Better living through compost

by Jennifer Knoch

Whether you live in a high rise or have a magnificent yard, compost is a great everyday intervention that creates beautiful soil and cuts back on greenhouse gases. In Toronto, our food (and yard) waste goes one of three places:

To the landfill, where it (eventually) rots in an oxygen-starved environment, releasing methane, the greenhouse gas supervillain 20x more powerful than CO2. In 2017 in the U.S., 22% of landfill-bound trash was, you guessed it, food waste. (Another 6% was compostable lawn trimmings.) In Ontario, as of 2015, 32% of our waste stream was organic waste. That same year, food waste accounted for 5% of Ontario’s greenhouse gases. If we doubled the amount of food waste we recovered, it would be the equivalent of keeping over 260,000 cars off the road each year.

To a municipal compost program (aka a green bin program). In Toronto organic waste goes through an anaerobic digestion process (basically a big microorganism slurry), which produces methane, but the city is currently working with Enbridge to turn that into renewable natural gas that can be injected into the grid. (By the way, did you know you don’t need a compostable bag for your green bin in Toronto? All the plastic [biodegradable or otherwise] is spun off before the organics are processed.)

To your own backyard (and/or indoor compost set-up), where it breaks down aerobically more slowly, leaving you with your own hyperlocal supersoil.

If you’ve got some outdoor space, give composting a try. You don’t need any special equipment (some people literally just throw their stuff in a pile, but that will make it most tempting to vermin), others build wooden bins (about one cubic yard is a recommended size), and some, like me, use pre-fab plastic bins. The main thing to do is to try to include roughly three parts browns (i.e., carbon-rich material, such as dried leaves, pine needles, woodchips, sawdust, egg cartons, shredded paper, cardboard) to one part greens (i.e., nitrogen-rich material, such as kitchen scraps, lawn trimmings, manure from herbivores, green plant matter). Add water as necessary so the pile stays damp, like a wrung-out sponge, and turn with a pitchfork or shovel whenever you think of it. (The more oxygen your pile gets, the faster it will break down.) If not much is happening, add some greens. If it’s getting smelly (it shouldn’t smell!) add more browns. I give mine about a year to break down before I apply it to the garden.

Fresh worm castings from Karma’s worm bin!

Adopt a few hundred pets.

Don’t have an outdoor space but want that nutrient-rich gold? Follow Karma’s lead and set up a worm compost (aka vermicompost). Hard-working worms can thrive in everything from modest Rubbermaid containers drilled with holes to pretty slick set-ups that could pass for an end table. You do need to get some special worms — red wrigglers — but you can buy those from places like Cathy’s Crawly Composters or Toronto Worms, or check Kijiji and Craigslist. (Or ask a friend who has some — these bad boys love to breed.) Worms don’t like certain scraps (like citrus) and require some kind of bedding (shredded newspaper is common), but they can digest a fair amount of food matter, and vermicompost is the gold standard of compost. (So potent, many gardeners brew it into a plant-boosting tea.)

Find compost collaborators.

Any gardener will tell you there’s no such thing as too much compost. I have a few people from local high rises that save their food scraps in the freezer, and when they have enough, drop them directly into my composter. They divert their waste; I get more fertilizer and am happy to share some of the spoils of their spoiled food. A great place for compost matchmaking is ShareWaste.com.