If you want to reduce the amount of food you throw away or your entire household waste, there is a skill you need to master. That skill is composting, and it’s much easier to learn than you think.

If you want to get the knack of zero waste lifestyle, you must first get acquainted with the five rules devised by Bea Johnson, the initiator of the zero-waste movement. These five guidelines are known as “the Five Rs” and should be observed in the following order:

  • Refuse – Start refusing single-use items and things you don’t need;
  • Reduce – Reduce pre-packaged products to a minimum;
  • Reuse – Whenever possible, reuse whatever you can – make the most of your resources;
  • Recycle – Only after we have exhausted the previous three options can we recycle the remaining raw materials;
  • Rot – Compost the organic waste you generate.

The final tier in this pyramid corresponds to the final tier of the food recovery hierarchy, which was discussed in the previous text on composting.

Composting is the natural process of decomposition of organic matter. Under normal conditions, such as in the wilderness, microorganisms use water and air to decompose organic matter into humus. Carbon dioxide is released as nutrients are returned to the soil. The conditions at landfills are different: food leftovers and garden waste are sandwiched between plastic, metal and other raw materials on piles of mixed waste, so they don’t get the air they need for optimal decomposition. In such an environment, food takes much longer to decompose – even as many as 25 years for just one head of lettuce – and methane gets released in the process, a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide by 22 to 30 times, as different authors give different estimates. By composting, we try to avoid the landfill scenario and create conditions for an uninterrupted decomposition of our food scraps. We thus take care of the planet and also create high-quality soil rich in microorganisms, which is ideal for spring gardening endeavors.

To start composting in your apartment or house, you will need:

  • A container with a lid;
  • A tool for drilling holes
  • Branches and cardboard (technically speaking, they are brown matter, but you need them to start the compost pile);
  • Green materials;
  • Brown materials;
  • Air;

Let’s go through the basic concepts first. In order for microorganisms to carry out their task properly, they need food such as substances rich in carbon — the basic building block of the living world, which serves as their source of energy, and those rich in nitrogen, which serve as their source of protein. Foods rich in carbon are referred to as brown materials and those high in nitrogen as green materials.

Brown materials are dry raw materials: sawdust, ash, branches, dry leaves, paper, cardboard and newspapers. Green materials are fresh food that you want to compost: leftover fruits and vegetables, coffee and tea grounds, garden waste and so on.

You need to punch holes in the container and create air passages for all layers in the compost (remember: as soon as the air supply gets blocked, the process is transformed into that which releases methane). The next step is to line the bottom of the pot with twigs to help drain liquids and separate them from the compost pile. Then, place a layer of newspaper and cardboard, which will also help trap air supplies in the bottom of the container.

Now it’s time for something I like to call “lasagna laying”: first, layer some browns, such as dry leaves – you can add some ‘starter’ soil rich in microorganisms, which will help food decompose faster. Then, put a layer of greens, that is, your food scraps. Alternate browns and greens up to the top of the container, and turn the pile inside the container every seven to ten days so as to ensure aeration of all the layers. Lightly moisten your pile from time to time, as it needs moisture for smooth conversion of food scraps into humus. Make sure to find the proper position for your container. For example, if it’s on the sunny side of the balcony, your pile will need more watering as exposure to the sun will accelerate the process of decomposition of the materials and the compost pile will dry faster.

Do keep in mind that not every type of food waste should go into household compost: do not put anything greasy or processed food, animal products (meat, dairy products and egg content – shell is allowed, though), sweets, pine needles, walnut leaves, banana peel and pet feces. You do not want to have these items in the composter on your balcony, because they interfere with the process of decomposition of matter, attract pests or simply require higher decomposition temperature than you can expect to get in a container on your balcony.

When the container is filled to the top, stop mixing the compost, put a lid on it and leave it to rest for six to eight weeks. After that, your repository of high-quality fertilizer is ready. It won’t take long before you notice the difference in the amount of waste coming out of your household after you start composting.

In this week’s video, we’ll show you how to mount a composter in your apartment: