The Do’s and Don’ts of Composting With Lauren Singer

Zero-waste expert Lauren Singer breaks it down.

It’s hard to imagine that zero-waste extraordinaire Lauren Singer could ever have experienced a trash-induced mishap.

After all, she’s the authority on living this kind of waste-free lifestyle. But even Lauren can run into a composting blunder here and there. Her mishap even included a run-in with a celebrity—but more on that later.

There are, of course, a few common questions that surround composting. The standards: Where do you do it, how do you do it, and probably the most frequently asked question, doesn’t it smell? Lauren answers all of these questions, and explains that if you do it right, the smell (thankfully) won’t be an issue.

The Where

To put it simply, all you really have to do is look.

“A really easy way to look is literally just doing a Google search,” says Lauren. “Just simply type in ‘compost pick-up’ in your city, or go to your city’s sanitation website to see if they offer composting.” Lauren adds that composting can also be called “organic collection,” so be sure to look out for that, too.

Some cities, like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland, have municipal composting pick-up in some or all neighborhoods, meaning compost is collected just like recycling or garbage.

Some locations offer drop-off locations for your compost, too. Lauren’s go-to drop-off spot? The farmers market in New York City. As Lauren notes, it’s good to get on a schedule, and she finds that heading to the farmers market once a week on Saturdays fits well within her routine. This way, she can do a little post-drop-off food shopping, too.

If your city doesn’t offer a municipal pick-up or have a farmers market drop-off, Lauren suggests heading to businesses that do composting, like coffee shops or natural food markets. “When I lived in LA for a little while, my house didn’t have a drop off,” Lauren says, “so, I would just drop my compost off at Whole Foods.”

You can also do your composting at home, which leads us to “the how” …

The How

“Composting is really the easiest thing to do, ever,” says Lauren. The basis for this statement? The only equipment you need to purchase if you’re composting at home is a compost bin. That, plus your actual compost waste, is literally all it takes at the most basic level.

A few different at-home composting options exist, depending on the space in which you’ll be working. “In an apartment, you can do something like vermicomposting, which is composting with worms, or use a Bokashi Bucket, which is another at home composting method,” says Lauren.

So, how much of what’s in your refrigerator and kitchen cabinets can you compost? Almost all of it, save meat and bones. Meat is a bit more difficult to break down in an at home composter, and Lauren doesn’t recommend it. “If you live in a place with woods, just throw [the meat scraps] into the woods,” she suggests.

Things like grass and garden clippings, plants, vegetables, egg shells, most foods, and even hair and nail clippings can head straight to your composting bin.

The Smell

Now, lets get to the biggest question. HOW do you avoid a smell?

As Lauren will remind, if you’re doing it right, there won’t be a smell. In fact, not composting will likely result in a more pungent odor coming from your garbage can. “If you use the right amount of paper, wood pulp, and/or coffee grounds, it won’t smell. When the compost is ready it’s just soil, so it will smell like soil.”

The Do’s and Don’ts of Composting

Do your research.

Not all composting bins are created equal. I had recently come across a bin at one of my favorite retailers that was described as an “odor-free composting bin.” When I brought this up to Lauren she informed me that this was only a bin to house compost, and it wouldn’t actually break down what’s inside of it. So, do your research, and make sure you’re getting what you need!

Do make sure you put a lid on it.

This is basic common sense. If you don’t want animals to be attracted to your compost bin, keep it sealed. “It’s the same thing as garbage. If you have your garbage lying out with no lid on it animals are going to come get it,” Lauren says. “But a lot of the composting bins that you can buy for outdoor composting have closed, locked lids so animals can’t get it.”

Don’t be afraid to speak up.

“If you don’t have an option, don’t forget your power as an individual to create one.” Lauren says. “Engage a few friends and do a communal composting, talk to your sanitation department, or your city government to try to designate a local composting site,” Lauren suggests.

“It sounds like a lot of work, but for anything to get started—especially on a municipal scale—there always needs to be a pilot.”

Do freeze your compost.

Lauren says, “keeping it in your freezer is just like keeping any other food in your freezer, it won’t contaminate anything. It won’t get your other food gross, it doesn’t make anything dirty. It’s totally safe.”

In fact, Lauren freezes her compost, too. “The reason I freeze it as well is that it helps it to not leak when I’m transporting it. My walk is 20 blocks to the farmers market, and it won’t melt in that time, so there’s no risk of leakage.”

Don’t try to transport your compost in paper towels.

Remember that mishap I referred to earlier? Well, here’s the story.

After Thanksgiving, Lauren took compost from her aunt’s house to bring to a drop-off. Unfortunately, neither she, nor her aunt, had paper bags, so, Lauren got inventive. “I literally wrapped it in paper towels,” Lauren recalls, “because I was like ‘I refuse to throw this in the garbage,’ but it wasn’t frozen, and I took it all without freezing it—which inherently was a very big mistake.”

A long three-hour drive caused the compost to begin to seep through the paper towels, threatening disaster.

“I got out of the car to go take it to the market, and standing right in front of me was Miss J. Alexander from ‘America’s Next Top Model,'” Lauren says. “All of the compost fell through the paper towels and all over the ground right in front of Miss J. So, I had to scoop up this compost from the floor and put it in a tray and bring it in to the market all in front of like, the most fabulous human ever.”

Do yourself a favor, and learn about your impact.

Oftentimes, people may not be aware that much of what they’re putting in their garbage cans is compostable—even Lauren. “I started composting basically right when I went zero waste,” she explains. “When I looked at my garbage I realized that a large percentage of what I was throwing away was actually organic food scraps.”

Lauren went on to tell me that in the US a staggering 63 percent of the waste that ends up in our landfills is actually compostable. “By NOT throwing anything into landfill you are actively helping to take a stance against propagating climate change,” Lauren says.

Maggie Peikon bio2Maggie Peikon is a New York native, writer, and sufferer of insatiable wanderlust. An avid endorphin seeker she has a constant need to be moving, seeking adventure in all she does. She is a lover of travel, daydreaming, fitness, thunderstorms, and her dog, Finley. Despite the fact that she has to take medication daily due to a thyroidectomy, Maggie still believes that laughter will always be the best medicine. Follow her musings on Instagram and Twitter.