Food waste, when tossed into a landfill, creates millions of tons of greenhouse gases and is a leading contributor to climate change. But when food waste is inevitable, what can be done to reduce the impact of our scraps?
The answer that most point to — composting — sounds simple enough. But it's a bit more complicated than it seems.
Composting allows people to transform leftover food items, like carrot tops or potato peels, into nutrient-rich soil that can in turn act as a natural fertilizer for gardens, trees or other plants.
Scrub Hub:How can I cut back on food waste?
But it isn't as easy as throwing food scraps into a bin and waiting for magic to happen. We've received several questions from IndyStar readers about how composting works and what resources exist to help you do it in Indianapolis.
To answer these questions, we're dedicating two Scrub Hubs to explaining the process and how composting services in Indianapolis compare to other cities.
This first Scrub Hub will tackle how to compost, including what supplies you need, how long it will take and what to do once you're done. To find out, keep reading.
The short answer
At first, composting seems straightforward — toss food scraps into bin, rotate, repeat. But when you start getting into "brown" and "green" materials, rotating tumblers versus outdoor bins versus worms, it can get complicated quickly.
So we spoke with Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, about how to get started.
Composting basics center around three factors: having the right ratio of "browns" and "greens," aeration and moisture.
"Browns" are carbon-rich materials like leaves, twigs and newspaper, and "greens" are nitrogen-rich materials like food scraps or yard waste. Hoover suggests using a ratio of three to one, meaning you should have far more "brown" materials in your compost bin than actual food scraps.
You'll also need to aerate your compost by turning it over every few days so that the microbes working hard to transform your waste have enough oxygen to keep running. Some people buy rotating compost tumblers, but if your compost is just in a bin or pile on the ground, you can turn it over with a shovel, pitchfork or other backyard tool.
These microbes also need moisture. Your compost pile should be damp like a wrung-out sponge, Hoover said. If it's getting too dry, you can water it with a can or hose as needed.
For more details on what to compost, different methods and what to do if you live in a small space, keep reading.
The long answer
Composting is all about fostering the right conditions for microorganisms to eat your food scraps and other organic matter and then break them down into fresh earth.
That's done through finding a balance between carbon and nitrogen, or the aforementioned "browns" and "greens."
For browns, you can use around-the-house materials like branches, leaves, wood scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells and paper bags.
As a rule of thumb, Hoover said, play by the rule of finger: Don't put anything in your compost that's larger than your finger, or it may interfere with airflow. That means you may have to snap up sticks or shred any newspaper you plan on using.
Mara, a reader from Indianapolis, asked us whether you can continue composting during the winter when there's snow on the ground and there might be fewer leaves to use.
This is when planning is necessary, Hoover said. Starting early to collect leaves and twigs for the winter will help, but you can also rely on newspaper and paper bags if necessary. If you have an outdoor pile, you may need to protect it from the snow or wind.
Your compost should be hot — the activity from microorganisms should heat the pile between 90 and 140 degrees. If your compost grows cold in the winter, you can heat it up by adding "greens," watering it or adding bacteria from dirt.
When it comes to what materials to use as "greens," most food scraps will count. This includes leftovers from fruits, veggies, flowers, or grains. But there are some items to avoid, too. You should not compost meat, pet feces, banana peels or any dairy product.
"Don't put in a lot of fats or greasy items," Hoover said. "That kind of mats things together, prevents that airflow and is also attractive to pests."
Another factor to consider when you're starting to compost is the type of container to use. If you have outdoor space, you might be able to throw compost on the ground surrounded by chicken wire, or in big bins. Some people buy rotating compost bins that can be put on a porch or patio.
If you're working with a smaller space like an apartment, Hoover said, you might even consider vermi-composting, or using worms to break down food scraps in smaller boxes. For this, you can buy a specific container or even make one yourself out of plastic bins.Indoor and Outdoor - Electric - Home-Use Pet and Organic Waste Composter
"Worms are these amazing little creatures that just chew through food scraps and turn them into lovely, rich, odorless, crumbly soil," Hoover said. "I would say one of the best things you can do is worm composting."
Regardless of the type of composting you choose to do, it'll take a while. You might see some products that advertise the ability to turn food scraps into compost in as little as 24 hours, but according to Hoover, "that's not a thing."
True composting takes several weeks, if not months. But by the end of that time, you should have a pile of healthy, fresh earth.
But what do you do with all that fresh earth if you don't have a garden?
Well, Hoover said, houseplants love it too. You can also share it with neighbors, donate it to community gardens, or even go "guerrilla composting" — what Hoover calls it when she puts the results of her compost on street trees or park plants.
Composting can lead to healthier soil and happier plants and limit the amount of food scraps heading to a landfill, but you should still strive to cut back on food waste when you can, Hoover said.
"If you're talking about environmental impact," she said, "The best thing to do is not waste food in the first place."