As I swallow my pride and repeatedly apologize to my server at a sushi restaurant in Georgetown, I reach into the trash behind the counter and collect my napkins and chopsticks from my meal. The server was too quick for me and cleared my plate while I had my back turned. My embarrassed explanation of “these things are compostable” was lost in translation, and slipping the garbage into a packet of Mexican-style cheese that I now use as a reusable baggie for instances like these didn’t help the situation. Perhaps it was my nervous stammering that confused her, or perhaps the concept of composting was a foreign idea to her, as it is to many people.
Composting is simply nature’s way of breaking down organic waste, relying on microorganisms in the waste to help in the decaying process. Anything that is a living thing, derived from a living thing, or was once a living thing is compostable. Since nearly half of the trash reaching landfills is constituted as organic matter, composting significantly lessens the amount of waste and methane gas produced. Compost strengthens plants’ ability to fight common diseases and improves the flavor and nutritional value of the crops, while also helping the soil retain its moisture. Composting produces a nutrient rich and organic addition to soil, so diligence could make my dream of tending to my beautiful garden wearing beat up overalls and a straw hat, sprinkling my homemade compost onto my veggies and herbs, nearly attainable. It ultimately helps gardens grow naturally, while also reducing the volume of trash thrown out.
My first adjustment to becoming waste free was to begin composting nearly everything I use. I realized much of what I threw away was, in fact, compostable, so my adjustment was fairly easy. I knew fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds and eggshells were compostable, but I had no idea things like paper towels and napkins, cotton balls and even hair were also easily compostable. So yes, I’ve gone full crunchy, granola hippie and I’ve begun composting my hair - all I need are some Birkenstocks and a one-way ticket to Vermont to complete my transformation. One of my roommates receives boxes in the mail a few times a week, and I was happy to learn that even that cardboard can be composted, as long as I break it down into small pieces. If it came from a living thing at some point, it can be composted, and composting is all about breaking down an assortment of organic material to yield the most nutrient rich fertilizer.
One issue I had was not being able to compost meat scraps. So far, I’ve simply been abstaining from eating meat, but I love lamb too much to say goodbye forever. In typical above-ground composting, waste like meat scraps, bones and any dairy products are not compostable. Fortunately, a man at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market told me about Bokashi composting, where even meat scraps and dairy products could be included in the compost. Bokashi composting is a mixture of your own organic waste and bran, and the mixture essentially pickles waste after about two weeks of undisturbed fermentation. It doesn’t result in typical compost; it’s more of a “pre-compost” material that breaks down easier and faster than traditional compost. Bokashi composting requires a special Bokashi Bin with a spigot on the bottom to drain the, brace yourself, fermented liquid that accumulates over time. (The liquid is incredibly acidic though, so it can be used as drain cleaner!)
Bokashi composting seemed like the double black diamond route to composting, while I’m still trying to master the bunny hill. I bought a two gallon compost bin on Amazon for just 20 bucks, along with some compostable bags. The bin also came with an air filter to keep the smell down. After a week or so, and with my roommates gradually warming up to the idea of composting, my two gallon compost bin was overflowing with decaying banana peels and kale. But I needed to find a way to dispose of the waste.
Now, composting in a city poses its problems. Even though I have a backyard, my landlord would not be too keen on me digging holes throughout his property and filling it with rotting food. I could always make a compost pile in the back corner of my lot, in which the rats, squirrels, and raccoons in my neighborhood would think they struck gold, but my neighbors would probably axe that pretty fast, too.
After some research, I found several companies that collect compost, even meat and dairy waste, for a small fee. I was impressed with one company, Veteran Compost, which employs only Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to collect and care for the compost, while also using it at their farm located in Aberdeen, Maryland. Each week, Veteran Compost picks up my weekly accumulation of compost in a seven gallon bin they provide and drops off a clean bin that will be collected the next week. All I have to do is leave the compost bin on my front porch on the scheduled pickup day. For 25 dollars a month, the company makes composting too easy to not do. The added bonus is Veteran Compost also gives you back bags of compost a few times a year. The company delivers 25 pound bags of compost, in which some of my own waste is a part of, minimizing all the work. There’s so little effort in the entire process. I find myself incredulously asking why I hadn’t known about this organization before now.
There are many ways to compost and discard of your compost. Don’t let living in an apartment or row house deter you from composting and loving the earth! There are many programs set up to help the urban earth lover and techniques for a more DIY approach to composting at home. Utilizing composting has been an integral part in making my transition to waste free doable.
(Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in American Word Magazine.)