This month’s guest post comes not from another blogger, but someone I’ve known through Facebook for a year and a half since I first started my “No Spend November” challenge back at the end of 2017. This past January, she let us all know in the group that she would be embarking on a pantry challenge and shared her wins along the way.
She did such an awesome, thorough job, and as clearly reducing food costs is a constant struggle in my house, I asked her to write a guest post here all about her experience so I could share it here with all of you.
While a pantry challenge may not at first blush seem in line with my guest post series here on “sustainability and zero waste,” food waste is something that pretty much all of us struggles with, and as something like 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year, it’s something we should all be paying much closer attention to.
We’ve gotten much better than reducing our food waste ourselves, but we are still far from perfect. Just reading her words here and then reading once more about the global problem of food waste makes me think we need to try this for real ourselves (just because something is composted doesn’t mean it’s not also waste). We’ve done a number of months where we’ve focused on eating what we have in the freezer and pantry, but never in a serious way like this. Hopefully I will take inspiration and create our own challenge in the near future, but for now, I’m going to pass this off to Loni and let her talk about her first experience with a Pantry Challenge.
Considering how much I am into gardening these days, you would think that I would be all about composting at home as well. I’ve even had a number of people ask me to write about my composting process. Here’s the (not so) secret: I don’t do any composting myself, and I never have, other than helping a little bit as a child when we did have a compost for our garden.
We live in an area with curbside pickup; yard waste and compost get thrown together in our big gray bin and each week (except when it snows too much and the garbage trucks can’t make it up our hill). Really, I put no more thought into composting than I do our recycling: anything that belongs in those bins simply gets put in there and then put to the curb once a week.
If we didn’t have curb composting, I’d likely have started my own at this point, but reminding myself of the true cost of saying yes, it’s not something that is worth my limited time to do on my own when I have such an easy option. And since it’s taken to an industrial compost facility, meat and dairy are compostable there as well.
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The only ONE thing we do that requires an extra step over simply tossing our food scraps into the yard waste bin is to keep a small compost bin on our kitchen counter and bio bags to catch the scraps before they go outside. While we initially made do with an old plastic bucket with a plate to cover it and no liners, having a nice compost bin and the bio bag liners make it a much nicer experience (no smell and no mess).
Regardless, composting is so simple and easy for us because of our curbside pickup. I had never considered what we would have done without that option, but when Laurie at The Three Year Experiment told me she had actually gotten her town to start compost pickup, I knew I had to know more.
She may say she hasn’t been a huge environmentalist, but taking the initiative to get curb composting to her neighborhood is sustainability rockstar status in my book. With that, I’ll turn the rest of this post over to her to tell the story of how she managed to get curbside compost to her little corner of the world.
Curb Composting: How to Bring It to Your Neighborhood
I’m going to make a confession, and it’s a hard one to make on this blog that is dedicated to being kinder to the earth: I’ve never been much of an environmentalist.
Yes, over the years I would half-heartedly recycle. But I never went to the trouble to wash out those pesky peanut butter jars, and if the recycling bin got too full I’d just chuck stuff right into the trash.
I didn’t even really pay much attention to the trash we made, at all, aside from getting annoyed in the summer months that it stank and attracted maggots.
But a few years ago, I stumbled upon Bea Johnson’s blog Zero Waste Home, and something about her incredible, ridiculous goal to eliminate all the trash her family produced resonated with me.
Hi, I’m Laurie, and just over two years ago, my family of four started a journey to engineer our lives to have more freedom and travel time. Six months ago, we became location independent. Along the way, we’ve worked towards financial independence, embraced minimalism, and as I just mentioned, discovered the Zero Waste movement. I document our journey towards freer living at The Three Year Experiment.
After I discovered Zero Waste Home, I still wasn’t prepared to eliminate all of our family’s waste. But I did start paying more attention to what I bought at the grocery store, bringing my own mesh bags and even jars to the store so I brought less plastic packaging home.
I even bought our family a compost bin, which we put across the expanse of our large back yard. I put a bucket under our sink, and we filled it up with food waste pretty quickly. Then I’d trudge across the yard and open the bin, using the pitchfork to turn the food scraps, and more often than not ending up with a heap of smelly stuff.
Winters were particularly hard to compost, because we had to plod across the six feet of snow in the yard (we lived in New Hampshire), brush the mound of snow off the top of the bin, and pry the icy levers on the sides open. The pitchfork was almost always frozen into the ground, so we didn’t turn the compost, instead just letting it pile up in an icy chunk.
We could never dump any kind of meat into our bin, especially in the summer, because it attracted bears and racoons. More than once, I had to put the bin back together after a bear swiped at it and split it into four pieces, scattering our food scraps across the yard.
After a year or two of this, we gave up, and sent our food waste back to the trash. Which left me with an unhappy, unsettled feeling, because I loved that we had effectively reduced the amount of trash we made by 3/4, and that we no longer had stinky, smelly bags to haul to the dump.
So when I saw a Curbside Composting booth one day at our local farmer’s market, I stopped. Jessica, the owner, talked to me a bit about what curbside composting was. “We give you a 5-gallon bucket, with a lid,” she explained, and then you take it outside to your curb once a week and we pick it up for you, leaving you a clean bucket for the following week. Oh, and you can compost anything.”
“Meat?” I asked.
“Yes, meat, egg shells, any kind of food waste…”
“Coffee grounds? The leftovers in the back of the fridge?”
I went home to think more about it and then wrote her with a million questions. What happened to our food scraps? Were they composted? Could we get the compost? How much did this service cost? Would it smell up the house as bad as the previous compost bucket had?
Jessica patiently explained that the scraps went to an industrial composting center, and they were composted. We could request up to four bags of compost per month with our service, she just needed a week’s notice. The service was $19.99 to pick up one 5-gallon bucket of compost per week. It shouldn’t smell at all since the bucket had a close-fitting lid.
Oh, and the service wasn’t available in my small town. Sorry.
I was sad. This service seemed perfect for a fairly-lazy quazi-environmentalist (friend of the earth? Only-when-it’s-convenient hippy?). So the following week at the farmer’s market, I asked what it would take to bring the service to our town. She told me that if five committed families signed up, she could collect compost in our town.
I was a woman on a mission. I posted info on Facebook, sent emails to my friends, talked it up with my running group. Finally, I found four other friends that I browbeat convinced to join me in Curbside Compost Pickup.
Immediately, my family fell in love with the service. We all learned to scrape our plates into the bucket under the sink. We through our veggie and food preparation scraps right into the bucket, moving it directly under the cutting board for big meals.
On Wednesday mornings, I’d pull our now-full bucket out to the mailbox, and on Wednesday afternoons, grab the empty and clean new bucket.
We started creating about one bag of trash every two weeks, when previously, we filled up our trash can once every 1-2 days.
And our compost never smelled, even with meat scraps, because of the tight-fitting lid.
Over the next few months, I realized that our family was changing its behavior because of the compost bin. We were wasting less food, because we were becoming more aware of how much we threw away. We bought less produce and used what we had in the fridge up before buying more. We even threw away less leftovers, because when you fill up an entire compost bucket each week, you start to become hyper-aware of how much food you waste, and you almost subconsciously change your behavior to improve.
It was a dream come true, many years in the making, to move from chilly New Hampshire, where we had no family at all, to warm and sunny North Carolina, where my sister lives 12 minutes away.
But we couldn’t bring our curbside composting with us. While we did now have a dedicated recycling bin to use each week, try as I might, I couldn’t find a curbside composting service that would service our neighborhood.
We went back to tossing our food scraps in the trash. And now that I had experience composting, it drove me absolutely crazy to chuck so much food waste into the landfill.
I did what I could to reduce the amount of food we wasted, even freezing my veggie scraps to make broth, but it wasn’t the same.
I filled out online forms for composting companies, and finally, one company wrote me back. “Ask your friends and neighbors to fill out this form, and if enough families are interested, we’ll look into offering curbside compost to your area.”
Again, I started a Facebook campaign, posted on NextDoor, and talked up curbside composting with my friends. We need fifteen committed customers (because this is a larger urban area), so I’m going to keep talking it up.
We haven’t brought curbside composting to my neighborhood yet, but I’m not giving up.
Curbside composting is a fantastic service that should be offered in more areas, because it helps those of us who aren’t as committed to what can be the hard work of composting to creating less food waste with our trash.
People are willing to pay for a service that helps them do the right thing, if it’s offered. I know that the $20 per month I spent on the service was easily saved at the supermarket in one week, with the reduced amount of food I was now buying.
I know my friends want to compost, but because of HOA rules in our neighborhood, aren’t able to. I’m going to keep talking the service up, and encouraging composting companies to come to our area, because this is a service whose time has come.
I may be a lukewarm environmentalist, but I’m a huge fan of curbside compost, and I’m convinced we’re going to rally enough interest to bring it to my neighborhood, once again.