Make the Most of Your Food Waste: Compost


People have begun their holiday grocery shopping, and as food enters the picture, why not keep food waste to a minimum? Make this holiday season the start of your composting practices and the gift that keeps on giving. 

Experts at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) say all it takes to compost is a small, designated space where food waste, plant clippings and even manure can be layered and combined with water and the air we breathe. Together, they are all wrapped up in a composting bin designed to keep pests out and food waste away from landfills. 

Still need a reason to compost and some basics on how to get started? UF/IFAS experts suggest a quick plan and some prep work while making your shopping list and meals as the first steps. Here are some of their composting insights and tips. 

The Benefits of Composting

Composting provides several benefits, including relieving many of the current environmental issues triggered by the reduction of public recycling programs and demands for more land for landfills.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies food waste in the United States into three categories: excessive, expensive and environmentally harmful,” says Randall Penn, a waste reduction agent at UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County. “Also, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills contribute up to 18 percent of our methane emissions annually.”

Food is the most common material sent to landfills, comprising 24.1% of municipal solid waste in the United States, according to the EPA. When yard trimmings, wood and paper/paperboard are added to food, these organic materials make up 51.4% of municipal solid waste in landfills. 

“It makes sense to compost, especially if you can use food waste to benefit your own plant beds and even give your waste to another industry to be reused instead of adding to landfill acreage,” says Mica McMillan, assistant professor of palm horticulture at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. “There are many programs for those interested in composting through UF/IFAS, counties and cities.”

Composting Systems

You can use several types of composting systems at home, says Penn.  

One approach is considered “hot” composting, using a bin or tumbler, Penn continues. Hot composting will yield the fastest rate of composting and best control of weed seed and plant pathogens. Hot composting is also the most intensive method and requires four main ingredients to be successful:

  • A carbon source, browns (woody plant materials found in nature such as leaves, stalks, branches, grass clippings, sawdust, corrugated cardboard, paper)
  • A nitrogen source, greens (food waste)
  • Water
  • Air

The second approach is using worms, says Lorna Bravo, UF/IFAS Extension Broward County director and urban horticulture agent.

“Vermicomposting, also known as vermiculture or worm composting, uses worms to break down waste materials into compost,” she says. “Worm casting adds microbes to the soil and helps retain moisture, which significantly reduces food waste and Florida’s organic waste.” 

By using earthworms, they break down organic material into a stable product to ultimately serve as a soil amendment and a source of plant nutrients. 

“This means that worms can help eat your food scraps and will create nutrient-rich soil that you can use in your garden. This method of dealing with your excess food can be done from your home, easy to do and healthier for the environment,” Bravo explains.

If you generate only kitchen and table scraps, live where compost is not allowed or don’t have a yard, then vermicomposting is the way to go, she said. 

What to Consider If You Decide to Vermicompost

Worms can eat most of your food scraps that you produce, including fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, rinsed eggshells, plain grains and bread. Avoid such foods as meat, dairy, oil, seasonings, spicy and acidic foods. You will also generally want to avoid cooked foods containing butter, oils or seasonings, Penn says.

Another tip to consider is that worms can go without food for several weeks.  You do not have to feed them every day, just throw in your food scraps as you produce them throughout the week.

Finally, you do not have to worry much about underfeeding worms. Instead, a common mistake is overfeeding. 

“Overfeeding will attract flies and produce a foul odor. If you notice that the worms are taking a long time to eat the food, you may be overfeeding them,” says Penn. “If they have large amounts of uneaten food, hold back on feeding your worms for a couple days until they catch up.” 

What Waste Can You Compost?

While you are making your food shopping list, here are some items you can put on your checklist of foods to toss into your compost bin at the end of the meal.

  • Tea leaves
  • Coffee powder
  • Fruit and vegetable waste
  • Spoiled rice
  • Decayed nuts and soybeans
  • Spoiled tomato paste
  • Tofu, tempeh, seaweed
  • Moldy cheese
  • Corn seeds and cobs
  • Piths from avocados, mangos, peaches and plums
  • Wine, beer
  • Seeds
  • Herbs and spices
  • Jelly, jam,
  • Dry pet food
  • Yam peels

Items to Avoid in Your Compost Bin 

Adding items to the compost pile that don’t break down, like plastic non-biodegradable bags, seed-laden weeds, diseased plants, bones and foods with oils, dressings or fats like meat, dairy products, should not be composted. These are difficult for most home composting units to reach the high temperatures needed to destroy these pests and may attract animals or produce an objectionable odor, explains McMillan. 

UF/IFAS has an excellent Extension publication, Compost Tips for the Home Gardener, on examples of compost materials as well as common mistakes that beginners make. 

“Keep in mind that making mistakes is the fun part of the process, allowing you to see what materials worked well and what didn’t is an excellent activity to start with children or even your neighbors,” says McMillan. 

Compost Uses

Compost can be used in landscape and field crop productions as a soil amendment. It has found uses in the horticulture, viticulture, greenhouse production, turfgrass applications and for erosion control — just to name a few production arenas that benefit from the compost industry. 

“Compost can be used to improve the soil structure as well as water and nutrient holding capacity of a soil, particularly sandy soils,” explains McMillan. “Enhancing soil health increases plant vigor which enables plants better able to withstand environmental stresses like drought.”

For homeowners, your compost or your neighbor’s can be used as a soil amendment in your landscape and container plants. Immature compost could also be used for weed control in areas where plants are not wanted. 

Want to know more? Reach out to your UF/IFAS Extension office in your county for programs, information and assistance. 

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