Tips for working composting into a busy family or work schedule & other questions
My As to some important Qs, an old essay on what makes work meaningful, and other updates.
I was interviewed about compost by my internet friend Andy Newman this week. I’ll include the Q&A in full, below, because I think Andy asked thoughtful questions that helped put me back in the position of properly addressing the beginning composter (my intended audience), at a time when I can find myself too-often slipping into the more obscure and outer realms of decomposition while drafting this newsletter. I also thought I’d mention that he links to an essay I wrote in 2017 about “what makes work meaningful” that I had, honestly, completely forgotten existed. In it, I grapple with whether or not being a writer ever matters and compare myself unfavorably to my brother, who was (at the time) a nurse in a high-risk unit of the ICU. I conclude, surprise, by discovering that art matters:
“I remembered something my brother had told me: a patient’s first request, after being discharged, is often a piece of their favorite music.”
When I got to this part, I cried. (Lol.)
It’s really hard to be a human, isn’t it? Some days, it feels like we just fuck up everything. Ourselves, our friendships, our cities, our planet. Over the last few weeks, I’ve received more than one phone call from a friend in a full-blown panic about the future—not just their own, but our collective. Everybody wants to know what they can do. I don’t have an answer because there isn’t one prescriptive solution. There are many small actions. What I worry about more, right now, is that we aren’t taking care of ourselves as we go through this, and I do think there is still room for art to help us out in that regard. Writing has certainly helped me, at least, and that’s because it connects me deeply to a small band of significant others: readers, volunteers, neighbors. It’s the necessary foundation, I think—the prerequisite to sustained movement.
Below, my full interview with Andy. I cover a few topics that I think are meaningful to the starting-out composter, like dealing with critters, composting when you’re busy, and composting for a family.
What are the biggest benefits of composting?
I think a lot of the environmental benefits of composting are broadly known. Composting your food waste reduces methane emissions from landfills. It takes "garbage" and turns it into a meaningful soil amendment and fertilizer. However, the biggest benefit that I see from composting is the mindset shift in people who take up the practice. It changes how folks act as consumers. Once I get somebody hooked on composting, how they buy stuff changes completely—they are more aware of how things are made and less interested in buying things that won't biodegrade. In general, they become more invested in buying less. It's really amazing to witness (and I've definitely experienced this shift in myself, as well). Having a more fundamental and tactile understanding of ecological processes—and more awe and delight in nature—really tend to make you more aware of the connection between "buying tons of stuff" and ecological destruction, and you naturally become more thoughtful about your purchasing choices. It's a beautiful and, I think, often underexplored benefit of composting. :)
What are some common challenges beginners face when composting? What tips do you have to avoid those issues?
The "ick" factor. Far and away, that is the most common challenge I help beginners overcome. They think of compost as a pile of rotting food and a bunch of bugs, which - hey - they're not totally wrong. The best way to overcome this challenge, though, is just to help people shift the frame of their thinking. It's not rotting food, it's "becoming soil." And that soil has value that you can then witness in practice and be part of creating. Bugs are also often a sign of a super healthy pile—one that is full of active microbes that are building nutrition and turning all of your food scraps into vital, living soil. I know you might be reading this and thinking "No way, not me - bugs are gross!", but I promise you that everybody starts out that way, and once you get a feel for your pile, you simply cannot think of bugs and food scraps in the same way again.
What can you do to avoid attracting unwanted critters while composting?
Your pile will *always* attract certain critters, like soldier flies and beetles and worms and etc. These are signs of a healthy compost pile and if you *aren't* seeing these types of critters—I'd be concerned. When it comes to the bigger guys like rats and raccoons, though, a well-managed pile is your best defense. Chop food scraps up thoroughly and bury them in the pile versus just throwing them on top. Make sure you're using the correct ratio of carbon (twigs, shredded leaves, wood chips, shredded cardboard) per addition of any food scraps. You can also pee on your pile and/or leave around bits of your hair or pet's fur. These odors can deflect unwanted advances from curious animals.
Any tips for working composting into a busy family or work schedule? Suggestions on what's most important to focus on vs. what's not?
My first tip, the one that I think is the most important, and the biggest one, is also categorically the hardest for people to follow, which is this: let it go. Ha. Let the idea of perfection and "doing it right" go and let it go completely. Be open to messing up and doing things wrong and learning. Accept that sometimes you will have lots of time to work on your compost and sometimes, even for months!, you won't have any time at all—and that's fine. You may end up with a few critters or a bit of an odor, but if those things happen, you'll be able to address them, and it's okay.
Now that that part is out of the way, the best thing you can probably do to keep your compost manageable and productive is prep your materials. I cannot undersell the value of well-shredded materials being added to a compost pile, it just makes everything decompose so much faster, which really helps mitigate issues like odors and unwanted animals. I would prioritize shredding materials even over stuff like turning the heap. Pre-shred anything you add to the compost pile & always cover with some layer of carbon, whether it's a bunch of wood shavings (this is my preference) or cardboard or whatever else. :)
What tips do you have for composting with a large family?
When you are dealing with a lot of food waste, taking the extra time to prep your food scraps for the pile can make a huge, huge difference. Chop everything up into teeny, even tinier pieces. Crush your egg shells. Break the stems from that flower bouquet into smaller pieces. The more you chop and shred stuff before it goes into the pile, the easier you are making things for the microbes in your compost pile. They have more surface area to go to work on and will be able to break things down much more quickly. That means your pile will be very efficient and can accept a lot of food scraps without getting too big or too overwhelming. (A compost pile that is really cookin' will reduce in size by about half over the course of a week.) It does take a little extra work on the front end, but it's totally worth it.
Are there any exciting advancements on the horizon that could change the composting process for individuals and communities? Tech, legislation, or anything else to watch?
There has been a lot of recent legislation around composting, with tons of mandates being passed down in various cities around composting food scraps versus sending them to the landfill. All of this is great. Legislation unlocks funding, which helps create infrastructure, which helps support people in changing their habits, which builds public awareness around waste management, which then can, ya know, probably change the world.
I am generally less excited about "compost tech." For the most part, compost devices are expensive scams and totally unnecessary, built to serve our pre-existing (and harmful) assumptions about waste and waste management (the same assumptions that have directly lead to so much of the pollution and environmental abuse that has now put our planet at such a precarious tipping point). When products are built to serve our presumption that we shouldn't have to deal with our own waste, and that our waste is "icky," we are continuing to alienate ourselves from our responsibility to our environment. We *should* be accountable to our waste streams. We should understand and have to experience the consequences related to what we buy and how we shop. I don't think so many people would be so cavalier about fast fashion ("it's no big deal!") if we had to deal with landfills and textile dumps in our backyards, for example. (And to be clear, a lot of people do not have the luxury of NOT having to deal with those things.)
In what ways could community-based composting initiatives play a key role in shaping a more sustainable future?
Education, awareness, and accountability. Accountability being the big one. (See my above rants.)
Understanding how much waste comes from your community and having a hand in directly dealing with it is incredibly empowering, particularly if you're turning that waste back into something that has value and beauty for your neighbors. I work at a few community compost hubs across Los Angeles where we accept food scraps from local businesses and then give back the finished product to the community for free. The amount of joy it generates is addictive. When we can do things that create joy around sustainability for people, that require them to work together and make something together, then I think we are really creating the building blocks for something that looks like "a future." :)
If you want more interviews like this (I recommend!), you can subscribe to Andy’s newsletter here.