Composting Garbage

When we think of composting, we tend to think of enormous dumpsters full of everything you didn’t eat for dinner that day, mixing together into an earthy, smelly, nasty concoction that seems to have a life of its own. But at its most basic level, composting is simply the deconstruction of any organic material. And it’s probably already happening, whether you realize it or not, in your kitchen’s plastic-lined garbage bin.

In honor of Earth Day, consider this: In a study on the efficiency of household composting, researchers had a series of households compost for an entire year and tracked the waste they avoided. They found that, on average, composting saved 277 pounds of waste per person per year. Those scraps would otherwise have gone to a landfill or other garbage treatment facility. The results of the study, the researchers say, show that organic waste that would normally be placed in the garbage can be reduced by more than 80 percent.

But if organic matter is always going to decompose, why does it matter if it does so above ground or under the cover of a landfill? When food decomposes in a landfill, it does so underground. That means that it doesn’t have any access to oxygen and undergoes a process called anaerobic decomposition. This releases methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. When organic matter decomposes above ground (in compost), it has access to oxygen and thus undergoes aerobic decomposition, which doesn’t generate methane.

If you think composting is a dirty, unpleasant activity, that’s far from the truth. It can be really fun, like one big science experiment. Here’s how to get started:

Choose a method
There are many variations on composting, and the best one for you depends on where you live—like an apartment or a house with a backyard—and what level of involvement you want in it.

Compost for a tiny apartment
If your living space is already squished, you might think composting is out of the question. But there are two easy ways to compost indoors. One way is called vermicomposting, which, as the name implies, employs the help of worms to break down the organic matter. This site provides great step-by-step instructions on how to start one, but the idea is simple: Get a bin with a lid, fill it with soil and red wiggler worms, and dump your organic matter in there. The worms will do the work to break down your garbage into something called castings, which are extremely rich in nutrients. Then you can transplant your castings into potted plants or a small garden.

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