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Why, What and How to Compost—Part 1

Humor me. Open your refrigerator. Throw 40% of the food into a garbage bag and leave it at the curb for collection. Next week, repeat.

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. An article in The New York Times says about 40% of the food grown in the US is thrown out. An average Connecticut resident’s daily food waste accounted for 22% of the solid waste destined for landfills in 2015. Other solid wastes included organic materials, construction and demolition refuse, and paper products. Our state has a goal of reducing, reusing and recycling 60% of our waste stream by 2024. However, achieving this goal is proving elusive. In the meantime, residents who compost food waste will help meet that goal.

A simple bringing together

The word compost has two Latin roots, meaning “to bring together.” When moisture and oxygen are mixed with organic substances high in carbon and nitrogen, it spurs decomposition. Instead of food waste languishing in a landfill, bacteria and microorganisms transform it into a rich dark humus, an elixir that improves and maintains healthy soil.

Compost it, don’t waste it

A typical homeowner has access to ample organic items suitable for composting. Organic in this context means products derived from formerly living plant matter, not necessarily organic-labelled products. Organic items can be divided roughly into two types.

Browns provide carbon. They are dry, aged components, such as fall leaves, twigs, plain cardboard, shredded newspapers and office paper, and wood chips, wood shavings, or sawdust. Desiccated pruning or garden debris are good browns too.

Greens are fresher, nitrogen-rich ingredients. They are the fuel microorganisms need to start the decomposition process and keep it going. Greens don’t have to be green. They include new spring leaves, untreated fresh grass clippings, spoiled fruit and vegetables or their peels; eggshells; coffee grounds and unbleached filters; tea bags; and fresh plant debris.

Unsuitable materials include painted, glued, or chemically treated wood products; glossy or coated paper; grass clippings treated with herbicides; weeds with aggressive roots or seed heads; diseased plants; and meat, dairy, and oily wastes.

The smaller the pieces of greens and browns are, the faster they’ll break down, especially dense materials like broccoli stems or wood. Chopping food waste in a blender helps, but it’s not essential.

Learning more about the process

This UCONN brochure covers the simple steps in making compost, as well as options for building or buying bins. If you prefer video, visit the Growing a Greener World site and search for “Episode 602: How to Make Compost.

Next time, I’ll compare composting bins, offer solutions for typical issues, and share options for state residents who are unable to compost where they live.

Michele MacKinnon, is a UCONN-Certified Advanced Master Gardener, garden educator and speaker and a CT-NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional.

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