. This can cause serious health problems for nearby communities (which are disproportionately low-income and communities of color).
We definitely don’t want that. So what do we do with all those food scraps? Wait for NASA to figure out how to tow them to Venus?
Here’s the thing: Kitchen scraps are actually a hugely valuable resource, one that’s mostly wasted in our broken food system. In fact, food waste wasn’t even accepted in municipal waste programs until the mid-20th century. Instead, they were often fed to backyard or farm animals, or were kept in a separate underground receptacle called a subterranean receiver.
Other creative ways to reuse food scraps and keep them out of the garbage stream include making art with them, creating skin care products, or even using them in new recipes. Depending on the scrap, you might even be able to coax it to grow into more food.
(For some more ideas, you can read our article on How to Use Food Scraps to Reduce Kitchen Waste.)
But if you aren’t ready to turn your cucumber peels into a facial mask or decorate a dress with pumpkin seeds, you may want to try composting instead. That is, letting nature take its course with your food scraps, turning rotting peels, skins, seeds, pits, and ends back into rich soil that’s ready to grow the next generation of crops.
Saving Food Scraps in the Kitchen for Compost
Food scraps are organic materials, which means they can break down and benefit the soil in the form of compost.
Some US cities are actually mandating composting, requiring that you place your food waste in a separate container from regular trash or recycling. If you live in one of those municipalities, you probably have a green bin that’s earmarked for food waste. If you’re not sure if your county or city offers municipal composting, you can check one of the maps on the environmental nonprofit GreenBlue’s website.
But even if you don’t live in a city with a composting program, there are other ways to utilize your food scraps for compost.
There are apps like ShareWaste or MakeSoil that are basically compost brokers, connecting neighbors who produce compost with neighbors who want it. It’s kind of like Tinder, but you don’t have to resort to ring lights, beauty filters, or duck face.
There are also other community composting options via local farms, community gardens, recycling centers, or private composting companies.
If you have a garden or other outdoor space, you might have room to nurture a traditional compost pile or tumbler. And if so, you might benefit from checking our guide to home composting.
And for any of these methods, you can easily collect food scraps in a small compost collection bin in the kitchen before either throwing them in a larger bin, donating them to a community program, or emptying them into an outdoor compost pile.
What Can You Compost?
While all organic materials are theoretically compostable, some will take so long to break down that for all practical purposes, they’re not appropriate for kitchen composting. Some municipal compost programs also don’t accept certain types of food scraps, such as animal products or even citrus rinds. And some accept disposable utensils and containers made of bioplastics, while others don’t. Check with your local program administrator for a full list of approved items.
For a general list of what you can compost, here’s a handy (and possibly even dandy) infographic.
Tips for Controlling Food Scrap or Compost Odors
The smellephant in the room when it comes to composting is the fact that composting is kind of an elegant name for rotting. And rotting smells. As singer-songwriter Tom Chapin puts it in his composting anthem “Good Garbage”:
“Good garbage breaks down as it goes
That’s why it smells bad to your nose
Bad garbage grows and grows and grows
Garbage is s’posed to decompose.”
So here are some suggestions for a largely odor-free compost collection experience.
Use a bin with a lid. This will not only trap odors but also help prevent pests like fruit flies. (As Groucho Marx sagely observed, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” I had to think about that for a bit before it made sense.)
Empty your compost container regularly. This is definitely not a “set it and forget it” hobby. You’ll figure out the right schedule for you, which will depend on the amount of kitchen scraps you generate, the type of bin you use, the ambient temperature and humidity, and whether you sing to it or not (OK, I made that last one up because I wanted a longer list). Some folks empty their bins weekly; others find that daily is more appropriate.
Keep your home reasonably cool, especially in the summertime. Nothing says “strong pong” like produce rotting in a sauna-like environment.
If you can’t get rid of your scraps in a timely fashion (say, you’re going away for a few days and don’t want to return to a “Silence of the Yams” horror-scape), you can freeze them in an airtight plastic or glass container. This will halt the process of decomposition so you won’t end up with nasty aromas.
Finally, clean your container after each emptying. Check whether it’s dishwasher safe; some should be washed only by hand. Even if you’re using a compostable plastic bag, you may find that some slime has made it into the interior of your container, so a good scrubbing with a brush and soapy water can go a long way to keeping your kitchen smelling like the room in the house where food goes before it’s eaten, as opposed to after.
Compost Collection Bins
There are a range of compost bins on the market, varying in look, price, convenience, size, and capacity. You can go high-end (well, not that high-end; as of this writing, there are no Gucci or Prada composting bins) or simple, small or large, minimalist or packed with features. You can also DIY compost bins out of just about any container you have lying around.
In the end, though, their ultimate purpose is to collect and contain your food scraps so they don’t go to waste and end up in the landfill (or sit around and attract flies and perfume the air with eau de sewage).
DIY Compost Bins
Henry David Thoreau warned, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” Similarly, you don’t need to invest in a fancy compost bin to collect your food scraps. You can repurpose almost any type of container, although you’ll definitely want a lid to keep the odors in and not floating around your kitchen.
Some examples of DIY compost containers include plastic or glass storage bins, buckets, bowls, flowerpots, and empty food containers like coffee cans.
Countertop Compost Bins
If the idea of a grungy orange five-gallon bucket from Home Depot sitting between your toaster and blender doesn’t fill you with joy, you can also purchase a simple compost container made specifically for that purpose. They come in various materials, including plastic, stainless steel, bamboo, and ceramic.
Some bins can be used with compostable bags, which may make it easier to clean the inside of the container. If you’re part of a municipal composting program, check with the administrator to find out if they actually accept compostable bags, as not all do.
Some commercially available containers also come with filters made of activated charcoal or carbon to capture odors before they can escape and assault your nose (or entice it, if you happen to have the nose of a fruit fly).
While the containers we’ve looked at so far are just receptacles for holding kitchen scraps, there are also ways to create compost right on your countertop. This type of composting is especially well suited for single people or couples without children, who generally generate less waste than larger families.
Countertop composting can also be very convenient since you don’t need to venture outside to deal with the scraps; you can gather up the peels and seeds right next to where you process the food. And it’s a great option to make a dent in food waste if you live in an apartment, don’t have outdoor space, or don’t have access to a curbside composting program.
There are three main ways to perform kitchen composting: One is powered by worms, another by fermentation, and the third by electricity.
Worm composting bins take advantage of the fact that many worm varieties can eat up to half their body weight each day. And they’re diligent about rapidly converting that food into worm poop, which is a lot less gross than it sounds and is actually really nutrient-rich soil.
The fancy name for worm composting is vermicomposting (if you’re raising the worms, you’re engaged in vermiculture). It’s a pretty straightforward process: Feed worms food scraps, keep them sufficiently aerated and hydrated, maintain a liveable temperature, harvest the castings on a regular basis, and keep them contained so they don’t start casing your kitchen looking for food.
You’ll need a waterproof container with air holes (which you can either make yourself or put together from a purchased kit), moist bedding material, and worms (which you can order online, much to the delight of your mail carrier).
If seeing the worms in your kitchen makes you squeamish, it might be better to keep it out of sight under the sink or in another room, at least on those nights when you’re serving linguine or (etymology alert) vermicelli.
(If you’re a dedicated vegan, you may or may not determine that vermicomposting aligns with your ethical sensibilities. Personally, I think that building a world with less waste — and more compost! — contributes to the cause of compassion. But of course, as in all things, do what makes sense to you.)
“Bokashi” means “fermented organic matter” in Japanese. And the Bokashi method of composting speeds up the process by introducing microorganisms into the mix, the same wee beasties that occur naturally in garden soil. Bokashi is usually done in a bucket with a tight-fitting lid and a spigot at the bottom (like one of those big glass beverage dispensers people use at cookouts, except instead of iced tea, you get Bokashi tea).
All you do is throw in your kitchen scraps, cover with a layer of bran inoculated with the microorganisms, and leave it alone. As the food waste pickles, it produces a dark, nutrient-rich liquid that you can access through the spigot, which, mixed with lots of water, your house plants will simply adore. Also, drawing off the liquid keeps the fermenting compost from smelling like an open sewer once you open it.
After somewhere between 10 and 21 days, you can open the bucket and behold what can charitably be called “pre-compost.” It’s not crumbly soil, but the food waste is fermented enough that it can either get mixed directly into a garden bed or finished in a compost pile or compost tumbler. Most Bokashi systems use two buckets in rotation, so you can feed scraps to one bucket while the other one is “locked” in fermentation.
You can buy Bokashi buckets and inoculated bran online or from a local garden store. YouTube searches will also show you how to make your own buckets and DIY vegan inoculated bran. Or to check out a starter kit that comes complete with bucket, spigot, and inoculant, click here.
Electric composters bring the ancient art of rotting food into the modern age. They don’t just collect food scraps, but actually break them down into usable soil in a matter of hours. They do this by heating, grinding, and drying the scraps. Some include microbial pods that render the compost into garden-ready fertilizer. And they include filters, so you shouldn’t have a problem with odors.
Electric composters can come with some downsides. To accommodate their high-tech features, they’re typically bulkier than their manual cousins, and take up more counter space. They can also be expensive, both their original purchase price and their total cost of ownership, including supplies and electricity. However, some can be quite energy efficient, and the value they provide in terms of home garden fertilizer can make them more than worth the expense.
Lomi promises an “odor-free, pest-free, mess-free” composting solution, which involves transforming food scraps into nutrient-rich plant food in just four hours. And if you purchase a machine using this link, they’ll contribute a portion of the proceeds to FRN and our mission.
Don’t Let Your Food Scraps Go to Waste
Whether you just use compost collection bins to save your food scraps for curbside pickup or try your hand at one of the countertop composting methods, kitchen composting is a great way to reduce food waste and contribute to a healthier planet.
Best of all, you don’t need a backyard or a lot of space to put your food scraps to use. From kitchen counters to basements, there are creative ways to transform your food scraps into rich, nourishing soil.
By embracing composting, you not only divert waste from landfills but also help enrich soil, foster plant growth, and mitigate the challenges of depleted farmlands. Remember, every step you take to reduce waste and to turn trash into treasure is a step towards a more healthy, ethical, and sustainable future.
Tell us in the comments:
What do you do with your kitchen scraps right now?
Do you live in a place with a municipal kitchen scrap recycling program? How easy or hard is it to participate?
If you don’t yet collect kitchen scraps for compost, what method described in this article seems most appealing to get started with?
Featured Image: iStock.com/JohnnyGreig
- How to Use Food Scraps to Reduce Kitchen Waste
- Decades of Public Messages About Recycling in the US Have Crowded Out More Sustainable Ways to Manage Waste