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Archive for October, 2012

Well, folks, today is the day. The day I finally dumped dirt—yes real dirt (well, mostly)—out of my compost bin.

People always think it’s daunting, hard and complicated to compost. But it’s really not. It just takes a quick, relatively inexpensive trip to your local hardware store ($40 or less), a little bit of time to make your compost bin (an hour or less), and a few new habits (like saving food scraps in a separate container, getting used to what’s compostable, and turning the bin once in a while). Oh, and a bit of outside yard space.

If you’re not sure where to start, this is an excellent video, and it’s exactly what I referred to when I started my bin. It’s super helpful…go watch it!

You will need:

  • A giant plastic trashcan and lid
  • A drill and ¼-inch drill bit (the video recommends pounding holes with hammer and nail, but that takes forever. Just use a drill.)
  • A couple of cinder blocks or something else to lift your bin off the ground circulation (mine is up on an overturned milk crate, which works fine, too).
  • I also recommend a few bungee cords to hold the lid on your can. Otherwise, the lid comes off when you try to roll it. Not fun.

Use the drill to poke holes all over the sides of the bin. Mount it up on the cinder blocks and secure the lid on top with the bungee cords. After you’ve added your material to the bin, it will need turned about once a week, and turning is as easy as rolling the bin on its side around your yard for a few minutes.

Actually, I recommend making two of these bins. I’ve found that if I keep adding stuff to one of them, it never is able to fully break down. So when one is full, I trade bins so the full one has time to be left alone to decompose (but still turned regularly). The theory is that by the time the second one is full and ready to be left alone, the first one will be ready to be emptied of freshly made mulch and ready to start the process again. That mostly worked for me, but after a while I just have to trade them when one is full. As the contents break down, they take up much less space, making room for more.

Here is what my setup looks like:

Now, I know they say that your fresh, ready-to-use compost will be ready in 4-8 weeks if you follow all the instructions and do everything just right, but I’m here to tell you that even if you do absolutely everything WRONG in almost every possible way, you’ll still get good compost…..eventually. Mine took maybe about two years or so. I think. I don’t know for sure, I lost track. I almost never turned it, didn’t always have a good balance of materials (more on that later, keep reading), and didn’t do anything with it in the winter time. If you’re going to be lazy like me, truly no-hassle compost takes a bit (or a lot) more time. But it does work.

But even before you start out with lazy composting (like me), there are still a few things you should know first.

With composting, items are classified into two categories: carbon-rich “brown material” and nitrogen-rich “green material.” For a healthy (read: faster and without a strong stench) composting process, you’ll want to balance your browns and greens. Some websites out there say you need equal amounts, and some say you need more brown than green, even up to twice as much. I don’t keep exact tabs on mine, I just make sure to add enough brown so it seems to balance out all the food scraps. Trust me, your bin will let you know if it’s out of balance (it will stink to high heavens). Just take a deep breath (before you take the lid off!), add some more brown material, and mix it in as best you can. That helps.

Ok, so what’s green, what’s brown, and what CAN go in the bin?

Brown (carbon-rich) material:

  • Cardboard (shredded)
  • Office paper and junk mail (shredded, remove the plastic envelope windows)
  • Newspaper (shredded)
  • Wood shavings/wood chips
  • Sawdust
  • Leaves
  • Straw/hay
  • Pine needles
  • Wood ash
  • Corncobs and husks
  • Dryer lint

Green (nitrogen-rich) material:

  • Fruit peels, cores, pits, rinds, and scraps
  • Veggie peels and scraps
  • Any overripe or moldy produce
  • Tea bags (remove any staples)
  • Coffee grinds and filters
  • Grass clippings
  • Weeds
  • Flowers and clippings

Not sure whether green or brown, but still OK to put in:

  • Egg shells (crush first for faster breakdown)
  • Breads (donuts, pizza crusts, crackers, pasta, anything made from flour)
  • Grains, cooked or uncooked
  • Old spices
  • Expired boxed foods
  • Vacuum bag contents
  • Hair and nail clippings

What shouldn’t go in the bin?

  • No meat or dairy products should ever go in your bin. This includes meat, fish, animal fat, bones, and pet/animal feces, as well as any kind of cheese, butter, milk, yogurt, sour cream eggs, etc.  Adding any of these items will make it smell bad (like really, really bad!), attract maggots, and attract all kinds of other critters, large and small. Certain kinds of cat litter may be ok (you’ll have to read the label), but only the litter. You’ll still need to scoop the feces out. Basically, if it came from an animal, it shouldn’t go in your bin. Eggshells are about the only exception to this rule.
  • Also, you don’t want to put excessive amounts of cooking oils in either.

Other helpful hints:

  • Keep your bin in the sun, if you can. Warmth makes for faster breakdown.
  • Chop or shred materials before adding them. The smaller they are when they go in, the faster they will break down.
  • The more often you turn you compost, the faster it will break down.
  • If it’s dry, water it. You want to keep it moist, but not dripping.
  • Once you have some soil start to develop (or if you start with some soil in it) adding some worms will also help material break down much faster.

The most important thing here is that you don’t have to be an expert to compost your food scraps. Nature has been composting without fancy plastic bins since pretty much the beginning of time. She doesn’t really need our help, but there are certain things we can do to help speed the process a bit.

I’m not an expert. Heck, I think I’m a great example of what not to do when you’re trying to compost, but I still get an ok result. What I like best is that our trash doesn’t stink (because there’s no food scraps in there anymore) and we hardly have to take it out anymore, between composting and recycling. And diverting compostable food waste from incinerators and land fills is one of the single most important things we can do for waste disposal in general. I wrote about that earlier when I toured my local incineration facility. What I remember most is that they estimated 40-70% of everything they process is stuff that shouldn’t be there, be it recyclables, or food waste. That’s huge. And we should all be doing our part to decrease that number.

I think I’ll save the easy and convenient kitchen habits I’ve figured out for a later post.

So….does anyone compost? Who’s got tips, tricks, and any more advice?

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A while ago, I started making homemade cat food for my cat. It took her a while to really like it (she doesn’t do well with change) but now she hangs around the kitchen when she knows I’m making it to be sure she gets a scoop of it when it’s freshly made. She absolutely loves this stuff.

I got the inspiration from Beth Terry’s My Plastic Free Life blog post about her own homemade cat food, and decided to give it a try for myself. I was not only looking to reduce our waste in terms of cans, but I wanted to give our cat a healthy food that wasn’t made from corn and grain products and processed junk. When we adopted her, they recommended a balance of wet and dry food for her, and we were having trouble finding a wet food she could eat. Up to this point, Maddie would get sick if she ate anything processed we tried. She would scarf it down at first, then get sick. And then she wouldn’t eat any more of that kind. Ever. After going through several brands/kinds/flavors of wet food, this was the last thing I could try.

So I went to the BalanceIT website, put in all of Madeline’s info, chose my base ingredients (I chose chicken and white potatoes) and got a recipe and vitamin supplement from them.

I have tweaked the recipe a bit, and did the math so I can make about 2 weeks worth of food at a time.  She still gets dry food as well, so this wet food I make is really just a bit of a supplement to that. I divide it into jars, with about 3 days worth per jar. They freeze ok, but keep in the fridge for only about 3-5 days. So when the fridge jar is empty, we replace it with another one from the freezer. She gets a little bowl of it every morning. Apparently, it’s good enough to make it worth begging for, starting at about 4am.

Recently, my sister was thinking about trying it out for her cat, so I shared my recipe with her, just to see if her cat would like it before she made the investment. I gave her a bit of the supplement powder, she made a big batch from my tweaked recipe, and her cat absolutely wouldn’t touch it. Quinn apparently is a dry food kind of kitty.

The next time my sister came to visit, she brought her batch of cat food with her, so it wouldn’t go to waste. I was just about out of Maddie’s current batch, so it was perfect timing. The next morning, after her ritualistic begging for several hours, Maddie was served Sister’s food. And she wouldn’t touch it. She kept begging, acting like we were hiding her good food away somewhere else.

As the days went by, she grew more and more desperate for her old food (even though this stuff was the same!) and more adamant that we had some of the good stuff and were keeping it from her. I dare say we threw a good portion of it out because she just wouldn’t eat it. Even though it was the same food, from the same recipe.

Now, I know people who say it’s important to buy veggies from a farmer’s market, where you can get to know the people who grow your food. I think this might be how my cat is now: she won’t eat her food unless she knows the cook and is present to monitor the cooking process. I can’t think of any other reason.

So today was the day. Sister’s batch has run out and I started making a fresh batch for for Maddie. She was just about the happiest cat ever. She licked out the tuna can and the chicken container (quality control for freshness), and sat in the kitchen monitoring the potatoes as they boiled. She oversaw me adding the oil and vitamin supplement, mashing the potatoes, and stirring the meat in. And she sat by her bowl waiting for that fresh, hot scoop. When it was served, she dove in. Success.

And after a nice hot meal of her favorite food, a very happy Maddie went to take a nap.

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