This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

APRIL 2011 (links updated 2014): So many benefits, so easy to do—and you don't even need a yard. What's stopping you?

Compost Now!
The best green living activity for Earth Day and every day

Composting has more going for it than almost any other single green living practice I can think of.

Instead of sending your food and yard scraps to the landfill, you throw them in a heap or bin with some other materials where they decompose. When the compost is "mature," you use it on your garden and/or potted plants to help them grow. If you can't make use of it yourself, you donate or sell it to those who can.

There are so many benefits to home composting, I have to make a list:

  1. Composting reduces the amount of waste you send to the landfill. An Environmental Protection Agency report from 2007 estimates that Americans could keep 140 pounds of waste per person per year out of the landfill by composting. What's the trouble with landfills? See the sidebar to learn.

  2. Composting turns your waste into a useful product—and it does so without requiring additional resources. Compare this to recycling, where energy must be used to transport waste to the municipal recycling facility, sort the waste, transport it to manufacturers, produce new products with it, and then send the finished products back in the other direction—to stores and, ultimately, homes and businesses.

  3. Using compost in your garden reduces the need for water and fertilizers and helps eliminate the need for pesticides. The reasons, in a nutshell, are that compost improves the soil's moisture management, regulates the soil's pH, provides nutrients on a slow-release basis and suppresses certain plant diseases. In addition, it can bind and degrade some pollutants in the plant's growing environment and help control erosion.

  4. Composting provides you with a valuable experiential lesson in the cycles of nature and the folly of our throwaway culture that is likely to lead to other waste-saving measures as time goes by. It's also a great way to teach environmental stewardship to kids if you get them involved.
What all this adds up to is a beautiful garden and a more sustainable household for you—and healthier soil, cleaner water and a more stable climate for us all.

Do you have reservations that composting can work for you? Let me address some common concerns.

Time/Complexity. If you're worried that composting takes too much time—or requires learning about complicated brown/green (carbon/nitrogen) ratios—have no fear. There is a laissez-faire method called cold composting that's just for you. While it works slowly and does not necessarily produce compost of the highest order, it will still enrich your soil and put your waste to good use in the process. Those with a more gung-ho attitude—and a need for quicker results—should try hot composting.

Cost. Over the long haul, the money you save in garden maintenance—from lower water, fertilizer and pesticide bills—should more than cancel out any composting start-up expenses. Moreover, start-up expenses can be kept very low. Compost bins can be had for very little money or you can build your own bin or go with a compost pile, trench or hole. That leaves the price of a few tools, which, depending on the type of composting you do, might include such things as a compost turner, compost thermometer and container for kitchen scraps.

No Yard. Even if you live in an apartment without a balcony, much less a yard, you can still compost kitchen scraps indoors, using a technique called vermiculture, which is, essentially, composting with worms. Sadly, you won't be able to apply the finished compost to a garden of your own—unless you have a plot in a community garden—but you can use it for your house plants, give it to friends or donate it to a local school or park, among other places. Compost can even be given away on freecycle or sold on ebay.

Bad Back/Lack of Strength. You do not have to be a fit young thing in order to turn and aerate the compost. A type of bin known as a compost tumbler will enable you to turn it without strain. Some patient folks don't bother turning it at all, knowing that everything decomposes eventually.

Pests. You can take preventative measures to discourage pests that pose a problem in your area, such as keeping meat, dairy, grains and oils out of your compost; covering all "greens" with a thick layer of "browns"; aerating the compost frequently; using a pest-resistant bin; siting the bin appropriately; and wrapping the bin in hardware cloth—plus other steps to deter bears. Or you can compost your food scraps indoors (see above).

So, what are you waiting for? Earth Day's right around the corner. And even if it weren't, the time to begin composting is now.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

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On This Topic

ANYBODY CAN COMPOST. In this video guide, Jodie Colon, Compost Educator at Bronx Green-Up, shows you just how easy it is to compost, using dead, dry leaves and stems, fresh green plant materials and food scraps.

THE TROUBLE WITH LANDFILLS. They are smelly, unsightly land hogs and no one wants to live near them. As a result, more and more garbage is being trucked to far-off locations, which increases greenhouse gas emissions and worsens global warming.

In addition, landfills contribute directly to global warming by releasing the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere.

Then there are the leaks that result from even the best-designed landfills. (Nothing's perfect, after all.) When leaks occur, the chemically laced liquid, called leachate, can contaminate soil and groundwater supplies.

We're not going to get rid of landfills any time soon, but reducing the amount of trash we put in them would be a step in the right direction.

Bokashi bin
HOW TO COMPOST ANIMAL PRODUCTS. Do you wish you could compost meat and dairy foods along with herbivorous fare? You can, using an Asian fermentation process called bokashi. The process is similar to traditional composting and just as simple.


Go West, Garbage Can!

Benefits of Using Compost

University of Illinois Extension
Composting for the Homeowner

North Shore Recycling Program
Harvesting and Using Compost

Mother Nature Network
Simple Instructions for Indoor Composting

NRDC Smarter Living
NYC Composting...With or Without Worms (Video)

The Compost Gardener
Bokashi Composting

Association of Bay Area Governments

More to Do

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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.
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