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Curbside Composting 101: Try This At Home

November 19, 2014

A Seattle composting guru explains how to compost at home.

SEATTLE — You could say Lauren Ziemski is a bit of a composting guru. She’s been using Seattle’s curbside composting program since it started nearly a decade ago.

Over the years, she’s developed a variety of practices to make separating her garbage easier.

She pulls on a pair of rubber gloves before she takes her compost bin out from under the sink. “Even though I love separating my garbage, I’m not a fan of touching it,” she says.

Despite the growing number of curbside composting programs in the Pacific Northwest, not many people are like Ziemski.

Curbside composting programs are becoming more available throughout the Pacific Northwest, but studies have shown that area residents are slow to take part. In the greater King County area nearly all households can put food scraps in yard waste bins, but a 2011 study found that in a given week only 13 percent actually did.

Credit: Cascadia Consulting Group

“I think this country has a big problem with seeing their own garbage and handling it. We live in a culture where it’s all very hidden and removed,” Ziemski says. “We put our garbage into opaque black bags, and we never see where it goes.”

Composting, Ziemski says, keeps her aware of what she throws away.

When Ziemski isn’t sure of what goes where, she uses this rule of thumb: “If it was alive at some point, it can go into the compost. And if it wasn’t, then it doesn’t.”

There are a few exemptions, for example—coffee cups. Though the cups are made of paper, the inside is lined with plastic which isn’t biodegradable. So when a coffee cup goes through a commercial composting system, parts remain intact. The same goes for milk cartons and ice cream cartons.

If curbside composting isn’t offered in your area backyard food composting is another method. Every apartment building in Seattle with more than five units is required to have a food waste cart available for residents to use.

What Goes In The Compost Bin Twist ties, which are made of plastic and metal, should not get tossed in curbside composting bins. Credit: Katie Campbell

  • Meat, fish, poultry, bones, shellfish
  • Vegetables, fruit trimmings
  • Paper towels, napkins
  • Egg shells, bread, pasta, coffee grounds
  • Dairy products (yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.)
  • Paper coffee filters and tea bags
  • Greasy pizza delivery boxes

What Doesn’t Go In The Compost Bin

  • Plastics and metals (stickers, rubber bands, twist ties)
  • Styrofoam containers
  • Diapers
  • Disposable utensils
  • Facial tissue or toilet paper

Here are more complete composting rules in Portland, Seattle, greater King County, and Tacoma

4 Misconceptions About Curbside Composting

  1. Won’t food just decompose anywhere? Many people assume that food waste will break down naturally in landfills. That’s not the case. The decomposition process in a landfill could range from weeks to years, or in some cases— not at all; the food simply mummifies. In one case, a head of lettuce was unearthed in pristine condition decades after being thrown out.
  2. Won’t keeping food scraps stink up my kitchen? Taking your compost out to the city container frequently will definitely alleviate the smell. Once every few days is recommended. One method to completely eliminate the smell is to freeze it. Keep a brown paper bag in your freezer for food scraps and throw it out when it’s full.
  3. What if I don’t have a curbside composting container? If you’re a resident of King County, all yard waste containers accept compostable items. Some but not all counties accept compost in yard waste, check with your local waste management before putting food scraps in your yard waste.
  4. Does everything in my yard count as yard waste? No. Just because you use an item in your yard doesn’t mean it’s considered “yard waste.” Garbage collectors have dealt with this problem for years. And they’d like to remind everyone that the following items should never go in the yard waste bin: Garden tools, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, flower pots, dog poop and rocks.



Made possible in part by

Katie Campbell

Katie Campbell was the senior managing editor for video at Cascade Public Media and a founding reporter of the public media reporting partnership EarthFix. She covered environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest for more than six years, earning numerous regional and national journalism awards including eight regional Emmy Awards for reporting, photography and editing, a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation and the 2015 international Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Katie currently works as a video journalist for the investigative journalism nonprofit organization ProPublica in New York City.

More stories by Katie Campbell

There are 2 comments

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Katie and Krystal,

Thanks for sharing this educational piece on composting. My company implements sustainability campaigns on college campuses, and composting is a popular focus area. However, there is still a lot of work to do on educating consumers. I'll be sharing information from this article. Really helpful!

The stickers on bananas & apples & avocados and probably 90% of others are both edible and compostable. Read this article for more information:

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