Composting 101

By Summer Seligmann, C2ST Intern, Loyola University

If you feel like you waste a lot of food, you’re not alone. In the United States, 30-40% of the food supply goes to waste. We can reduce our waste by consuming less, but some food inevitably goes bad before we can use it. If you want to divert some of that food from the landfill and give your garden some extra love, composting is the way to go.

Why should we compost?

According to the EPA, in 2018 more food ended up in landfills than any other item in our everyday trash. Food made up 24.1% of all municipal solid waste placed in landfills, for a total of 35.3 million tons of wasted food. Instead of putting all of this food waste into our landfills, we can use it for compost which provides soil with essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. 

What exactly is compost? 

Compost is decomposed organic material that is rich in nutrients and can be added to the soil. It’s commonly made from food scrap, grass clippings, decaying leaves, plants, and water. Composting takes these organic materials and speeds up the process of decomposition by creating an ideal environment for decomposers like worms, bacteria, and fungi. Composting requires a mixture of brown material, green material, and water. Brown material is the source of carbon for compost and includes things like twigs, dead leaves, shredded paper, and sawdust. Green material is the nitrogen source and it can be made from food scraps, grass clippings, eggshells, and coffee grounds. 

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Now that we know what compost is and why it’s important, what are the steps

  • First, you need to collect your food scraps. Again, this is the green material. Things like vegetable waste, tea bags (without the staple), and nutshells are among the many different types of things that can be gathered at this stage. 
  • Second, you need to find a spot for your compost bin or pile. A shady spot is a good location. If you want to use a compost bin instead of a pile, you can essentially use any container you have at home. 
  • Third, make the compost mixture. Remember this consists of brown and green material. Make sure the compost material is chopped up to aid with the decomposition process. There should be about an even mixture of brown and green materials, and water should be added to keep the compost moist. 
  • Fourth, you’ll need to turn your compost after two weeks, however, this depends on the size of your compost pile. As you turn your compost, make sure the outer areas are brought in. Microorganisms need oxygen to do their job, so proper turning and aeration are essential to the process. 
  • Finally, once the bottom portion of the pile is rich and dark in color, your compost is ready. It should no longer smell like rotting food scrap, instead, it should have an earthy smell. 

If you don’t have a yard but would like to compost, there are programs throughout Chicago that collect your compost materials for you. Many of these programs do charge for their services, but they are relatively affordable. Wastenot Compost is one of Chicago’s leading compost programs. They offer a mixture of services such as weekly compost pick up for $10 per week or biweekly pick up for $12 per service. 

Another compost service is provided by The Urban Canopy. Located on the Southside of Chicago, they offer weekly ($35/month), biweekly ($25/month), and monthly ($15/month) compost pick up. If you would like to explore other compost programs throughout Chicago, you can access them here

Helping the planet is a collective effort, but there are small steps you can take at home to reduce your impact. If you’re looking for a place to get started, composting is the way to go.

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