They are known as the three Rs, the holy trinity of sustainability that asks us to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. I would now like to suggest a fourth R: Rot.
It may sounds strange, but rot is a crucial part of maintaining a low-impact home. Rot means composting, the art of creating nutrient-rich fertilizer from kitchen scraps, yard trimmings, and other organic wastes. Composting takes these materials out of our trash cans and returns them to the Earth where they're needed.
How much garbage are we talking about? According to the EPA, Americans generated approximately 254 million tons of solid waste in 2007 or about 4.62 pounds per person per day. Some 63.5 million tons of this trash consists of yard trimmings and food scraps. That's a full 25% of all our solid waste, yet as a nation we composted only about a third of this amount.
When we throw these wastes away, we remove the vital nutrients they contain from Earth's soils forever and break the cycle of regeneration on which nature depends. We also needlessly clog our shrinking landfills with a valuable natural resource. By some estimates, recycling and composting could together help us keep over 70% of all our trash out of landfills!
When you compost, you're simply helping microbes, fungi, and other organisms convert organic materials into the basic building blocks of soil and nature's ideal fertilizer. Here's our down and dirty Q&A on letting it rot:
Q: What can I compost?
A: Easiest to compost are egg shells, coffee grounds and filters, fruit and vegetable scraps, and yard trimmings. Break everything into the smallest pieces possible. Don't compost meat and dairy products, which can make a real stink. And bones take centuries to decompose.
Q: Where do I keep my compost?
A: Buy or build an outdoor compost bin. It should be at least 3' x 3' x 3'. Avoid wood treated with chemicals.
Q: Where do I put the bin?
A: You can site your composter almost anywhere with good drainage, but it should be reasonably close to home so transporting kitchen scraps isn't a chore. Place it over open ground to allow desirable microbes to migrate in from the soil. You can also keep a smaller, temporary container under the sink.
Q: What's a good compost pile look like?
A: The ideal ratio for your compost pile is 50% dry plant materials like twigs, dried weeds, leaves, etc.; 35% moist organic matter like kitchen scraps, green weeds, and grass clippings; and 15% soil or finished compost to provide seed organisms. Maintain this ratio as much as possible for faster composting.
Q: How do I maintain it?
A: Once a week, stir up your pile with a shovel, stick, or other tool to provide vital oxygen for its bacteria. Don't let your pile get too wet nor too dry. Water your pile during dry times or add dry material if it's soaked.
Q: What if it starts to smell?
A: Compost should not offend the nose. If yours is oozing odor, it needs less water or more oxygen. An ammonia smell means too much nitrogen or alkalinity. Dry leaves or straw will help nitrogen levels. Treat alkalinity with coffee grounds, oak leaves, or other acidic materials. Let experimentation guide you. A good compost pile literally cooks itself with temperatures as high as 160° Don't be surprised to see your pile steaming!
Q: When is my compost ready to use as fertilizer?
A: When your compost is brown and crumbly it's ready to get spread around. This takes about 6-8 weeks in warmer weather. (Composting may stop altogether in colder months.) Your lawn will love a layer in the fall. Your garden and flower beds can be fed any time. Trees appreciate a layer scattered around their base. And houseplants will thrive on an occasional handful or two.
Composting gives back to the Earth that which we take from it. It's an easy way to turn senseless waste into something delightfully decayed, and that's no rot!