Not too long ago, Staten Island was home to a landfill two and half times the size of Central Park—it was so big, in fact, it could be seen from space. Now, New York City is leading the way to a more eco-friendly lifestyle with its pledge to send zero waste to landfills by 2030. But how does the country's largest city accomplish such a feat? Composting is an integral component of a sustainable city. By 2018, New York City plans to expand its organics program (composting food and biodegradable waste) from serving 100,000 households to serving the entire city. We chatted with Compost for Brooklyn co-founder and Master Composter, Louise Bruce, on the best ways to compost at home.
1. Start simple
Start small with just fruits and vegetables. Then, as you get more comfortable, you can add in things like egg shells and coffee grounds. “You can absolutely compost meat in your backyard, but not until you know what you’re doing!”
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2. Pick the right worms
“You can’t just pick up a worm off the street,” says Bruce. Compost requires a very specific kind of worm called “red wiggler” —or Eisenia fetida—that typically lives in the top 6-9 inches of the soil. These worms can eat half their body weight in food scraps a day! Night crawlers and other common garden worms (usually brown or gray in color) won’t survive in a worm bin.
3. Use the best storage method
The best way to keep food scraps until you're ready to drop off or add to your bin is in a reusable container in your freezer. This is so important because it means the compost stays in the same state and doesn’t decompose or create odors. If you can't keep the bin in your freezer, the next best option would be the fridge. But if you're crazy low on space, it's okay to keep it in a small bucket on your counter—just make sure to cover the food scraps with torn up newspaper strips, which prevent pests and odors from getting into the exposed food scraps. "People think you get fruit flies because they’re attracted to your compost; they’re not,” says Bruce. Produce such as banana peels can have invisible eggs, which is why you should always rinse your fruit peels in hot water. Freezing fruit or microwaving it for 60 seconds before adding it to the bin can also help kill fruit fly eggs.
4. Feed the worms properly
Be careful about putting in your takeout leftovers! Since worms breathe through their skin, it needs to stay moist, which means that especially oily or salty foods can dehydrate and suffocate them. Similarly, compostable utensils aren't ideal for home worm bins. "It doesn't look great to have a fork sticking out of your finished compost," says Bruce. "Compost is like a gym for micro-organisms—when everyone is working out at maximum capacity it gets super hot and all of a sudden the bacteria become really productive and can break things down much faster." Large-scale composting facilities have massive piles that they're managing and they understand precisely how each and every material will complement each other. In that way, they create the perfect "recipe" and can generate the heat needed to quickly breakdown items like compostable utensils. Often, regular backyard composts or worm bins don't create that kind of heat because you're slowly adding in a banana peel here or there. When in doubt, consult NYC Compost Project's guide on what to compost at home.
5. Remember, it’s never too late!
If your compost is starting to smell, all is not lost! You can always alter the process and fix things, says Bruce. The only reason worms would try to leave their cozy home is in a life or death situation—if the compost is too wet (the worms are drowning) or too dry (there's not enough oxygen and the worms are suffocating). If the compost is too wet, add something that will absorb water, like a stale piece of bread or shredded newspaper. Conversely, if it's too dry, you can add something with moisture like a tomato or spritz some water in the bin.
6. Put finished compost to good use
Finished compost is amazing stuff. It's the best potting mix! You can grow herbs in your window if you live in a tiny apartment, or you could use it to fertilize a street tree. For gardeners, it makes the difference between really beautiful gardens and depleted looking ones. "Community gardeners will never say no to you. I'll even take it!"