Into the trash

Last September, unable to abide any longer what seemed like the huge amount of food waste I was putting into my trash can, I invested in a composter for my back yard that I thought was the perfect solution. It was compact, rotating, seemingly sturdy, not terribly ugly, and large enough, I figured, for the organic waste management needs of a single-person household. I don’t recall the brand name, but it looked like this.

New composter

It was a simple snap-together project with a few screws to keep it stable, and I knew when I was assembling it and finding that the several interlocking panels that make up the bin didn’t fit together quite as snugly as I thought they should that this contraption was not worth the $100+ I paid for it. But I went ahead and set it up, and promptly began filling it with my daily collection of vegetable peels, pits, skins and so forth, along with tea bags and coffee grounds and egg shells and all that good stuff. I tossed in a handful of compost starter when I thought about it, gave the handle a few turns every week or so, and hoped to have “black gold” soon. I was proud of myself for reducing my weekly load of trash so substantially that I could even occasionally skip putting the can out to the curb. My kitchen trash no longer stank, and I felt I was doing my part for the planet.

As the bin slowly filled up, turning it became more and more difficult, and Clue No. 2 that this unit was poor quality was one day when I let go of the handle too soon as I was turning it and it whipped back on my arm hard enough to leave a bruise—the turning mechanism was supposed to go in one direction only to prevent exactly this action.

Also, some of the stuff in the bin turned black and gooey but other stuff seemed not to break down much at all, and my lord, how it stank! But I hoped that time and bacteria would do their jobs and break everything down eventually. After all, my parents have a compost bin so vigorously active that it could probably consume an entire human body, clothing and all, within a week or two at most. But my folks live in a rainy valley in another state. I live on the high desert. Apparently composting doesn’t work quite the same here.

I don’t know much about composting, obviously (and I was advised by someone who does not to buy this unit, so here I am, admitting publicly that you were right and I was wrong), so I didn’t know how to make my bin work better or what a more effective option would be. As I said, I just kept adding stuff and hoping for the best.

One sunny day about a month ago, I noticed a rank odor wafting from the back of the yard. Upon investigation, which Reggie had unfortunately already done by the looks of her befouled beard, I found my composter sprung open and ruined.

Broken composter

Busted

Those snap-together panels had little more than plastic tabs holding them together, and the bottom panel busted at the seams on both sides. You can imagine how much this fact was appreciated by my little poo-eating Schnauzer, who couldn’t leave the mess alone.

Broken composter closeup

I mean, really, how enticing is that?

So now I had a broken unit filled with at least 50 pounds of rotting vegetation, and there’s no way to fix the damn thing. What to do?

First I considered burying it. But that involved locating utilities (which proved to be a little too close by for my comfort), hiring someone with a strong back to dig a trench in my rock-hard clay soil, and then scooping all that mess into the ground and hoping the dogs didn’t dig it up. No.

The only thing to do was to dispose of it, all of it. And that, my friends, is a job I would not delegate to anybody because there’s no one in this world I dislike enough to foist it upon.

I pulled the barrel apart, dumped the contents on the ground, and (wearing elbow-length rubber gloves and a respirator mask), I scooped it all up handful by handful into plastic bags and then into the trash. The only job I can think of that might be worse is cleaning out a pit toilet using nothing but a gardening trowel.

In the process, I had to wave off a squad of yellow jackets that, thankfully, left without a fight, watched the biggest earthworm I’ve ever seen (I seriously thought it was a snake for a moment) emerge from under the pile, and evicted several spiders from their nests inside the gears (sorry, gals). I marveled at the dozens of bright-red and still plump cranberries I put in there last November, some exuberantly sprouting garlic cloves, and a nearly intact whole apple I tossed in months ago because it was starting to shrivel and wrinkle on my counter. Amazing how some things just do not break down.

The composter, however, did break down once I removed all its screws. I cleaned it up as best I could with a garden hose from 6 feet away, and now it’s out with the other recyclables awaiting a trip to the transfer station.

Dismantled composter

See ya.

I really like the idea of composting my food scraps, and would love to find a better, cheaper, permanent solution that not only actually makes compost, but also that I can keep contained away from the dogs. I will have to do some research on the worms option, as my neighbors who have outdoor compost bins tell me that the climate here just does not favor proper decomposition.

If you have links or suggestions for worm composting, please let me know in the comments.

Food overload

The trash gets picked up on Wednesdays in my neighborhood, so this morning I wheeled my big tote to the curb loaded down with heavy, dripping bags of rotting food from my own refrigerator. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and may Demeter have mercy on my soul. It was a very bad week for wasting food in my house.

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

I let my Bountiful Baskets get away from me, faithfully picking one up every week for three weeks in a row even though I still had produce piled all over my counters from the weeks before. I gave some of it to my neighbors and I did prep a lot of it into usable ingredients so I would have them available for cooking … but somehow the cooking part just didn’t come together before things started turning slimy and spotty. Which reminds me why I’ve always been leery of fresh food: It just doesn’t last that long. Not long enough, anyway, for me to 1) figure out how to use it and 2) get motivated to do so.

When I told a friend once that I like to cook, her first question was, “don’t you end up wasting a lot of food because you live alone?” I thought it was an odd query because why would my living alone make any difference? No, I told her, I am pretty good about using what I buy. And I always have been, for the most part. But every so often, my ambitions get ahead of my appetite, and much waste results.

I recently learned that food waste decomposing in landfills is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is a likely contributor to climate change. I don’t want to participate in that slow-motion catastrophe any more than I absolutely have to (and unfortunately, we all have to), so I’m thinking about getting a composter for my kitchen scraps. Maybe one like this, which is off the ground to keep the dogs from scrounging through it.

compost-bin

Tumbling Composter from Home Depot.

For all the peels, pits, rinds, seeds, soft spots, and other food scraps that I put in the garbage every week, this just might make a difference.

My fridge is now cleared of all but a few hardy veggies with long shelf lives, and my counters are mostly visible again—although I do still have a big jicama bulb and several pounds of blue potatoes from my basket that I am not sure yet what to do with. I didn’t get a basket this week, and won’t get one next week. I’m waiting to go grocery shopping until the last egg, the last carrot, the last drop of milk, and the last piece of bread are all gone. And then I’m going to be more careful about how I stock my kitchen.

food-dont-waste-it

This World War II-era propaganda poster is still good advice today.