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Around the Columns

Clean your plate and the environment

When it comes to food waste in America, the numbers aren’t appetizing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans throw away one-fourth of all prepared food. More than 12 percent of all landfill contents come from America’s dinner plate, the Environmental Protection Agency reports.

Recycling can help fix the problem, and the easiest way to recycle food is by composting — nature’s recycling program. Compost is partially decomposed organic matter, and it often is worked into gardens to enrich soil. But Christopher Starbuck, associate professor of plant sciences, sees composting more as a way to dispose of waste than as a method to produce a soil supplement.

Making a pile out of organic refuse typically is the easiest way to compost, and compost bins provide a contained area to process nearly all of a household’s food waste. “Choose a bin that fits your price range and lifestyle,” Starbuck says. “Almost any bin will work if you learn how to manage it.” Whatever you choose, it should be large enough to hold several bushels of material. The larger the volume, the easier it is to manage the composting process.

“If the bin is located where it can be seen by neighbors and visitors, most people prefer to have one that looks neat and tidy,” Starbuck says. Beyond that, you should get a bin that has a secure lid to help discourage critters from getting inside. Most bins have vents that allow air to enter. Starbuck doesn’t think a door in the side of the bin is necessary to shovel out compost. “It’s generally easiest to pick the bin up and move it to a new location, allowing easy access to the compost inside,” Starbuck says.

In your small, household compost pile, don’t compost meat and dairy. To get started, line the bottom of the compost bin with a layer of food scraps, then a layer of soil. Some fertilizer might be necessary, but food waste generally contains enough nitrogen that it is not necessary to add fertilizer like you might for composting leaves. Continue adding food waste. After you have about three layers of organic materials, mix the contents of the bin and start the layering process again.

If dragging your plate outside isn’t appealing, try worms — but not just any worms — red wigglers. Starbuck keeps a half-pound of them in a container under his kitchen sink. The wigglers happily dine on his discarded produce, turning it into compost.  — David Wietlispach

Learn more about composting.