There have been times when I’ve decided to bury my vegetable food waste in a hole rather than throwing it away. This is not always possible, but it is the simplest form of composting: returning nutrients to the ground, adding some carbon (dry leaves), and covering it back up. This may not be possible for everyone, but if you’re in a pinch it is a simple alternative. I usually freeze my vegetable scraps, and find good places to bury it when I have the chance. I don’t recommend burying your food out in grizzly country, but at times it can be a very viable solution. Or you can keep a pile going above ground, making sure to turn it from time to time.
If we are not volunteering on a farm, we are usually on the road, hiking, or living in a national park. The only park I have lived in that has a composting facility is Yellowstone (which is actually pretty cool; read more here: yellowstonecompost) but otherwise we have assumed that we cannot compost and all of our good organic food scraps end up in the dumpster. Since we never had space, lived anywhere long enough to establish a compost, and are almost always living in bear country, composting just didn’t seem like an option. But there are ways! Anyone can compost, it turns out. Even in bear country, and even without a yard.
I am fascinated by the amount of food waste in our country. It is quite sad, really. Did you know that about 40% of our food ends up in the landfills? Much of that food is perfectly good too, and could be distributed to people who need it. What’s worse is that all of this food in the landfill is producing methane, a greenhouse gas that is emitted into the atmosphere when it could be used as real energy. With a simple process, food waste and even human waste can be digested anaerobically and the methane that is produced can be harnessed and used to provide electricity or fuel gas stoves. When Tony and I were in Nepal two winters ago, we lived with a family on an organic coffee farm and they had a system just like this. They had a typical Nepali “squatty potty,” and the contents went down into a deep chamber. All of the animal poop was also sent into this chamber where it was all digested and turned into usable methane that fueled their stove! They told us that the Nepali government had paid many families to have the system installed about 10 years prior and it was still going strong. It’s a shame that all of that methane in our landfills is being wasted.
I highly recommend listening to this 20-minute NPR radio report on the amount of food being sent to the landfills. It gives some helpful tips on how to reduce this number. Check it out here: foodwaste
So, back to burying food. We were in a position a while back to bury our food. We thought: why not bury it in the backyard? We pretty much live off of organic vegetables and grains (if we make ice cream we eat it all) so our food waste is minimal and harmless. We froze it so that it doesn’t attract insects while in our kitchen, and when the bin was full, we went outside and buried it. At the time our backyard was forested and already has some nice rich soil, so we just picked a spot, dug about a foot down, spread the scraps on the bottom, added some dry leaves to get some carbon in the mix, and covered it back up. You would never know. It decomposed quickly, with all of the good life in the forest soil already. In fact, I have planted some food over one of our compost holes a few weeks after burying the scraps and the soil was nice and rich. This isn’t a permanent solution, of course, but a solution in a pinch. I later did a little search and found out that other people do this too! It is called the “Dig and Drop” method. Pretty hobo, but it works.
Not everyone has the luxury of having a forested backyard with inconspicuous places to bury their food scraps, but if you have a backyard, you can set up a traditional composting station. This can be just a designated spot in the yard with some plywood separating two or three stations so you can turn and rotate your compost. There are a lot of resources out there that can lead you to easy DIY set-ups.
But for those of us who do not have backyards, and who cannot get away with digging a bunch of holes, there is vermicomposting! I am super excited about this. This will be one of the new things we try this summer in our attempt to become nomadic homesteaders. We will be in bear country, and I’m not so sure the Park Service will want us to bury our food all over the forest, so we are going to get us some worms. I didn’t realize how easy this was. This method is perfect for people who live in apartments or who do not want to use up yard space. All you need are a couple of big rubbermaid bins, some bedding (like newspaper strips or dry leaves) and some worms. You will need to drill some holes in the bottom and sides of the first bin, place it in the second bin, prepare some bedding, get yourself about a pound of some red worms, keep it under your sink or in a dark place, and feed your worms your food scraps! You will then be able to change your potentially harmful food scraps into usable compost for your garden. And if you don’t have a garden, you can give your compost to the nearest tree. I have not done this yet, but I am going to set this up as soon as we move next month, and I will post updates then.
Here is a link to some simple vermicompost set-up plans: vermicompost
And here is a link to a fabulous website that will answer all of your questions, and provide you with some worms: redwormcomposting. You can also hit up your local tackle shop to pick up some worms.
There are some other interesting ways to compost in your kitchen, like bokashi composting, which uses a fermentation process that can easily digest meat and cheese as well! I don’t know as much about this, but here is a very useful website if you are interested: bokashicomposting
Wikipedia also has a very useful page on composting. Check it out: compost
Some day we will have a permaculture farm and the chickens and pigs will take care of our food scraps, but for now I’ll get myself some worms. You too can easily convert your food waste into something useful instead of sending it to the landfill. You may not be able to set up a biodigester, but you can get some worms or start a pile. Eventually it is a goal of mine to not own a garbage can. Plastic is another story for another day. Happy composting!