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One Can Challenge: Composting and avoiding food waste

Enviromomchallenge When my family went down to one garbage can a month it was primarily due to four actions: 1) getting the youngest child out of disposable diapers; 2) recycling all of our plastics; 3) using cloth napkins and towels instead of paper; and 4) setting up a food scrap composting system. Keeping food out of the garbage is one of the most important things we can do to clean up the environment. Why? Because when organic matter, like food and yard debris, is sealed inside a landfill it doesn't receive any oxygen, and it releases methane. Methane is a gas that is far more toxic than carbon dioxide (though not as prevalent). It's also the stuff that cows release when they fart, so you can only imagine how noxious it is.

There are three main ways to keep food scraps out of the landfill:

  • Only buying what you will use
  • Using every bit that you buy
  • Composting

Food Scrap Composting

Let's start with composting (or RECYCLING food scraps), because Renee and I made this short video to show you how we do it! (And though it may sound like it, I'm not really a robot.) It took me a long time to figure out which composting system to use because I didn't want it to be hard or stinky. I just wanted to keep the food out of the landfill. Renee's family, on the other hand, buries their food waste in the ground, as you'll see. It works just fine for them (and they have amazing soil in their garden, too). Check it out:

I use a composter called the Earth Machine, which Portland's regional government sells for $35. Similar units are available at Costco, Home Depot and Planet Natural. You dump in your fruit and veggie scraps and coffee grounds, add an equal amount of brown yard debris (like dead leaves or grass, or newspaper or shredded up food-soiled pizza boxes), give it a stir, maybe add a little water, and that's it. I've never taken any compost out of my bin, yet it's never filled up because the organic matter keeps breaking down. Love it! 

There are lots of other ways to compost:

Worm bins: Worms need a bit of love and attention to thrive, but if you do it correctly you can keep a worm bin inside your home, with no mess or stink. Here's a step-by-step tutorial for making your own worm bin.

Tumblers: A bit more expensive, but supposedly works really fast because the tumbling motion mixes everything up really good. Here's an example from Gardener's Supply.

Cones: These you bury half-way in the ground and add food and yard debris. This Green Cone Composting System claims you can also include meat scraps and dairy. I would be afraid that the local rat population would set up camp in my backyard, but maybe it really works. (Anyone?)

Indoor Composter: The Nature Mill indoor composter lives in your house, but it doesn't have worms! You can add up to 120 pounds of food scraps (including meat and dairy). It mixes, heats, and aerates -- doing all the work of a backyard composter in record time. Within two weeks, you have beautiful compost. It uses two chambers so you can add to the mix at any time. It uses a small amount of electricity, and it's spendy (about $300).

You'll also need a kitchen container to hold your food scraps until it's time to dump them in your composter. I got my stainless steel container with carbon filters from Sur la Table. It's also available at Amazon. Gardener's Supply also sells several varieties. We used a big plastic Rubbermaid container for a long time that worked really well, but it was just hard for the kids to get the lid on and off.

Care to share your composting stories? Which method works for you? Did you try one that didn't work?

Only Buying the Food that You Need

Get ready for this: according to a recent New York Times article, Americans throw away 27 percent of the food they buy. Can you believe that? I can. I've thrown away tons and tons of food: rotten produce, rancid meat, expired dairy -- food that went bad because I bought too much and didn't take the steps to prepare or preserve it (I recently heard celebrity mom Julia Roberts bemoaning this same topic, and somehow I felt less bad...). Food in this country has been really, really cheap for a long time and my jaunts through the supermarket were always pretty thoughtless -- just toss in whatever looked good. I've worked really hard this past year to think about the food I buy and make a plan for using it (still a work in progress, however).

So REDUCING the amount of food we buy is another way to keep it out of the waste stream.

Eating or Preserving ALL of the Food You Buy

One of the challenges of subscribing to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program through a local farm is using up all of the produce I get each week. Last summer I composted a ton of it. This summer we're doing much better. (And surprisingly the kids are eating more of it because they see where it's coming from. They feel a sense of ownership of the farm. Our farm, they call it.) This summer I'm preserving more of the produce by freezing small batches, plus we're just making a concerted effort to eat these delicious, local, organic veggies.

We're also trying really hard to eat all of our leftovers. I don't know about you, but oftentimes eating leftovers is about as appealing as eating compost. Compost! It's what's for dinner! But lately we're getting more creative with them -- leftover potato salad will get tossed with a green salad; leftover meat will get incorporated into a quesadilla, that sort of thing. I'm also packing lots of leftovers for my husband's lunches. (He'll eat just about anything. But not compost.) If I buy a whole chicken, I'll toss the carcass in a pot of water with some onions, carrots, celery and spices and turn it into chicken stock, which can be frozen in a plastic freezer bag. (Boiling the carcass will also keep your garbage from getting really stinky.) I guess you could call this REUSING food, which sounds kinda weird, but let's just go for it.

What about that stinky meat in the garbage?

If you're reducing your garbage service down to once a month, meat scraps in the garbage can get pretty stinky. I don't have any way to compost meat scraps (does anyone do this?) so we toss it. If I have a big chunk of expired meat (which I'm trying not to have anymore) then I'll usually keep it in the freezer until garbage night so it doesn't stink up the can throughout the month. You can do this with all of your meat scraps if you have space in your freezer -- just keep them in a plastic bag. Last week when I dragged can to the curb for our monthly pick-up, it just about gagged me. There was something pretty stinky in there, and it was probably some kind of meat. There have been some reader suggestions about saving bones for neighbors' dogs. Another thing is to think about where you store your garbage can before it goes to the curb. At Renee's house, the garbage can is in the garage, and because the garage doesn't get nearly as hot as it would outside, the garbage can doesn't cook and stink up the trash during the month that it sits. With a tightly fitting garbage can lid, and garage storage -- Renee's garbage does not get too stinky.

These are steps that just about anyone can take and will make a HUGE impact on the amount of garbage you generate each month. Any other ideas? How about any food preservation tips? (And can anyone help me get over my fear of canning? I think some canned tomatoes once exploded during my childhood, and I've been afraid of it ever since.) Post questions if you're in need of answers!

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