If you want to compost, try worms — or a pickup service
Perhaps you don’t compost because you don’t have a garden or don’t think you generate much food waste. Or maybe you don’t know how. Or why.
Let’s start with the why. Andy Brooks of Jamaica Plain’s Bootstrap Compost has an answer. “Composting gives people a sense that they’re not being wasteful,” he says, and the impetus is the environment. As food in landfills decomposes it gives off methane, a greenhouse gas harmful to the environment that contributes to global climate change. “Landfills are a broken system for dealing with trash,” says Brooks.
In Massachusetts, composting just got a boost to reduce landfill waste. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection put a commercial food waste disposal ban into effect this month. Supermarkets, universities, hospitals, hotels, and other organizations with large food services that dispose of at least one ton of organic material per week are required to donate or repurpose usable food (a boon to food rescue organizations that have eyed this bounty for years). They can either compost the remaining food waste or send it to anaerobic digestion facilities to be converted to energy.
Think of composting as the back end of the food chain — what we take from the earth can be put back in. When organic material, such as food and yard waste, decomposes (helped by naturally occurring microorganisms that feed on the matter) it becomes compost. The nutrient-rich, soil-like material is perfect for helping plants grow. It takes a little time and attention, and possibly some worms (more on that later), to turn food waste into something beneficial.
In your kitchen, you can compost much of what you might throw away, including vegetable and fruit peels and pulp, coffee grounds, eggshells, bread, and grains. You can compost napkins, paper towels, coffee filters, and tea bags as well as leaves, grass clippings (from an untreated lawn), shredded newspaper, and even dryer lint. Don’t add meat, fish, bones, dairy, or oily products as these stink as they decompose and attract pests.
“My first mark of home ownership was a compost pile,” says Trish Wesley Umbrell, farm administrator for the Natick Community Organic Farm. She keeps a covered stainless steel bowl in the kitchen for accumulating food scraps, and dumps them in her compost bin when the bowl is full. She adds a little soil, which introduces important microbes, and waters the pile every few weeks. “It’s not a difficult habit to get into,” she says.
The decomposition process generally takes a few months depending on the size and mix of materials. When there are no longer recognizable items, says Umbrell, “You pick up a handful and it looks like beautiful rich brown soil.”
For step-by-step instruction, a book such as “Let It Rot! The Gardener’s Guide to Composting” by Stu Campbell, or a site like Howtocompost.org will teach the how-to’s, including types of bins and proper balance of green materials (nitrogen-rich food scraps and grass clippings) and brown materials (dried leaves, paper products, and twigs that contain carbon).
Apartment dwellers can compost, too, using a worm bin (yes, you read that right), explains Amy Christiansen, the education programs manager at Land’s Sake farm in Weston. She has kept one in her kitchen for eight years and recommends buying specially designed layered bins to keep indoors. A pound of worms — not your garden variety, but red worms or red wigglers, available at fishing bait stores or online — can eat about ½ pound of food per day. With worm composting, called vermicomposting, often practiced commercially, the worms dig through and consume the organic matter. They excrete castings, which looks like fine-textured soil and is often referred to as black gold.
For families with young children, this is the way to go. “Think of your worms like you’d think of any pet,” says Christiansen. They need moisture, air, food, and bedding. “They will reproduce if they’re happy.”
If pet worms seem too extreme and you live in or near Boston, Bootstrap Compost will collect your food waste at home. It provides 5-gallon buckets, outfitted with a compostable liner and tight-fitting lid, and you can arrange for weekly or biweekly pickups.
The company, founded in 2011 by Brooks, 39, who later brought in Igor Kharitonenkov, 27, has about 750 residential and 50 commercial clients. In almost four years, it has collected about 500,000 pounds of food scraps, most of which is hauled to Rocky Hill Farm in Saugus, a composting facility, and a few community farms. About half of Bootstrap customers elect to receive some compost back (free, with the pickup service) to use in their own gardens.
“People recognize there are a lot of resources going into growing our food,” says Brooks. “To compost what you don’t finish is a good way to honor those resources.”