Tired of wasting food? Here's how to start composting in Austin.
As part of our Garbage Week series, KUT asked listeners to submit their tips to reduce the amount of trash they throw away. Several folks recommended setting aside food and yard waste for composting.
Through composting, nutrients from food scraps and yard waste can return to the soil, instead of ending up in a landfill and turning into methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
But starting a composting bin can be a little daunting. Thankfully, there are resources and options available for would-be composters in Austin.
South Austin resident Roberta Leahy has been composting for about 10 years. She uses outdoor pallets to create a square space for a composting pile in her yard.
“You peel a carrot … you husk a corn, you have something that went bad, you put it in the compost,” Leahy said.
According to the City of Austin, backyard composting piles should be one part nitrogen-rich “greens,” like grass, eggshells, and fruit and vegetable scraps; and three parts carbon-rich “browns,” like leaves, paper or bark. The smaller the scraps, the faster the decomposition.
Items that should not go in the compost pile include meats, dairy products, waxed or glossy paper, synthetic fibers and anything that is not biodegradable. Some items that can't be composted in your backyard can be taken to the city’s commercial composting center.
Leahy builds a pile of food scraps and leaves over the course of a year. She then lets it sit and decompose for another year until it becomes compost.
“One year, you’re piling, piling, piling. The next year, you leave it alone,” she said.
Waste will completely decompose at different times: If you add in food scraps and lawn clippings and turn the mixture weekly, it will be "finished" — completely reduced to soil — in three to four months. If you turn the mixture monthly, it may take eight months to a year.
Finished compost will be dark brown or black, and have an earth-like smell. Leahy, who doesn't turn her compost pile, says it takes about two years for her compost to be “finished.” She uses the resulting soil in her garden.
“If you know the geology of Austin, there’s a Balcones fault line that parallels I-35. East of there, the soil has this clay in it that’s hard to manage,” Leahy said. “That’s why I need a lot of compost if I’m going to grow something. … I mix in a lot of compost, horse manure and household compost, so that I have manageable soil.”
Backyard composting is a relatively easy way to reduce what goes to a landfill and add nutrients to soil. It’s also relatively easy to start: All you need is a place in your yard, leaves and some food scraps.
Indoor composting is an alternative if you live in an apartment or don’t want to use up yard space. Indoor bins vary in size; use a bin that reflects the size of your family.
There are two main types of indoor composting: vermicomposting and aerobic composting. Vermicomposting uses worms to break down organic material. The worms eat the microorganisms in the yard scraps and food materials, and then poop out nutrients and bacteria that aid plant growth. It's important to note that regular earth worms won't do the trick because they don't process the waste in the same way. Instead, go for red worms.
Aerobic composting doesn't require anything extra, instead relying on microorganisms living in the organic material to break everything down.
There are several pros to indoor composting: You can compost in a small space and you don’t have to put in as much effort protecting the collected waste from the weather. Many indoor composting bins are also outfitted to prevent odors from pervading your home.
One concern is attracting insects, though. To avoid this, try to limit the amount of waste that is exposed to air. A general rule for avoiding pests, whether you’re composting indoors or collecting food scraps for outdoor or city composting, is to put your bin in the freezer.
“I had to share this because it's been such a game-changer!” Jake G. wrote to KUT. “I struggled with my small indoor compost bin attracting pests. To fix this, I started putting my bin in the freezer. It has kept pests away and also kept my kitchen smelling nice overall.”
Composting through the city
If composting at home sounds like a big endeavor, there are more low-effort strategies. Folks can leave bins full of food, food-soiled paper, yard trimmings and natural fibers outside their houses for pickup through the city's curbside collection program.
The program is limited to residents of single-family homes, but Austin has conducted a pilot program to bring curbside composting to multifamily homes, like apartments and assisted living centers. Residents who cannot participate in the city’s program can drop off food and yard waste at community gardens or farmers markets.
One benefit of the city program is that the commercial-composting facility Austin uses can process items that can't normally be composted in a backyard.
Austin resident Paul Clarke has been composting for six to seven years. He uses the city compost program in addition to composting in his backyard.
“The things that don’t go well into mine go into the city’s,” he said. “Bones and fat and things like that go into the city, and I try to put the rest in mine.”
Residents place their city-provided composting bins out on the curb on their collection days. They can also place up to 15 items next to the composting bins for pick up, like branches or bags of leaves.
To help the environment in a less messy way, you can also buy products made from compost, like soil or mulch.
“I try to be conscious about my impact on the world,” Clarke said. “I see everything I throw in the trash, and I kind of wonder, you know, ‘What’s the long term impact of that?’ Composting is one way to limit that.”