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Composting 101: Repurposing food waste for beginners

Confused about composting? Contributor Catherine Morrison breaks down the process with this handy guide on repurposing kitchen scraps to reduce landfill waste.


Catherine Morrison, Contributor

Composting enriches soil, helps retain moisture and suppresses plant diseases. (Gabriel Jimenez / Unsplash)

During a time when Canadians are cooking for themselves and eating meals at home more than ever, it’s especially important to acknowledge the environmental impact of food waste and the role composting plays in reducing it. According to a 2017 report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, Canadians waste an estimated 170 kilograms of food per person each year.


Food waste represents more than a societal issue of over-consumption—it has direct consequences for the environment. The methane produced by rotting food waste in landfills is 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. While there are different ways for individuals and companies to reduce food waste, composting is an effective solution you can do at home. More than 72 per cent of the items that end up in landfills can be composted. Composting helps repurpose food waste by turning scraps into fertilizer that can be used to grow more food. Starting your own backyard compost may seem like a daunting task for beginners, but it doesn’t have to be. Read on for a list of tips and tricks to get comfortable with composting.


Setting up your station


For those living in apartments and municipalities with compost pickup services, composting is easy to do at home. To start, make sure your municipality has provided you with a green bin for organic matter. If it hasn't, purchase a smaller composting container to keep in the kitchen to make regular composting easier. When you’re ready to compost, line the small container with a compostable bag or another form of bag allowed by your municipality to easily transfer your food waste to the green bin. Just like recycling and garbage pickup services, there should be a designated day for compost pickup. Check your local composting calendar and remember to put out your green bin on the correct day.


For those who live in municipalities without composting services, there’s vermicomposting. Also known as worm composting, vermicomposting involves creating a worm bin by placing earthworms (typically red wigglers) into a plastic bin, wooden crate or unused fish tank where you’ll store your scraps. The bin should be lined with damp, non-coloured newspaper as well as a few cups of soil and some water to create a comfortable environment for the worms, which will decompose your food scraps and turn them into nutrient-rich soil perfect for gardening. The worms can only digest certain types and sizes of scraps, making this practice a little more complicated. Scraps must be cut into small pieces, and the worms cannot digest meat, bones, oil or dairy.


If you have a yard, you can also set up an outdoor compost pile. Outdoor compost piles are the most traditional form of composting and involve creating a pile of organic waste made of lawn clippings, manure and food scraps. When setting up an outdoor pile, create a designated space for food waste separate from the rest of your garden. Make sure this space is on bare earth, so that wild worms have better access to the waste—they’ll be working relentlessly to break it down! Piles should be mixed and watered occasionally. They should also be covered with a lid so that the organic matter can be broken down into ‘humus’—the nutrient-rich organic matter that builds healthy soils. To keep out animals, consider purchasing a composting unit or building a custom container with wood scraps or spare bins.


Knowing what to compost


Compostable material is often split into two categories—the greens and the browns. Brown items are carbon-rich materials, like dead leaves, twigs and cardboard. Green items are nitrogen-rich materials and constitute most kitchen scraps, such as fruits, vegetables eggshells, coffee grounds and grass clippings. The recommended ratio for a compost pile is four parts brown to one part green. For those using outdoor compost piles, remember to compost in layers and alternate between dry scraps and moist materials.


Not all items are suitable for composting. (Zipcar.com)

Composting during the winter


While it may seem like outdoor composting is only doable during the summer months, you can actually compost throughout the year. However, composting in the winter may require more work. In order for the materials to decompose during the colder months, you will need to hold onto leaves from the summer and fall to insulate the pile. During the winter, it’s also crucial that you make sure the pile is covered with a tight lid to avoid freezing—cold temperatures will slow or stop the decomposition process.

Whether you choose worm bins or outdoor piles, composting is a great way of repurposing food scraps and reducing household waste. So give it a try this summer and do your part in reducing your community’s environmental footprint.


Terra Observer Magazine is the passion project of two soon-to-be journalism grads who care deeply about Ontario's natural spaces and advocate for their preservation for future generations.

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