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To Compost or Not to Compost–here are some ways to “take out the garbage”!

To Compost or Not to Compost–here are some ways to “take out the garbage”!

Kitchens are full of smells.  Of course we want the good smells, but we also have to work to keep the bad smells at bay.  What comprises most of those bad smells? Kitchen garbage.  Not everything gets used, so into the bin it goes until the smell becomes too strong for us, or too enticing for flies, or both!  What if we could use more of that garbage and get rid of the smell?  Modern composting is the answer.  Some new products on the market brought this topic up for my own research.

First of all, what are the alternatives to throwing kitchen scraps in the bin?  Here’s a starter list:

  1. Throw them into the yard to decompose naturally
  2. Feed them to animals such as chickens and pigs.  (Check on which scraps are safe for them first!)
  3. Bury them directly in dirt or the garden
  4. Intentionally make them into compost for plants and gardens

1. Ok, I’ve been warned that the first one is not a safe option.  Wandering dogs and other animals may eat things like corncobs or fats that are not safe for them, and this kind of waste near your home can lure flies, ants, rats, raccoons and possums into close contact.  It’s best to avoid this method, as easy as it is.

2. If you have chickens and pigs, or neighbors who do, then you have a use for most of your kitchen waste!  Just sort the vegetables from the fat and bones (grease and bones are not good things for animals), and use a storage container inside or outside to keep them until it’s feeding time.  Here’s a great resource on what to and what not to feed animals. 

3. Since burying is a bit of a hassle, you’ll probably want to store scraps until you have enough to make it worthwhile.  Many containers you already have may be suitable, like oversized coffee cans and old tupperware, but these don’t contain smells or look pleasing on your countertop.  A functional kitchen scrap container should:

  • Minimize smells (and flying insects)
  • Contain liquids
  • Provide aeration to avoid mold

Here are some of our favorite storage containers:

  • Full Circle Scrap Happy Food Scrap Collector and Freezer Compost Bin, $18, is ingenious.  To use it just hang the bin on a cabinet door or drawer so that you can simply scrape peelings off the cutting board or countertop directly into the bin, then store it in your freezer to lock away smells.  It's dishwasher safe and of course, freezer safe. 
  • Bamboozle Food Compost Bin, $45, is one of the most stylish available.  It is made of bamboo, comes in three colors, and includes a spare charcoal filter to keep smells away.
  • Utopia Kitchen Compost Bin for Kitchen Countertop, $27, has the good looks of stainless steel and also the odor protection of a charcoal filter.  I prefer this one to a similar model by different brand, because Utopia looks less like a trash can on your countertop. 
  • DIY your own compost bin!  Here is an easy video on how to make your own container with a few free and inexpensive materials.  You can purchase carbon filter media here and use it in a number of projects around the house:  HVAC vents, shoe deodorizers (while not wearing them), enclosed litter box deodorizers, trash can lid deodorizers, etc.

Other models may include compostable bags as a way of keeping liquids from reaching the container for easy clean-up.  If you need extra charcoal filters for your store-bought bin but want to get the most value, again look into carbon filter media.  

Now that you have a way to store kitchen scraps, you can proceed to bury them in your vegetable or flower garden.  Dig the hole at least 10” deep and several inches away from the roots of plants, to deter animals from following the scent and exhuming them, and don’t bury meat or dairy products. 

4.  If you are a gardener or want to donate good compost to a gardener, then this is the final step: making your own compost with those scraps!  You can buy or DIY a compost vessel, because, like method #1 above, making compost in an open pile invites insects and animals.  Composting requires organic matter, moisture, oxygen and bacteria (University of Illinois Extension).  Let’s go through each of these and see how the composting process works.

  • Organic Matter: compost requires a mix of brown organic matter, which supplies more carbon (such as dead leaves, twigs, and manure), and green organic matter, which supplies more nitrogen (lawn clippings or the scraps you bring from the kitchen).  The best mixture is approximately 50% brown and 50% green.  If you are able to chop up the scraps (thin peelings are fine as is), this decreases the time needed to make compost because more surface area is exposed. 
  • Moisture: Water is needed to aid the composting process, so that the whole lot should be similar to a wrung out-sponge.  Holes in the bottom of the composting container help to avoid too much moisture, which can lead to mold.
  • Oxygen: This is why your composting vessel should not be tightly sealed; instead, it should have aeration holes throughout, to support air exchange.  Turning the compost pile (either manually with a shovel or rake, or by rotating the bin) also provides aeration so that matter on the bottom gets shifted to a place with more oxygen. 
  • Bacteria: Fortunately, the necessary bacteria are already present in the air and organic material.  All you have to do is feed them with the other three ingredients and they accomplish the breakdown into compost!  Heat and some smell are also by-products of the breakdown, but if you keep the compost bin a few feet from the house and turn it over regularly, these should not be an issue.  Heat actually aids the process, so avoid turning the pile too frequently.

Now, all you have to do is decide what kind of container to compost in!  It can be as simple as an oversized pot (like the basic black pots that nurseries use for trees) or as fancy as they come on Amazon.  The ideal size, according to the University of Illinois Extension, is a pile that is between 3 feet cubed and 5 feet cubed (27-125 cu. ft.). This allows the center of the pile to heat up sufficiently to break down materials, optimizing the time.  Smaller piles do not generate/hold heat well, so it takes longer to generate rich compost.  If you make a 3-5 ft3 compost bin, turning every two weeks in a northern climate will give you compost in about 3 months.  If you buy a compost bin, you can use the guide provided to know when to turn it over. 

Now that you know how composting works in general, you will also want to know how technology has enabled us to speed up that process.  Kitchen-countertop composters are great for those who can’t do a 3-5ft3 compost bin but may have a container garden for vegetables that can benefit from all those nutrients in the kitchen scraps (think: city apartment with a balcony).  Here are some in that category:

  •  Lomi by Pela, $500, adds heat, abrasion and oxygen to the organic matter, to produce compost starter or ready compost in 3 different cycles.  Two of the three cycles use Lomi pods, which are a proprietary blend of probiotics that improve breakdown, reduce smell and provide rich nutrients.  These pods probably provide what normal composting adds, which is the brown organic material from leaves and manure.
  • The Bokashi Organiko Odor-Free Kitchen Compost Bin by Teraganix, $119, was developed by a Japanese scientist.  “Bokashi” means “fermented organic matter” in Japanese, and is different from compost in that it is an anaerobic process, meaning that it proceeds in the absence of oxygen.  Therefore this kitchen composter is sealed tightly in order to avoid air intrusion except when adding more kitchen scraps.  The anaerobic process requires that you add “Bokashi Bran” to the bin to speed up the process and keep the smell away, but it also allows you to add dairy and meat products in your scraps.  The liquid that is drained off every few days may be watered down for plant food, and the end product after 10-20 days is “compost starter” that can be buried in your garden.  All in all, it’s a speedier process than outdoor composting and to do Bokashi yourself without purchasing this bin, check out this article

If you have a lower budget and outdoor space (for many of us, growing our own vegetables is also about saving money), then you can check out these options for using the kitchen scraps in an outdoor composter.  Two chambers allows you to add scraps weeks later to a second bin, so that the separate bins will continue to generate different stages of decomposition. 

  • Inexpensive large one-chamber rotating model with great ratings: Saturnpower 43 gallon, $69

  • Dual chamber best-selling composter from Amazon: VivoSun Dual Batch 43 gallon, $95

  • And here is a great article on making your own compost bin, and another video that seems to require less wood and hardware like casters.    

It’s important to be sure that compost is “ready” before adding it to your plants, because compost that is not mature can actually damage plants with its acidity, and by stealing nitrogen and oxygen from the soil to complete the decomposition process.  Compost is “done” when: 1) it is no longer heating up after you turn it, 2) it looks dark brown and none of the ingredients are recognizable, 3) it smells like “earth” and not rotting vegetables.  This article goes more in-depth about how to assess your compost. 

Compost can be used in a number of ways, even if you don’t have a “garden”.  You can rejuvenate your lawn or backyard with it, use it when planting new trees and shrubs, and also to nourish existing trees and shrubs.  For gardeners, you can enrich the soil in fall, spring and summer for healthy, fruitful plants.  

Start purging the kitchen smells and turn your garbage into gold with compost!

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash