I desperately wanted at-home composting to be as easy as throwing something in the trash, so I bought a compost bin. It was a cute little white thing from World Market made of bamboo, and it was going to look super pretty in my kitchen. So I bought it.
At first, it was going pretty well. I was composting my kitchen scraps and using the bin’s handle to carry it over to the farmer’s market. Despite a little bit of food mold, the whole thing was going smoothly. Until the bugs.
After a while, I couldn’t help but notice how many little bugs kept floating out of the bin every time I opened it. Having little flies around our apartment became pretty common, and I (being pretty naive about the whole thing) thought it to be normal.
One weekend, I was home in Connecticut (where I learned how to make tomato sauce with my grandma) and I was telling my family all about my composting…and the bugs.
“Be careful,” my mom said. “Those little guys could turn into maggots.”
Um…MAGGOTS?! All the zero-wasters I followed failed to mention this tiny little detail about composting. Curious to see if this was true, I did some digging.
Turns out she was right. I guess if you’re not properly layering your compost, you could attract insects. These pests are not only annoying, but they can lay eggs and turn into *yes* maggots. Ick.
When I got home from my weekend trip, I opened up my apartment to a welcoming smell of rotting garbage—coming from the composting bin, no less. I immediately grabbed it and took it out to the back of our building. I will spare you the gruesome details of opening it, but I will tell you there were a lot of bugs. So I threw the whole thing out.
Attempting a zero-waste lifestyle certainly is a journey, one filled with many mistakes. But I’m happy to make those mistakes if it means teaching others how to not make them. Especially if maggots are involved. Double ick.
How to properly compost
I’ve become quite the library fiend lately, so I decided to pick up a book on composting. Eric Ebeling, the author of “Composting Basics,” was the one to show me that I was composting completely wrong. Composting isn’t simply a trash can where you chuck your food scraps—there’s an entire system of decomposition that you have to be aware of. And if you aren’t…maggots. Or as the book says, “insects or four-legged pests.” Sorry rats, NOT TODAY.
In order to see a proper decomposition, you have to layer your compost with greens and browns. Greens are scraps that have high amounts of nitrogen, while the browns have high amounts of carbons. Items that are considered “browns” include dried leaves, twigs, newspaper, straw, sawdust, napkins, and other paper supplies (without a glossy, plastic coating, of course). “Greens” include grass clippings, kitchen food scraps, yard trimmings, and other green plant debris.
If you were trying to create a proper compost pile (one where you can actually use the soil for vegetables), you would have to layer two or three inches of greens between four and five inches of browns. Compost piles usually start with around four inches of tangled branches, two to three inches of greens, and a small lining of already made soil. Then you start the layering of browns and greens until you reach a pile between three to five feet. If you’re confused, I highly recommend giving this tip sheet by the NYC Composting Project a skim.
My fatal mistake with my little bamboo compost bin? It was all greens. I don’t have yard waste or a ton of “browns” being thrown out regularly, which meant I was creating an attractive home for bugs.
My solution for composting
You see that Dos Toros bag? Yep, that’s mine. And there’s a reason for it.
There’s a good majority of NYC neighborhoods that are a part of the Organics Collection Program, which provides compost bins for buildings and homes. Although there was a bin near our old apartment, I haven’t seen one in our current neighborhood. So chucking our compost at the end of a meal wasn’t going to happen. I needed a solution that could allow me to drop off compost each week when I hit up the farmer’s market.
Now I had heard about freezing compost from other well-known zero wasters, and even attempted it myself. I hadn’t found much success with it in the beginning. But after experiencing the trauma and demise of my little compost bin, I decided to give it another go.
Put a stainless steel bowl in the freezer.
Instead of collecting food scraps with a brown or *gasp* plastic bag in the freezer, I put a stainless steel bowl in there to throw scraps. I lined the bottom with a piece of compostable parchment paper, which will help prevent any watery foods to stick when frozen.
Place a brown bag near your bins.
Now you’ll probably still have some of those browns during the week—paper, dirt, and what not—and those do not need to take up room in your freezer bowl. So I keep a brown bag near our other bins for an easy toss of those items.
Place frozen foods in the bag for drop off.
When you go to drop off your compost, simply put the frozen foods in the paper bag! This will make transporting that compost as easy as a little compost bin with a handle. I usually put the bag in a reusable bag that can sling over my shoulder as I walk to the market.
Make sure to understand how they separate compost!
When you go to drop off compost, make sure to ask them about brown and green separation. If you find yourself with more browns than greens you may need to ask the compost center or market if they have a particular separating system that you should be following.
For more on properly composting at home, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a pretty basic breakdown that can help you get started. I plan on covering more on composting, so there’s more where this came from. If you have any questions or things you want me to cover related to composting, just comment below!