Geneseo’s sustainability experts share simple steps to compost at home.

By Mat Johnson

“Some things just take time — like good wine and compost,” says Dan DeZarn, Geneseo’s director of sustainability.

Technically, composting is “the decomposition of organic waste,” says DeZarn, himself a backyard composter. In any active compost pile, oxygen-seeking bacteria are busy breaking down organic material. The result is a soil-like material for planting and growing food, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers.

Composting allows us to put valuable nutrients back into the earth, rather than letting them only deteriorate in landfills. Without oxygen, the scraps just turn into methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Composting gives us a great foundation for growing veggies and blooms, instead.

At Geneseo, students were integral to launching the college’s super-successful composting program in 2017. It has grown every year. Compost bins are in all academic and residential buildings, and Campus Auxiliary Services staff toss in scraps from food prep, too. Student sustainability volunteers and interns collect buckets weekly. Despite diminished on-campus presence in 2020-2021, they collected more than 2,700 pounds of organic material. In turn, discarded food, paper towels, cardboard, coffee grounds and other organic waste find new life with veggies grown in the eGarden, some of which are used by Campus Auxiliary Services in dining halls. Facilities Services also uses the compost for landscaping, so students might not realize that their uneaten lunch scraps are feeding the flowers that line the College Green!

Compost crew member Miranda Blaauboer ’21 analyzed from home the data collected by her on-campus colleagues last semester. Composting, she says, has demonstrated “how much impact an individual can make. It affirms there are small actions that you can take and see the difference they make.”

Compost helps keep gardens lush on campus. /Photo by Keith Walters ’11

Holly Moore ’22 even helped her family set up a backyard compost at home to reduce their own waste. “I thought, ‘I have to do something about this,’ so I thought I would get involved, learn more about what I can do to help, and how I can lead to greater change in the future.”

Composting, Moore says, “is a process that does its magic on its own.” With limited effort, you can get results. It’s easy, fun and you don’t need a lot to do it!

Follow these tips from the Geneseo compost crew to make your first endeavor into composting a fruitful one. 

Start with a basic outdoor pile, which is an example of open-air composting.

You’ll need — you guessed it — a yard! But only a few square feet can work nicely. If you want to do your part but don’t have a yard, see if there are compost collection services in your area. Indoor composting is another option.  If you’re not squeamish around worms, here’s a way to set up your own indoor composting bin.

You can build a simple structure to contain your compost in a matter of minutes by wrapping a length of chicken wire into a cylinder and supporting it with a few wooden stakes. Watch how to build one here!

There are four key ingredients to a healthy compost bin:

  • Greens. This is your nitrogen-rich organic food waste, including fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds and stale bread. This also includes garden scraps and grass clippings from lawns not treated with pesticides. Avoid things like grease or oil and meat, which may draw unwanted pests.
  • Browns. These are carbon-rich and include hay or straw, dead leaves, twigs, newspapers, cardboard and brown paper bags.
  • Water. Unless you’re in a drought, the amount of rain that falls into your pile should do the trick. If you’re nervous, water it like you would your garden. Compost piles are like moisture sponges.
  • Oxygen. Using something like chicken wire is a great way to increase airflow compared to a system that uses solid walls, due to the wide-open spaces. Some people will poke their piles with sticks or tools occasionally for additional aeration. Don’t pack things in tightly when adding material to the pile—making sure they’re loose will keep things breezy.

Think of your compost pile as a seven-layer dip. It’s best to layer the “greens” and “browns” separately, using twice as many of the browns. If the pile smells, the ratio of browns-to-greens may be off, or it may be too wet or compacted. To lessen the funk, turn over the compost with a shovel while adding in more browns.

Most piles take anywhere from two months to two years until they’re ready to use, so many composters will have two piles: one active pile and one that’s aging. You’ll know it’s ready when it’s dark brown and crumbly.

Here’s a great resource for learning more about composting, and you can also use that link to look up residential collection services that may be in your area. Happy composting!