Foodprints for the Future

5 ways to compost during the coronavirus pandemic

Picture this scene: I’m in my kitchen with the freezer door open, thinking about how to fight climate change while preparing for the coronavirus outbreak.

A choice stands before me: climate change action, or coronavirus preparation. In other words, should I ditch my weekly compost stash (the freezer is a great place to stash food waste), or lose precious real estate in my freezer for all kinds of frozen vittles.

Why freeze food trash in the first place? Because food waste is an enormous contributor to climate change — globally, we waste about a third of our food. Put another way: If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter, just behind China and the U.S. 

So, there’s a lot of climate-fighting power in those orange rinds and banana peels. 

Normally, we’d drop off these freezer bags weekly at the farmer’s market, where the city hosts free compost drop-off services. But as cities like mine (Washington, D.C.) take urgent steps like social distancing to bend the curve on coronavirus transmissions, these weekly drop-off services have been suspended. 

If you, too, have a freezer full of food waste, or a heart full of guilt, you’re not alone. But even in a pandemic, there are ways to cut your food waste. 

Because while we take urgent steps to upend our lives to curb the coronavirus, we can’t lose sight of the longer game here — our global climate crisis. With that in mind, here are five ways to compost more creatively, even during a pandemic:

1. Do an audit

Do an audit of your fridge and your freezer. The refrigerator is often the place where food goes to die for too many well-meaning people — now’s the time to clean the slate and start fresh. 

Pull everything out of your fridge, wipe it down and check the freshness of your items: Sort the produce that needs to be eaten from the ones that have more time, check your expiration dates on items that have been shoved to the back and toss (compost!) the food that is truly bad. Do the same for your pantry and your freezer. 

Finally, put everything back, bringing the oldest items to the front, and pushing the newest to the back. This way, you’ll naturally grab (and eat) the foods closest to their expiration date first. Hopefully, this audit will let you know what you need, what you have and what’s about to expire.

2. Consider your options (and befriend your neighbors)

So you have a freezer full of compost and nowhere to put it? Hope is not lost. Many compost companies would love to get their hands on your food waste.

After a little research in your city, you may find some viable options — here in D.C., several compost pickup services will collect your compost every week for about a dollar a day. 

But adding one more expense may not be in the cards right now. Instead, chat with your neighbors about going in together on a pick-up. Or snoop around for a neighbor who’s already signed up for a composting service and ask to share the same bucket and split the costs.

3. Pick-me-up, don’t throw me out

If you’re like me, there’s a constant pot of coffee fueling your stay-at-home reality. But that also means there are piles and piles of coffee grounds, and the occasional cup of stale coffee left at the bottom of the carafe.

You know who else loves coffee? Your plants! Coffee is a rich source of nitrogen for plants, both indoor and outdoor. Outside, sprinkle old coffee grounds around your plants, working the old grounds into the mulch — the grounds can help keep slugs and other plant pests away, too. Remember, though, this is coffee. You wouldn’t throw back eight shots of espresso, so don’t bury your plants in coffee grounds. 

Even inside, most potted plants love a sip of coffee now and again. Add some water to leftover coffee (enough to give it a tea tint), and water your plants with this mixture about once or twice a month. 

4. Eat your vegetables

After you’ve done that personal food audit (see step 1), scoop any of those vegetables in the need-to-eat now category, and make some vegetable soup!

For soup, you can use a little bit of everything. Soup is the place for your forgotten celery, your carrots that have seen better days. Remember that old thing of thyme that’s now just dried twigs? Use it all. 

Find a harmonious balance of vegetables, chop and saute them in olive oil, add seasonings and herbs, cover with water or broth and let them simmer away. Now for a culinary choose-your-own adventure — add some beans, tomatoes and pasta for a nice pasta e fagioli or minestrone; or some orzo pasta and lemon and cracked black pepper for a light springish soup.

Or you could blend the whole mess up, add a dollop of something creamy. Incidentally, this is also a great way to trick your kids into eating more vegetables.

And what about your veggie scraps? Keep them in a bag in the freezer (don’t worry, we’re using them soon). Once you have a critical mass, toss all your scraps into a large pot, add some spices (bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme, salt, you name it) and cover with water. Then let that simmer away for a few hours, taste, season, strain and — voila — homemade vegetable broth. 

5. Planting on eggshells

If you’re a plant lover, eggshells are your friend. It’s the perfect time of year to start some new seedlings, and you don’t need one of those plastic seedling trays. 

Instead, as you’re cracking eggs, keep the halves left behind. Eggshells are a perfect little cup for your seedlings, a safe and semi-porous environment that your plant infants will love.

When you’re ready to plant, nestle your eggshell halves in your egg cartons, add a scoop of potting soil to each, drop in your seed or seeds, cover lightly, and let them sprout! Just don’t overwater them since you don’t have any drainage holes — a light mist with a spray bottle is great. This is a really great activity to do with kids as well over a week or two.

And once you’re ready to plant them, here’s the fun part — just plant them straight in the ground or pot, eggshell and all! Crush your eggshell bottom slightly to get things started as you’re planting your seedling, but the eggshell will decompose slowly into the soil, feeding it with minerals. 

So what am I doing with that freezer full food scraps, you’re still wondering? After I tossed one bag in the trash, I couldn’t stomach it anymore. The food waste felt too egregious, and the environmental and moral implications of so much wasted food feels even more upsetting during these dire times. 

So, I signed up for a compost pick-up service with a few neighbors. It’s another expense, but one I’ve been weighing for some time, and I’m glad to support local businesses where I can. 

Ultimately, this isn’t compost vs. coronavirus. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. While we’re fighting a battle today against COVID-19, we can’t lose sight of the long game: climate change. 

Unless we do everything in our power to both “bend the curve” on coronavirus and our climate crisis, we might as well start preparing for the next pandemic. Because in a warmer world, extreme weather events, vector-borne diseases and pandemics will only be even more likely.

So do what you can, wherever you can. Wash your hands, stay at home. Don’t waste your food, compost what you can. Let’s keep calm, compost and make it through this.