Composting, or The Low-Down Dirty Guide to Dirt

Now that we have a nice roomy backyard and a better chance to actually grow stuff, I’ve finally thrown myself into composting. Friends have been trying to get me to do it for years. I barely started two weeks ago, coincidentally just in time for Earth Day. I can’t believe it took me this long.

It’s silly that I resisted doing something that has turned out to be so simple, yet so consequential. I didn’t realize how consequential until I did a little research on the topic. Personally, I was only aiming to get my hands on better gardening soil, and maybe to cut down on stinky indoor trash and plastic trash bags — but suddenly I’ve found lots of even better reasons for composting.

Landfills, for one. We all know that landfills are a problem, right? They’re stinky, they take up all kinds of space, and they’re not going anywhere. They are too huge and too full of crap to ever decompose properly. Not that we’d even want them to, as their poisonous sludge just ends up in our groundwater.

I mean, have you seen Wall-E? Lovable sentient robots aside, those towering landfills are a more-than-likely part of our future. Landfills as big as mountains and their inevitable avalanches have already started happening, in fact, as reported recently in Ethiopia.

But let’s shift back to the first world for a second, and pick on Minnesota. (Only because I came across a recycling website from there in my how-to-compost search.) In a typical Minnesota household, it says, the garbage tin that gets picked up and taken to the landfill contains 53% recyclable materials, 25% compostable materials, and only 22% actual garbage.

Wouldn’t you feel better about sending 78% less trash to the landfill? I know I would. But it’s more than just about saving space, or the energy to transport that much waste. I cannot explain the impact of this better than they did. Please forgive the long quote, but it’s important: “When food scraps decompose in the anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions of a landfill, they create methane, a greenhouse gas that has heat trapping capabilities 23-71 times greater than carbon dioxide. Landfills are the single largest direct human source of methane. In addition, as the food scraps decompose and ooze through the surrounding trash, they pick up other toxins and create highly toxic sludge—called leachate—that leaks into the ground water. Incinerators emit carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas that is 310 times more powerful in atmospheric warming than carbon dioxide. Burning food waste is not efficient and on average, incinerators in the U.S. emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour than coal-fired, natural-gas fired, or oil-fired power plants.”

Yikes. Landfills are the single largest direct human source of methane. Methane = bad. Either we let the food decompose, which creates leachate, or we incinerate it, which creates nitrous oxide. Both leachate and nitrous oxide = bad.

You know what makes all this bad news even worse? When I was doing research for my food waste post last year, I wasn’t quite prepared to tackle landfills and methane and all that, so I left out a little tidbit from NPR that “wasted food is the largest component of solid waste in our landfills.”

Double yikes. Landfills are bad and wasted food is the largest part of them?? Food waste = bad!!!

The worst part of all, of course, is that wasting food is totally avoidable. There are different ways to shop, and different ways to cook, all of which can significantly help cut down on waste. But despite our best efforts, we all know that there will still be waste, right? How much better off would we be, then, if we could avoid tossing this waste in our plastic trash bags? It would be better for our kitchens, better for our wallets, and apparently, better bigtime for the earth.

Plus — and the whole reason I started — it’s better for our gardens! Food waste can be a good thing, in fact, because it helps us create something beautiful: a nutrient-rich black gold that fertilizes our lawns, plants and flowers, fruits and vegetables. Compost doesn’t stink (or shouldn’t, anyway), and it never expires. It never goes bad. It just waits for us. If we end up with too much, it can always be bottled up and given away as gifts to gardening friends!

OK, so there’s more than enough reasons to compost. For me, the question was always how to get started. I thought it would be complicated. Like I would need special containers, special tools, at least a green thumb. I’ll never forget how a gardening friend of mine described composting to me when I asked her how it’s done. She could see that I was intimidated by the topic, and so she spoke slowly and in short sentences for me. “You put your kitchen scraps in a bowl. You take it outside. You throw it in a pile of leaves.” She looked at me, staring at her with anticipation, wondering if I should take notes. She finished with a dramatic flourish: “You come back inside.”

“That’s it?” I laughed. “But isn’t it more complicated than that? Something to do with brown-to-green ratios, and oxygenation, and turning frequencies?”

“Some people certainly try to make it complicated,” she said, “but it’s totally not necessary.”

I’ve taken her words to heart. I’m not going to worry about carbon vs nitrogen, or temperature readings, or oxygenation-whatever. Neighbors who’ve been composting all along agree: it’s super easy. You don’t even need a special container for it, only a spot of lawn or ground. About the only tool you might want to have is a rake or shovel for mixing wet and dry materials every now and then. Some people keep an airtight container inside the kitchen for their food scraps, so they don’t have to go to the compost pile so often, but I just throw mine in a bowl that’s already been dirtied from the cooking process, and toss it every night. One less thing to find a home for in the kitchen, in my opinion, and also less stink.

So the only question that remained for me was what exactly could and couldn’t be composted. Food and veg scraps, plus yard waste, yeah, yeah, I get it. But for some reason when I was standing over the trash can inside the kitchen, I still had questions. Like what about banana peels? Or avocado pits? (Yes and yes, it turns out. Though planting new avocado trees is even better.) So I went online and consulted several lists, found more than a few surprises, fretted over a few contradictions, and compiled all the information I could glean into a one-page cheat sheet for myself. Yes, I’m a little OCD. But I’d love to share the fruits of my labor with you, if you’d like to join me (I hope you do!) and need a starting point yourself.

Composting Cheat Sheet

You’re welcome. And also — thank you. Landfill-eating robots and the earth itself thank you!


  1. Great job, Jenn! I love the background information on Minnesota and the effects of waste in landfills in general. It couldn’t be more timely for me too. My local citizens group has just decided to fight the dirty 20-year-old incinerator in our county and move toward zero waste. I’m going to two conferences in May to learn more about how to shut down an incinerator and how to set up a zero waste program in your area. We definitely don’t want to create more landfills. The best model I’ve seen that is moving towards zero waste is San Francisco’s plan.


  2. My dear Granddaughter<
    I'm so happy that you are on the band wagon for less waste! Your Grandpa and I have been recycling for years but Topeka has now made it easy by telling us we can put everything recyclable in the same barrel and they pick it up every other week. We have a half bag full of waste every week. We don't compost here in town but we did when we lived on the acreage and had a garden. We agree there is too much wasted food and so many people that need it!
    Love, Grandma


    1. For my next trick, I’ll talk about putting what’s called a “seed” in the ground, adding water, and can you believe this — something grows!!
      LOL. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
      Love you Grandma. Happy Mother’s Day!


  3. “OK, so there’s more than enough reasons to compost. For me, the question was always how to get started. I thought it would be complicated. Like I would need special containers, special tools, at least a green thumb.” — this is so relatable! 😄 Turns out, composting is simple and easy!


  4. Very interesting! Who knows, you may get me started compositing! I’ll keep the composting cheat sheet handy!


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