Egg shells, cucumber peels, orange rind, tea bags, and coffee grounds with filters all make great compost.

Fifty-six thousand Lakewood residents. Almost 25 thousand households. Presumably, every household has at least one trash can. Next month, these cans will all become obsolete as our town moves to curbside trash collection and switches to automated-truck-friendly roll-out receptacles instead. What in the world can we do with all those trash cans? It would be a shame to deposit all these still-usable, yet seemingly useless, containers in a landfill, as seems likely to be the case. What a perfect opportunity for the City of Lakewood to encourage its residents to begin composting as a way of sustaining the environment. Large scale backyard composting in the city of Lakewood could result in a significant reduction of solid waste and the resources necessary to manage it; less stress to landfills; and even reduced use of chemical fertilizers which find their way into our city’s soil, groundwater, and even food.

But why would anyone want to compost? Likely, many of us are already recycling paper, plastic, glass and metal rather than sending them to the landfill. These things, we know, take decades or centuries to degrade, if not longer. But food scraps? Those are biodegradable and don’t stress our landfills… or do they? Actually, food scraps constitute an amazing 23% of the solid waste Americans generate. All vegetation does eventually decompose, but requires oxygen to decompose in a sustainable manner. In a landfill, food scraps are buried along with other solid waste and allowed to decompose anaerobically, creating bi-products of methane gas (a major contributor to global warming) and causing acidic leaching into groundwater. However, in a compost bin with ample oxygen, the same vegetation will decompose aerobically and avoid these harmful side effects, keep the waste out of the landfill in the first place, and provide the composter with a bin of organic fertilizer for their vegetable or flower garden.

Beginning to compost at home is a relatively simple endeavor, and the necessary supplies are most likely already on hand. All you need are “green matter” (kitchen scraps); “brown matter” (material like dead leaves, sawdust, planar shavings and grass clippings); and a suitable container. Fancier composting bins are available on the market, but a standard outdoor trash can is an ideal composter. To create a compost bin out of a discarded trash can, you must drill several ½” drainage holes in the bottom and around the side of the can, approximately four inches from the bottom. Next, dig a hole in the corner of a yard approximately six inches deep and set the bin in the hole. This will keep your compost bin from tipping over and allow decomposers from the soil access to the compost. Now, all you have to do is add vegetation!

Many compostable kitchen scraps can be tossed into a smaller container indoors (an ice cream bucket works well) and added to the outdoor bin at the end of the day. Remember “once a plant, always a plant” and you won’t go wrong. Apple cores, carrot peels, salad scraps, orange rinds, pepper insides, even coffee grounds (with filters!) and tea bags can go into your compost. Even egg shells (rinsed) can be used. Certain kitchen scraps, such as bread, cheese, meat, sauce, and oil, should be avoided in small-scale backyard compost  to ward off pests and odors. It is also not recommended to add things such as pet droppings, coal, charcoal, or diseased plants. Finally, weeds from your garden should be thrown into the regular “yard waste” rather than the compost; the bin might not reach a high enough temperature to completely kill the weeds and prevent them from germinating where you spread your compost.

You can assure your friends and neighbors that you will not attract pests or varmints by having compost in your yard; your container will go unbothered. You can even leave the top uncovered and open to rain and sun as long as you always top your compost with a layer of brown matter. Your compost should not "stink" either, as long as you stick to a 50/50 ratio of “green matter” and “brown matter”.  It helps to keep a separate, covered, garbage can of dead leaves or grass clippings handy in your yard. When you empty your indoor bucket into the compost bin, simply fill the small container up again with brown matter and toss that in on top. If you notice any odors, simply add more brown matter (yard waste) and the odor will go away quickly.

Your compost should be turned/stirred once a week. A large garden shovel does the job nicely. As you turn the compost, you will notice the warmth coming from it as it decomposes – you might even notice it steaming if you turn it on a cool morning! Turning compost is really the only "hard" work involved in backyard composting-keep in mind though that if your compost goes untouched, it will still decompose, just at a slower pace. So keeping up with the compost does not need to get in the way of your other weekly tasks.  

Generally it takes about 4-6 months to make superior compost, depending on the season you start. The warmer weather will generate quicker results. Remember that smaller pieces of scraps will break down more quickly. Cutting up larger scraps, such as watermelon rind, before adding to your compost will significantly help the process. A full garbage can will reduce by about half by the time the compost is ready to use. The finished product will be dark in color, "crumbly" (you should be able to crush between your fingertips), and should smell sweet and earthy. A good rule of thumb is to fill one garbage can, then start a second while the first one rests. When your second can is full, the first one should be ready to use.

What will composting provide? Finished compost can be spread into your garden, flowerbeds, and lawns.  It will improve the health of the soil, improve the drainage of the soil, and improve the growth of your plants.  Compost naturally adds nutrients and beneficial microorganisms to soil, as well as encouraging larger natural soil builders, like earthworms, to take up residence.  Finally, as mentioned before, by composting in your yard, you are doing your part to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills.  

As our community takes on this very large scale change in our refuse collection system, many questions and concerns have been raised by the public in regards to the decision. The change is happening, though, and we are all going to be a part of this new system. So let us look at this as more than just a change, but an opportunity. An opportunity to be a part of a community that cares about caring for our planet. You have the garbage can (if not, check for them on tree lawns in May!), you have the scraps, you CAN compost!  At least give it a try before sending your garbage can to the landfill. Household by household, we can enrich our soil, enrich ourselves, enrich our community, and enrich our planet. 

For more information to get you started, type “garbage can composting” into your favorite search engine...many helpful websites are available.

Read More on In Your Backyard
Volume 5, Issue 7, Posted 6:05 AM, 04.08.2009