An open bin like the one pictured here works well for garden waste, but don’t use it for kitchen waste. Evan Lorne/Shutterstock

I was shocked to read last month that food waste is estimated to be 40 percent of the solid waste handled by public disposal systems in Maine. (Roughly the same percentage is said to hold true nationwide.)

That statistic appeared in a newspaper article about legislation to ban food waste from solid-waste-disposal sites in Maine. The bill as now proposed would exempt households from the ban. I think that’s unfortunate. Household composting is easy if you have even a tiny plot of land where you grow flowers or vegetables.

My wife and I do two types of composting: from the garden and from the kitchen. Leaves and other garden waste are easy to compost because they don’t attract wildlife. Such compost is perfectly safe in the open bin I created by tying together recycled wooden pallets. Compost from household food waste, though, must be covered. Otherwise, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, woodchucks, rats and other critters would feed on the scraps, making a mess and spreading the scraps around your yard.

Several years ago, we purchased a compost bin from Cape Elizabeth’s public works department. Though that program has ended, you can buy composters at most garden centers. Look for ones with ventilation and a lid that fastens on.

Our kitchen scraps make several stops on the way to the bin. My wife Nancy cuts gallon plastic milk jugs to keep the handle but allow a large opening for scraps. We keep the jug in the kitchen sink, then transfer the scraps to two (five-gallon) pails that live in the garage. When the pails are full, I empty them into our outdoor bin. In years past, when we had heavy snow, I could wait up to three weeks before making a trip to the bin, but snow has not been a problem for the past few years, and I walk out whenever I need a bit of exercise and fresh air.

By composting, you not only help the environment, but you get some awfully nice soil you can use on your garden. Photo courtesy of University of Maine Cooperative Extension

If you read about home composting, you’ll find lots of advice telling you not to put meat scraps, bones, seafood shells, cheese and other animal products in your compost. It’s said that animal products take too long to break down into usable compost and furthermore will attract wildlife. I haven’t found the latter to be true. Our closed bin keeps any animals away, especially since I keep bricks or stones by the ventilation holes and against the area where I remove the compost.


Also, meat scraps, bones and such do break down eventually, and they create fine compost. Anyway, I am in no rush to get it. Some of our waste goes through multiple cycles. When the bin gets full, I open the bottom, remove the compost with a trowel, sift out anything that has not completely broken down and put that back into the top of the bin. The rest I spread in the vegetable garden, turning the soil with a spading fork to incorporate it into the soil.

The items that most commonly need two trips through the compost cycle are lobster, clam and mussel shells, also the occasional bones from steak or pork chops. I think the seafood shells are worth the effort. Several commercial compost products tout them as they add nutrients and trace minerals to the compost. The coffee filters from our drip coffee pot also require multiple runs, but the grounds themselves decompose quickly.

We also compost paper and cardboard that has been contaminated by food so that it can’t recycled — things like takeout containers and grocery-store packaging.

I remove compost from the bottom of my bin only when it’s too full to add more food scraps. Usually, that’s about now, when the material has thawed out; and in mid-summer and after Thanksgiving (the holiday produces a lot of food waste the years we host) before any chance of freezing.

The non-food compost also goes into the vegetable garden. When I pull early-season crops like peas, I put down compost so the soil won’t be bare. After the first frost I spread the rest of the compost, concentrating on the areas where I plan to grow heavy feeders such as squash and potatoes. I use a hoe to mix it into the soil.

The whole process takes some time, but it isn’t a lot of work. And it is more environmentally friendly than sending food scraps to landfills or incinerators. Add to this, you’ll save some money by reducing, if not eliminating, the amount of commercial compost you have to buy.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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