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Turn Food Waste into “Black Gold”

Several years ago, our neighbors wanted to know what we were doing to get such lush plants in our home and yard. The answer was compost—organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow.

Because it is so nutrient dense and provides so many other beneficial properties, gardeners consider it “black gold.” In addition to providing nutrients, compost can increase water retention of soil, improve drought tolerance, prevent the growth of weeds, improve soil microorganisms, and reduce the need for fertilizers and chemicals.

Composting can help your garden and also help the environment by reducing the amount of food and yard waste going to landfills. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reported that 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten (about 20 pounds per person each month!) and 97 percent of food waste ends up in landfills.

Reduce Waste that Contributes to Greenhouse Gases

According to the EPA, food waste is currently the single largest component of municipal solid waste going to landfills and incinerators. When food and yard waste are buried in a landfill and decompose without exposure to air, methane is produced—a greenhouse gas that is roughly twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. To remedy this situation, some communities include curbside composting as part of their waste management services, but unfortunately this is not a universal practice.

I must admit, I always felt a little guilty when I didn’t get to my vegetables on time and needed to pitch them in the trash. But now if that happens, I don’t see it as a total waste but rather a renewable resource that is going to feed my garden. We have a compost crock in our kitchen where we collect food scraps regularly to take out to our compost pile.

While compost can be purchased, it is also easy to make your own compost at home using three basic ingredients.

Three Essential Ingredients for Composting:

1. “Green” materials such as fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and grass and plant clippings to provide nitrogen.
2. “Brown” materials such as dead leaves, shredded newspaper, straw, and finely chopped wood, branches, and twigs to provide carbon.
3. Water, which provides moisture to help break down the organic matter.

To start your own backyard compost, select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your pile or bin. A bin helps contain your compost pile, makes it more attractive, and can be purchased or you can make your own. The bin should be at least three feet wide and three feet deep to provide enough space to mix or turn the ingredients. A cover or tarp is helpful to keep the compost moist. I like this tumbling compost bin that makes turning the pile easier.

Your compost pile should have an equal amount of green and brown materials mixed together. Moisten with water as needed so that it has the consistency of a damp sponge, but do not overwater as this will lead to rotting. Add green and brown materials as they are available, burying fruit and vegetable waste under compost as you add it to your pile.

Turn the compost pile about once a week to provide oxygen; this helps the materials decay faster and prevents foul odors. When the compost has become dark brown and crumbly it is ready to use in the garden. Depending on the conditions of your pile this can take from two months to more than a year.

If you live in an apartment or have limited outdoor space, a small electric composter might be an option. These electric food recyclers fit on your kitchen countertop and provide a convenient way to process food waste. If you create more compost than you can use consider sharing it with friends, neighbors, or local gardens.

Some items you do not want to put in your compost pile include meat, oil, fat, grease, dairy products, pet waste, diseased plant materials, pressure-treated or painted wood, and weeds that go to seed.

Tips to Turn Food and Yard Waste into “Black Gold”

• Collect kitchen scraps in a compost crock to add to your outdoor compost pile and purchase or build your own compost bin.
• Use a countertop electric composter to create compost for your houseplants.
• Ask your waste management company if they will provide curbside composting to reduce food and yard waste contributions to landfills.

This blog post includes tips and information from my book Resilient Health: How to Thrive in Our Toxic World.

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