A Zero Waste Project: A no-backyard compost

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Composting can decrease household waste, contribution to landfills, and drastically reduce one’s carbon footprint. Photo by Sergio Nazareth Semerdjian from Pexels.

When quarantine started all the way back in March and I was sent back from the University of Connecticut to live at home, I decided I needed some self-assigned projects to keep me busy to prevent me from melting into a puddle of despair. While the puddle of despair came eventually anyway, I was able to ward it off for a little while with school assignments, painting my room, and, as foreshadowing to my zero waste journey, building a compost bin. 

The compost bin was built out of wooden pallets in the backyard. Photo courtesy of Alex Houdeshell.

My six-person family had never really committed to composting before, despite having a large backyard and generating lots of food waste. With lots of time and restless energy on my hands, I found a YouTube how-to, swung by our local Home Depot, collected some discarded wooden pallets from behind a local warehouse, enlisted my younger brother’s help, and built a compost bin out of wooden pallets. 

The project was successful: My family now regularly composts all food scraps and yard waste. After getting into the habit at home of setting eggshells and banana peels aside for our compost, it was disconcerting to move into an apartment without an option for composting. Every time I threw away a pile full of vegetable scraps or a crust of bread I felt guilty. So I decided to figure out a way to make composting work in my third-floor, porch-less, backyard-less apartment. 

Why make this swap? 

The environmental benefits of composting are undeniable, and it’s pretty much a necessity if you’re trying to go zero waste. If you’re cooking, there’s no way to avoid food scraps, unless you want to start eating the peels and pits and cores of every fruit and vegetable. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food and yard waste account for more than 28% of household garbage, and according to zero waste blogger Kathryn Keller, organic matter makes up 60% of our landfills. While it may not seem like a big deal for organic matter to end up in a landfill, the lack of oxygen underground actually prevents the matter from breaking down. When it decomposes anaerobically, without oxygen, the organic matter releases methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide. 

This means that by composting, not only do you decrease your household waste and your contribution to landfills, but you also drastically reduce your carbon footprint. 

What I did 

The compost bin was built out of wooden pallets in the backyard. Photo courtesy of Alex Houdeshell.

After deciding I wanted to compost, I looked up ways to do so in an apartment and became a little intimidated. Several times I saw the suggestion of a worm bin: essentially a bucket full of earth and worms that you hide away in a closet somewhere to digest your food waste and return soil. While I definitely wanted a bucket full of worms to show off to any houseguests, I wasn’t sure I had the space for it, and wasn’t sure my roommate would go for that option. Worm buckets really do sound low-maintenance, odor-free and sanitary, but it wasn’t an option I was interested in. 

There are a couple other options for apartment composting, like the bokashi bin and electronic composting, but I really just wanted to find a place to regularly dump out a small bin I could keep in the kitchen. 

My roommate and I started collecting our food waste this past week in an empty plastic container that formerly held chocolate-covered almonds. In the future we’ll get a real compost bin, but this recycled strategy worked fine in the short-term. Luckily, I traveled home this weekend to pick up some cool-weather clothes, so I was able to just dump our little bin in my previously-constructed backyard compost. However the hour drive between my parents’ house and my apartment is not a sustainable solution. 

After doing some research, I was excited to learn that Mansfield actually has a town compost. The Mansfield transfer station is open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Thursdays from noon to 4 p.m. for residents to deposit food waste in the town leaf pile. This means instead of traveling home, I can swing by the transfer station when I’m out buying groceries or running errands and drop my compost there. 

What this means for you 

For people living on campus, the UConn dining halls are part of a food-to-fuel program with Quantum Biopower that transforms food waste into energy. While food-to-fuel programs aren’t as environmentally ideal as composting, it is still much better than throwing food waste in the trash with everything else. 

A chocolate-covered almond contained, repurposed as an apartment compost bin. Photo courtesy of Alex Houdeshell.

As for UConn students living in on-campus apartments, seventh-semester civil engineering student Rebecca Feldman started a program last year to provide a composting option in Hilltop Apartments. 

With $2,000 from a Change Grant, Feldman piloted her program last year, providing students in Hilltop Apartments with kitchen compost bins that can be emptied at a food waste bin next to the trash and recycling outside. This food waste bin is collected by Willimantic Waste Paper Co. and brought to Quantum Biopower, just like the rest of UConn’s food waste. She’s continuing the program this year, and hopes to find a way to make it last beyond her tenure as a UConn student. 

“I know that we’re not making the hugest difference here but we’re doing something and we have some control over it and it’s just another option we have,” Feldman said. 

I know I was concerned about a kitchen compost getting a little gross, so Feldman provided some advice for keeping a small kitchen compost bin. If emptied regularly, a compost bin really isn’t supposed to smell much, she said, but any odor can be kept down by storing the bin in the fridge or freezer if there’s space. Coffee grounds also act as a smell absorbent. Generally, Feldman said, it’s helpful to keep the bin in sight, so you remember to use it often. 

In summary, I considered and researched a few different strategies, but there are other options as well. If you’re committed to zero waste, finding a way to compost is definitely a huge step, whether it’s a worm bin, an outdoor compost if you have the space for it, or a just bucket to empty regularly. 

Coming up next: A paperless kitchen. 

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