Turning Food Scraps into Compost During COVID-19

Turning Food Scraps into Compost During COVID-19

Food waste to compost
Photo credit Julia Simon for NPR (www.juliaradio.com)

The second week of March marked a turning point in America. California issued the first mandatory shelter-in-place order, non-perishable food items flew off grocery store shelves, and people across the country started working from home due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Nearly nine-in-ten U.S. adults say their lives have been altered by COVID-19, according to the Pew Research Center.

As uncertainty looms, many Americans remain at home. Families and individuals are cooking more and eating out less. Restaurants, open for take-out and delivery-only, feel the strain of keeping their doors open while risking the health of their workers. Even with the unknown, there are positive changes coming from this global pandemic. Many people have reconnected with their communities, families and friends through Zoom and on social media. The environment seems to be getting a break from the barrage of human activity that negatively affects our natural landscapes. Here in Los Angeles, the air quality has noticeably improved.

The novel coronavirus has changed our daily lives in so many ways, both good and bad. As we all currently practice safer-at-home measures, now is a great time to learn ways to decrease our food waste. Since individual households are making more meals at home per day, learning the proper way to dispose of food scraps is vital.

Composting is often relegated to niche hippie markets not ready for mainstream desirability. But as we are forced to tweak our daily habits, we can learn to turn our food scraps into rich, effective fertilizer. Composting requires two things—browns and greens. Browns are the carbon materials such as dead leaves, twigs and newspapers that help aerate compost. Greens include vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, and even grass clippings, which are all nitrogen-rich. Regenerating our garden soils with natural fertilizers, like compost, help reduce our waste and creates richer soil for our cities.

Fertilizers are composed of three nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These nutrients are often referred to as the “Big Three” or NPK. When combined, these elements enable plants to receive the necessary nutrients needed to thrive.

Kreigh Hampel holds a compost workshop at the Burbank Recycling Center to teach people how to divert the 8,000 pounds of organics [food and yard waste] from landfills each year in the city of Burbank.

“When you build large diversity in soil, now you’ve got multiple functions feeding that plant,” said Hampel.

“Industrial farming is a convenience in terms of chemicals, machines and flat land, but if you look at the history of agriculture, a lot of it was built from terraced fields and valleys along rivers because you always had to have a water source,” said Hampel.

Backyard composting is a viable method to start returning these necessary nutrients to our urban soils. Even if you don’t have a backyard, composting can be done in multi-unit complexes and apartment buildings.

Kitchen Compost
Coffee grinds, onion peels and strawberry tops waiting for the L.A. Community Compost Garden. Photographed by Jourdan Arnaud
baking soda uses
Baking Soda deodorizes kitchen compost smells. Photographed by Jourdan Arnaud

One of the main questions people ask when they start to compost is if their compost will emit an unpleasant smell from the decomposing food. Smell will not be an issue If you use the proper ratio of browns to greens in your compost mix. However, if you are worried about compost smelling, there is a way to mitigate any odors from your kitchen compost. Baking soda has been an effective odor eliminator and cult kitchen staple for many years. People place open boxes of baking soda in their refrigerators to deodorize unwanted odors. You can do the same deodorizing with your compost.

Once you get started with a small compost bin in your kitchen, you can fill an old sock with baking soda and secure it with a rubber band. Place the sock filled with baking soda at the bottom of your bin to balance the acidity of the compost. Baking Soda is a cost-effective, do-all pantry staple and is a great thing to have on hand during times of food shortages and safer-at-home orders.

To learn more about how to start composting, listen to Julia Simon on NPR talk about composting during the coronavirus.

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