Composting: Nothing is Wasted

[This post is part of our continuing series on crafting loving landscapes, organized under the Back to the Garden tag.)

Apropos to our discussion of food waste last week, our friend Alice sent us a clipping from the Wall Street Journal about industry response to the problem of food wastage. (Thanks, Alice!) It seems that appliance and household-product manufacturers have, through consultation and study, discovered that consumers feel deep-seated guilt about wasting food.

“It’s a guilt that doesn’t only have to do with money. It just feels wrong,” says Gaston Vaneria, vice¬† president of marketing for Newell Rubbermaid Inc.’s Rubbermaid consumer line, which includes food storage containers. “Consumers have the feeling of not being competent…”¬† (WSJ, April 22, 2015, D1)

Despite our guilt, according the WSJ, we’re wasting more food all the time. We’re wasting three times more than we wasted in 1960. That makes sense in lots of ways, including the advent of all these super-sized retailers with their perverse economies of scale inducing us to buy food in huge quantities, combined with, perhaps, a greater recent emphasis on eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, but oddly, we’re somehow wasting 20% more now than we did in just back in 2000.

The response of the industry to our guilt is–of course–to offer us more crap to choke the landfills new consumer products to address our needs, everything from smart refrigerators which promise to keep veggies longer, to plastic storage containers with replaceable charcoal filters in the lids.

My response, as you probably predicted, is to suggest that we deal with our guilt and our rotten vegetables by first, trying not to be so wasteful, and second, by composting, because spoiled food is not the end of a journey, it’s simply the beginning of a new journey.

O, Compost, my Compost! It’s hard not to get sappy about my love for compost. If I could write a poem to compost, I would. And I don’t think I’m alone in my compostophilia. Many clear-headed, rational individuals who I know will get a little sentimental, if not downright metaphysical, when they talk about what their compost piles mean to them.

Forget that compost is the best way to keep green matter out of the landfills, to save space and reduce methane emissions into the atmosphere. Forget about the great good compost does for the life of the soil. Forget that compost is the alpha and omega of organic gardening, and that any good gardener doesn’t like to see so much as a carrot peel go to waste, because it seems you can never have enough compost. No, just forget the vast practical utility of compost and think about what it symbolizes.

Compost is the purest alchemy. It is the nigredo, the black matter of putrefaction, which is the first step on the path to creating the philosopher’s stone.

As we tend the pile, we see the scraps and clippings, recognizable at first, wither and dissolve slowly into the whole, and we think about our own individuality, our own fates, and the way our lives give back to the world.

We see how nourishment can come out of loss, how new experience rises out of past mistakes.

We see also the great cycle of life. Everything changes, but nothing is lost.

What can compost not accept? What can it not forgive?

Simply put, keeping a compost pile is good is as good for your soul as it is for your soil.

Waste Not

If you can’t keep a compost pile, agitate to make your city adopt more comprehensive “green waste” policies. Many cities have disposal bins for yard trimmings, which are composted at city facilities, but we need community composting facilities to capture and reclaim food waste from homes, schools, businesses and restaurants.

You also may be able to keep a worm bin if you can’t keep a compost pile, and we’ll talk more about those soon.

If you want to start a compost pile, check out this comprehensive, free pdf booklet from Cornell University on the topic.

I’d also recommend keeping your eye out for classes–free composting classes offered by various community agencies are pretty easy to come by, and sometimes they even come with free or discounted bins.

As you get into it, you’ll find there are different styles of composting. Don’t let this confuse you or put you off. The most important thing to remember is that you can find a method that works for you. Don’t get hung up on looking for the perfect solution, just start any way you can. You can refine as you go. Compost doesn’t mind.

And I’m not even going to talk about the…uh…fertile frontier of human waste composting here–but you know we’re always thinking about it!

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23 Comments

  1. Skin of roasted peppers
    Shares last summer with compost
    Shines again in growth

    You said you wanted a poem about compost. I have several.

  2. You and I are in the same zone with this! It is metaphysical, and philosophical…and dare I say “Religiousophical” (hey a new word!)
    I’ve been preaching to my teen daughters lately that making compost is a religious experience…you know the whole Christian concepts of ashes to ashes, dust to dust, Rising from the dead, etc…Nothing is really dead, for when we leave this existence our bodies are recycled back into the web of Life all over again….Eternity!

  3. Composting can be a great social binder as well. Asking your neighbors (and even local businesses) to collect their food scraps and other compostable waste for your garden or livestock is a way to increase communication, cooperation and community. It also makes those involved more mindful and likely to start gardening themselves. One must be careful about what is collected, of course, but on the whole I’ve encountered few downsides to having the neighbors involved in this way.

  4. Do you have any experience with bokashi composting? I am trying to find out more about it since it may be easier for me to use. Unfortunately the library does not have the only printed book I could find, “Bokashi composting” by A.Footer.

  5. Thank you. Feel the same way about compost.
    Just wanted to share about human waste composting, we do that at the small community I live in Portugal. It’s so easy and the most (eco)logical thing to do. Giving back to the Earth what we have received!

  6. Last night was the night for all the garden “waste” bins to go out in our neighbourhood (Melbourne, Australia). I needed some green matter to add to the manure and autumn (fall) leaves I have been collecting so I “stole” the contents of my neighbours green waste bin. All nicely pruned bits and pieces and already generating heat just from being in the bin

  7. Awesome post! I am also definitely a compostophiliac. The scent of finished compost is incomparable. I’ll put out a second vote for worm composting if you don’t have enough space for the regular kind.

    Also, did you mean to say “simply put, keeping a compost pile is as good for your soul as it is for your soil”? I really like that phrase.

    • Argh! Thanks, Jake. I did mean soul. Coulda sworn I typed soul, too.

      And the scent!! I should have mentioned the scent!

  8. This post got me to finally pull the trigger on starting my own worm bin for my apartment. I’ve been thinking about it for a couple years now, and last fall I bought Worms Eat My Garbage after hearing about it on one of your podcasts. I researched, I read, I ordered a Worm Inn! Thank you!

  9. This brings back to me a memory from 40 years ago of what my botany professor once said: “Refrigerators are places we keep thing until they look so bad we don’t feel guilty throwing them away”.

  10. You hit something that’s been bothering me lately. Why do we think we can keep buying ourselves out of the earth’s problems? On Earth Day I was sick with the amount of products that were offered, instead of the message that we should use less, use what we already have, or buy used. And my daughter’s class focused exclusively on recycling. I don’t know what happened to the first two R’s – Reduce and Reuse, but I think corporate America realized that those two words meant people spending less, so the focus turned to recycling. Which should be a last resort.

    • I agree on all points, Carolyn. I think instead of the three R’s, our three word mantra should be, “Buy less stuff”. Reusing and recycling come naturally when the flood of stuff coming in slows to a more reasonable pace. I reming myself of this every time the pretty gardening catalogs filled with toys I don’t need come in the mail.
      –Heather in CA

    • Funny. You remind me of something I used to say so often to my now-27-year-old son that he started repeating it as a mantra: reusing is better than recycling. He now lives in France, and his attitude is echoed far more strongly in the culture there than it ever was here.

    • Heather, I am the same way. Usually I look at the gardening catalogs with envy and then have to ‘get a grip’ on myself. Jane, I was recently in Italy and it was the same way! It’s nice to be relieved of the burden of being a consumer.

  11. I, too, wax lyrical about compost. Loved Jane’s poems. I really enjoy, I mean _love_, turning the pile every couple of weeks. Seeing all my guilty mistakes turning into beautiful crumbly soil is so comforting. It gives me hope that if we work with nature instead of against it, maybe some of our other messes can be transformed as well.
    –Heather in CA

  12. I’m loving the posts about soil and compost. I feel like most folks, even many other gardeners, just look at me funny when I start to go on about what holds our roots and grows our bodies and takes us back in to keep life moving. I’m glad someone else gets it! International year of soils indeed!

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