A Beginner’s Guide to At-Home Composting

By Emily Metzger – April 1, 2021

Composting is a great way to improve the environment and can also be a very fulfilling hobby. Austin, being one of the most eco-friendly cities in the U.S., is filled with individuals that implement this practice and encourage others to do the same. AFM got the opportunity to speak with Melanie MacFarlane, one of the owners of Break It Down, to discuss the organization, the composting community in Austin and how to get started!

MacFarlane was first drawn to the composting business when she was working at a local yoga studio, where she realized the amount of misconceptions about recycling and composting. At the studio, she says they served their guests a chai after each class in little, expensive, compostable cups. When MacFarlane suggested switching to cheaper, recyclable cups, since they just ended up in the trash can, the response was that they wanted to keep using the compostable cups because “they break down in the landfill.”

“This is a common misconception. The reality is that landfills are anaerobic or, put otherwise, they don’t have proper airflow, which means that nothing breaks down,” MacFarlane says. “In fact, because of the lack of airflow, if things do break down in the landfill, they will produce methane. So we really don’t want breakdown to occur at the landfill.”

After that, MacFarlane began looking around town for a composting company that could take those compostable cups and have them properly composted. When she couldn’t find any small businesses, the idea to start one began to manifest in her mind.

“Jeff, my husband and business partner, and I were talking about it one night while walking our dog. I said that we have a pick-up truck — we could do this. And Jeff said, ‘And we can call it Break It Down!’ Within a year, we were a fully operational composting company.”

Break It Down collects food waste and recyclable products from businesses, primarily restaurants, but also offices, schools, hotels, retail shops and grocery stores all around the area. They take the food waste to their warehouse where their crew sorts through the material, and then it’s taken to a compost facility.

When asked about the composting community within Austin, she says that there is a large community of people in Austin that value reducing waste while improving the land. She sees it in her clients who want to take responsibility for their waste streams, in the people that call to ask about ways to limit their own waste contributions to landfills and in the people that work or apply to work at Break It Down who are enthusiastic about making meaningful change.

For MacFarlane, composting food waste just makes sense, both economically and environmentally.

“As a city, it is in our best interest to keep waste out of landfills as a means of extending the life of the landfill — the quicker they fill up, the more landfills that need to be created,” MacFarlane says. “By diverting the waste to its highest value use, we stimulate the green economy, creating jobs while simultaneously creating products that enhance the land and improve the quality of the food that we eat. Win win!”

Your Guide to At-Home Composting

Even though many individuals are curious about composting, most let the fear of difficulty, producing unwanted odors and time consumption persuade them not to even attempt this beneficial hobby. One of the key tips to at-home composting is keeping it simple. When asked about the widespread apprehension when it comes to composting, MacFarlane says there are a lot of ways to compost and a whole lot of information out there that can feel overwhelming, but at the core, it’s really a simple process. She recommends starting by throwing all your compostable products — food scraps, paper towels, even Kleenex! — into a pile in your yard, mixed in with all the yard trimmings (carbon) you can find, and just stir it every once in a while to let nature do its job. If you notice the smell getting bad, throw more carbon in the pile.

1. Get a Compost Bin

Firstly, you want to purchase a compost bin or even make your own. The bin should have access to the ground and you want to place it in a shaded area.

2. Focus on Your Greens

To start off your compost, you want to focus on your greens and your browns. For greens, utilize unwanted scraps and peels of fruits and vegetables that have gone bad in your kitchen. You should typically avoid egg shells, meats and cheeses, as those are hard to break down. Also, make sure to avoid onions as they fend off earthworms, which can be a vital part of producing a healthy compost. Other sources of green material can be lawn trimmings and green garden waste.

3. Add in the Browns

Then, you want to add in your browns. Browns are typically decomposed plants and leaves, cardboard and straw. Many individuals also use their leftover coffee grounds and swear by its fruitfulness. Make sure that, when you are adding in your materials to the compost, to cut or chop it up as much as possible so the materials break down quicker.

4. Time for Water

After you have added both your greens and browns, top off the pile with a little bit of water. It is important to have a damp but not soaking pile. Next, cover your bin with a tarp or lid that still allows for air to circulate. This is a vital part of creating a successful compost. You can turn your compost every week or so to maintain air flow and also add water if the pile looks dry.

A beneficial tip and good product for beginners is to also purchase a compost starter. This is full of microbes that are great to add on your starter compost to give it a little bit of boost if needed. Finally, after a few months, you should have a rich, moist compost which you can use to fertilize your garden. So, instead of dumping your leftover scraps and waste that will most likely end up in an anaerobic landfill, you can easily reuse and, more importantly, repurpose everyday items that can have a huge impact on our environment.

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