EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth and final in a series of solutions stories addressing food waste and food rescue in Richland County and beyond. Part One can be found here. Part Two can be found here. Part Three can be found here.
MANSFIELD -- Americans throw away between 30 and 40 percent of the country’s food supply each year.
According to ReFed, 35 percent of all food in the United States went unsold or uneaten in 2019. The EPA estimates that approximately a quarter of the material in landfills is food.
Restaurants and grocery stores are large contributors of food waste, but the biggest source of wasted food is households. Americans generated an estimated 54.2 million tons of food waste in 2019 -- nearly 38.9 percent of it was residential.
Composting can be an easy, environmentally friendly way to cut down on household food waste. It can also benefit your garden.
Contrary to popular belief, well-managed compost won’t have a strong smell or attract unwanted insects and pests. Urban farmer Andy Vaughn said good compost has a subtle earthy smell.
“It should smell like dirt,” Vaughn said.
Composting is not just for farmers or people with big backyards. Vaughn has composted while living in the city as well as the country. Composting can also be done in or outdoors, regardless of where you live. Garden stores and online retailers sell composting bins, but Vaughn says you don’t need a specialized container.
“Anything can be made into a compost bin,” he said.
For city dwellers, he recommends getting a plastic tote of any size and making a worm bin. Unlike a regular compost bin, worm bins don’t require heat, sunlight or other microbes.
That’s because Red Wiggler worms are extra efficient decomposers. All you need to do is buy some online or at a garden store, fill up your bin and let them chow down.
How it works
Composting is a method of turning organic matter like food waste and paper products into nutrient-rich soil that can be added to flower beds, gardens and crops. It requires four basic elements -- ingredients, decomposers, oxygen and water.
After disposing of organic matter in a container or outdoor pile, decomposing microorganisms get to work consuming, digesting and excreting the material. These organisms occur naturally in spaces with air, water and organic matter, so there’s no need to add them to your pile.
The composting process can be as involved as you want it to be. “Cold” composting is relatively hands-off -- simply take your materials, put them in a bin or pile in your yard and wait. Since it doesn’t utilize heat from the sun, the composting process occurs more slowly.
“Hot” composting usually involves an outdoor pile or specialized bin that will keep your compost warm. A warm pile decomposes faster, but also requires more maintenance. If it’s in a sunny spot, you may have to water it occasionally.
Whether you’re hot or cold, inside or out, you’ll want to mix the compost regularly to speed up the decomposition process and keep certain parts from becoming soggy or cold.
“Properly balanced compost will experience an increase in temperature in the decomposition process,” said Joe Ringler, an agriculture and natural resources educator at the Richland County OSU Extension Office.
Meticulous composters can measure the temperature of their compost pile, though it’s not necessary for casual gardeners.
Organic Matter -- What to add to your compost
Materials that can be composted are typically broken down into two categories -- “greens” and “browns.”
Greens can include fruit and vegetable scraps, tea bags, coffee grounds, egg shells, old flowers, grass and yard clippings and even human hair. All these materials add nitrogen to the mixture.
Browns include carbon-rich products like paper egg cartons, napkins, newspapers, dried leaves, pine needles, sawdust and woodchips. These materials add carbon to the mixture.
There are some products that you should not add to your compost -- anything with meat, dairy or bones should go straight into the trash. Food cooked in butter or oil also should not be composted. Avoid pet waste, weeds and diseased plant material as well.
Compost needs a good carbon-to-nitrogen ratio in order to break down materials. It’s also important after the decomposition process, since unbalanced compost may cause stress to plants.
While there are companies that test the ratios of compost samples, there are easy ways to tell if the ratio is off.
Healthy compost will not smell, Vaugn said. If your compost is starting to smell, you probably need more browns. If your compost is not heating up, it may be time to add more greens.
Decomposers need adequate amounts of water and air in order to thrive -- but too much water can cause trouble. Soggy compost will begin to smell and may create a welcoming environment for harmful bacteria, fungus or bugs.
If your compost begins to smell, simply add “browns” to absorb some of the extra moisture.
“If it stinks, than it's rotting,” Vaughn said.
Making sure you compost gets air will also help mitigate smells and promote the healthy microorganisms you want. Giving your compost time to ventilate and turning it regularly will help.
How do I know when my compost is done?
Prematurely adding compost to your garden can do more harm than good. Fortunately, it’s easy to tell when your compost is ready.
“The general rule is, if the components of the compost can be identified, it is not ready for the soil,” Ringler said. “The compost will also decrease in volume. If the compost pile has not decreased significantly in size then the compost is not ready to be utilized.”
Instead, the compost should be dark brown and black in color. Good compost has the look, feel and smell of soil.
For help or answers to composting questions, Richland County residents can call the Richland County extension office at 419-747-8755.
“Composting, like most things, is a skill that takes time and experience to get the hang of it,” Ringler said. “I recommend people enjoy the process and ask questions if they are uncertain on a subject.”