Today I’m celebrating Earth Day by stirring a pile of dirt in my yard. It all began five months ago, when I nearly dislocated my shoulder from hoisting a massive bag of trash into the dumpster.
“How on earth do two people produce this much garbage?” I asked myself in disgust.
That’s when I rediscovered the world of composting. My parents had a compost pile when I was a kid, but I admit I didn’t pay too much attention to the whole operation. As an adult, I’ve become aware of how much trash I contribute to the world.
As it turns out, one-third of a typical household’s waste can be composted. I could simply toss kitchen scraps outside where they will eventually decompose, but that would be a 24/7 buffet for four-legged scavengers.
I read online that it’s possible to make compost in a storage bin. I was curious, so I purchased a plastic bin, drilled some drainage holes along the bottom, and threw in last night’s dinner scraps along with some dry leaves. I waited in anticipation. Nothing happened. It started to smell really bad. Apparently there’s a minimum size for the decomposition process to work efficiently, and my container was too small.
So I did what I should’ve done in the first place. I took a look in the yard. Behind our rental house are all kinds of odds and ends: a broken BBQ grill, a rusty engine block, and dozens of pallets in various stages of decay.
I pulled five of the more structurally sound pallets from the stack and stood them up against each other, then screwed it all together to make two cubbies. From a bird’s-eye view it looks like a capital “E.” After one side is filled, you’re supposed to let it sit while filling up the other side.
Once you build a home for your compost pile, the rest is easy. The main thing is to keep a good balance between green and brown material.
Green material can be kitchen scraps like melon rinds, banana peels, coffee grounds—pretty much anything except animal byproducts. For brown material think dry leaves, sawdust, shredded paper.
A good ratio is roughly three times as much brown material as green. You can eyeball it. If the heap starts to stink, add more browns. If nothing’s rotting, add more greens.
Alternate layers like you’re making a lasagna and always top off with brown material to prevent flies from congregating. Once it’s a few layers deep, the pile will get hot and steamy. This means the microbes responsible for decomposition are working hard.
I covered my pallet structure with a large piece of cardboard to prevent rain from turning it to sludge. But the microbes like hydration, so it’s okay if things get damp.
The microbes also need oxygen. Occasionally I stir all the layers with a stick. This brings in air and allows excess moisture to escape. Otherwise, everything gets compressed instead of fluffy.
When I started my compost hobby I eagerly checked on the pallet situation every day. And every day, the contents looked exactly the same. I quickly learned that you cannot rush nature’s alchemy.
Now, five months later, the transformation is finally here. It’s gratifying to see that what would have been sealed up in the landfill has become beautiful dirt instead. I can’t wait to share it with my neighbor who has a vegetable garden.
One of the best ways to honor Earth Day is to take a break from buying stuff and take a second glance at what we already own. A lot of things can be repurposed. Now I just need to figure out what to do with the hole-y plastic bin that commemorates my failed compost experiment…
Don’t be like me and go buy more plastic to do something good for the environment! Take a look around. You may already have everything you need right where you are.