No-Waste Composting with Michelle Balz

Episode 2
Sustainability Book Chat

no waste composting with Michelle Balz

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If you like things that are free and natural, then compost checks both boxes when it comes to fertilizing your garden and even your houseplants. In this episode, I’m talking to Michelle Balz about her book, No Waste Composting: Small-Space Waste Recycling Indoors and Out.

We discuss free and inexpensive ways that you can turn your waste into black gold. We start by talking about the benefits of composting, and then discuss composting basics, including both regular composting and vermicomposting.

The book includes ideas about how to create composting systems both indoors and out, including how to compost pet manure! (No, not in your regular compost pile!) One of my favorite ideas in the book is how to turn an old garbage can into a compost tumbler.

We also talk about mistakes beginners make, and we conclude with how to use your finished compost.

Michelle Balz’ other book:

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Transcript – No-Waste Composting

Deborah Niemann 0:00
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. I am incredibly excited to be joined by Michelle Balz, who is the author of No-Waste Composting: Small-Space Waste Recycling, Indoors and Out. And this is a really exciting topic for me, because I hate, hate, hate wasting anything. And, I really felt like I knew all about composting, and I’ve read certainly a lot of books about composting. I’ve even done, you know, like, hour-long lectures at conferences and stuff on composting. And I was really excited by a lot of the new methods and new ideas that Michelle had in her book, and I am so excited to be able to share them with all of you today. Welcome to the show, Michelle!

Michelle Balz 0:46
Thanks for having me, Deborah.

Deborah Niemann 0:48
It is great to have you here today! The first thing—because the subtitle of your book is Small-Space Waste Recycling, Indoors and Out. So, can you give us an idea of, like, what exactly you mean by “small spaces,” “indoors and out”? Because I know a lot of people think like, “Oh, I can’t compost because I live in an apartment,” or “I have a tiny yard. My neighbors are too close.” So, how small are we talking?

Michelle Balz 1:14
So, I have methods in there from maybe 1-foot by 2-foot spaces, all the way up to a pallet-sized bin in your backyard. So, even that is relatively small compared to some composting. I didn’t want people to feel like you have to have a lot of space. You don’t even have to have a backyard. If you have a patio, or you have a space under your sink and you want to do vermicomposting, you can compost at home.

no waste composting_illustration
photo credit to Andrea MacFarland

Deborah Niemann 1:44
That’s awesome. So, one of the things that I love that you say pretty early on in the book is “know the rules and when to break them.” And then you go on to tell us how to break some of those rules, which I just love, because I am definitely a rule breaker. I see so many people saying things, like “You can’t compost dog poop.” And I always felt like, “Well really? Why not?” Like, I really want to know why you can’t do it, and, like, surely there is a way that you can do that. And so that’s one of the things that you talk about in the book. You know, you tell people, like, “Don’t just throw it in your kitchen compost bin,” but you do tell us, like, why not to do it, and then what you can do instead so that you’re not putting the dog poop into the garbage can to be taken off to the landfill. Another thing, too, is you talk about untraditional compostables, like soy milk. I’ve never thought about that. But, like, your plant milks, you know, you think, “Oh, it’s gone bad, so I’m just gonna have to pour it down the sink.” Vacuum cleaner dust, dryer lint, nail clippings, hair… I never thought about throwing any of those things into a compost bin. Did you just experiment with this? Or, how did you learn all of this?

Michelle Balz 2:58
I did. So, I’ve been experimenting for quite a while with different materials. And pretty much, if a material is from a plant, you can compost it. So things like soy milk or almond milk, they’re made from plants, and so, you know, they will end up composting. And things like dryer lint—and I’ll get some people that will say, “Well, parts of that are, you know, little plastic fibers from our plastic clothes that we wear, things with polyester blends in them.” And that’s true. Those little tiny fibers, polyester blends, are not going to break down. But they’re so small that you will not see them in your finished compost. So, if you’re one of those people that, you know, are really getting scared about plastics, then you probably shouldn’t be wearing polyester-blend clothes to start with. So, anything that is small enough like that to break down—even things like Q-tips that are made with real cardboard and cotton—are going to break down, because that is a plant-based material. So you can really think outside of the box when you’re looking at what you’re throwing away and what you could be composting.

Deborah Niemann 4:05
Okay. So, in your book, you’ve got some really terrific lists of things that you can compost and things you can’t compost, including the nontraditional that I never even thought of before. Some people just feel like there are so many rules, and they get kind of paralyzed by the rules. Like, other than… Reading the book, of course, I think is, like, the best #1 step, but what would you have to say to somebody who just feels like, “Oh, I’m scared to try composting because it sounds really dangerous, and scary, and difficult, and complicated…?”

Michelle Balz 4:35
So, when you’re starting composting, I really recommend that you start small, start simple. So, do your leaves—that’s going to be the biggest thing that probably is falling if you have a backyard, your brown leaves—fresh fruit and vegetable scraps, and coffee grounds or tea bags. Start there. And, once you get that developed, and you’ve got a system for that, then you can start adding in things like your Q-tips, or, you know, your eggshells, or things that are kind of next level. Things like the cooked fruits and vegetables, like the old broccoli that you forgot you had in the back of the fridge. And I say that’s “next level,” because the cooked fruits and vegetables, if you don’t compost them correctly, they’re going to have an odor. So you have to make sure that those are always covered with leaves when you put them in there. So, starting simply and just doing your fruit and vegetable scraps and just doing your your brown leaves and your coffee grounds, that’s going to give you that success and that confidence to then move to the next level. You don’t have to start with everything right away; you can just start with a few simple things and get good at that and then move on.

Deborah Niemann 5:45
Exactly, yeah. And people don’t need to do things like weigh their garbage and stuff like that. I’ve seen people get really carried away with, like, trying to balance the browns and the greens and stuff.

gathering of waste
photo credit to Andrea MacFarland

Deborah Niemann 5:57
So, another complaint that I hear people say sometimes is they feel like, “Oh, this is expensive. I’m going to have to buy an expensive compost bin.” And of course, there are plenty of people willing to take your money if you want to buy an expensive compost bin. But one of the great things about your book is that it includes a lot of plans for compost bins, and I’ve seen a lot of them before, but then also quite a few that I did not see. And one of my favorite ones is how to make a tumbler compost bin from an old trash can. And this is something I want to do, because I’ve always looked at those tumbler composters like, “Oh, I wish I had one of those, because they make compost faster.” But they are expensive. And you give us a plan to make one totally for free. So, can you explain how to do that?

Michelle Balz 6:50
Yes. So in No Waste Composting, I really did set out to come up with great reuse projects, and also projects that were really frugal, because I am a very frugal person. I don’t like to spend money that I don’t have to. So, the garbage can tumbler is a great project to do if you have an old garbage can that you’re not using anymore. And the idea is really simple. You need to make sure that you drill enough holes in it to allow for drainage; if you don’t drill the holes, then it’s going to get too wet and mushy, right? You have to drill enough holes for drainage, and I explain how to do that. And then you want to make sure you secure the lid. You know, you can do that with a bungee cord if it doesn’t snap down tight. But then, once you’ve done that, you can fill the the tumbler—you want to at least put 2 parts brown to 1 part green in a tumbler situation. And then you just tip it on its side and kind of push it around the yard, and it’s gonna tumble. It’s not the beautiful, you know, $200 tumbler that you can buy. You know, it’s not going to be, you know, a nice hand crank, but you can push it around the yard, or have your kids push it around the yard. And it’s going to work just fine. You probably want to tuck it away out of sight, because it is a garbage can; it looks like a garbage can. But it does the job.

Deborah Niemann 8:02
Yeah. And that sounds like something that, like, kids would think is really fun. Like, “Hey, kids, let’s roll the garbage can around the yard!”

Michelle Balz 8:10
For sure. I mean, it’s something my kids would love to do.

Deborah Niemann 8:13
Yeah, exactly. I could see my grandson loving to help with that. He’s four. So that would be right up his alley.

Michelle Balz 8:20
Perfect, yeah.

Deborah Niemann 8:21
Another one of your really awesome ideas—well, you had so many. Like, you talk about Hügelkultur and Bokashi composting, and I’ve heard of those; I’ve even done Hügelkultur, because we live on 32 acres, so we’ve got lots of trees and branches and stuff. You also talk about pit composting, which I thought was super cool. And you talked about African keyhole garden composting, which I also thought was super cool. Because I’m always looking for ways to save time, and once you set those up, you’re just throwing your food scraps in there. You just want to pick one of those and tell us how exactly it works?

Michelle Balz 8:57
Sure! So, I love the idea of the African keyhole garden. And I was lucky enough to be able to help build one at a community garden. And I don’t have enough room in my backyard right now, unfortunately, but the idea is you’re building a raised bed that’s circular and it has a keyhole cut out. And in the center, there is a compost bin. Now, this idea did come from Africa—that’s why it’s called the “African keyhole garden”—and it was originally designed for places that didn’t get a lot of rain. And so, the idea would be that you could grow fruits and vegetables in this raised bed, and then the scraps that you added to the compost bin would actually help water and provide nutrients to the surrounding plants. And the original designs have you almost putting cardboard—like, a layer of cardboard—underneath. You can build the walls out of anything that you can find. You know, traditionally it’s rocks, but you can build it out of pavers or, you know, whatever you have available. And then the inside wire bin, you want to make it something that has, like, wire mesh, or fencing, or something that has holes that will allow the water and nutrients out; you don’t want to do, like, a black plastic bin, right, that doesn’t allow that exchange. And then, any watering that you do is down into the compost, and then that goes out to the garden as well. So, it’s a really nice way to provide kind of long-lasting, sustainable nutrients to that surrounding bed in a fun way, and incorporate your compost bin into your garden.

Deborah Niemann 10:33
That is awesome. I was hoping you would pick that one, because I was looking at that one. And that’s the one that I’ve got my eye on now that I’m thinking, “Oh, I want to do this!” Because, I made a huge mistake: We have a compost bin, and I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna put it right outside my kitchen door.” And that actually made it too convenient, because we just throw stuff in there. And, you know, if you just throw food scraps on top, it’s gonna attract flies. So, it was a terrible idea. But we’re too lazy to move it at this point, and we don’t usually go out there. Like, if somebody told me, “There’s flies in my compost bin,” I would say, “Well, you need to be burying the food scraps.” So this, I think, is a great idea. You know, I’d have to walk out to the garden to dump the food scraps in there, but I think that it’s a much better idea than than what I did.

Michelle Balz 11:26
Yeah, I always tell people—I mean, one of the rules you should follow is “bury your food scraps.” Those fruit flies will not burrow down into the leaves to lay their eggs. So, if you bury them, you’re not going to be hit with the swarm of flies when you open your bin. Which, those flies aren’t going to affect your compost in any way. It’s just annoying for you.

Deborah Niemann 11:46
Yeah, exactly. So, since you mentioned fruit flies, another one of the tips that I thought you had that was so great was how to build a fruit fly trap in your kitchen. Because, like, I know some of us may want to collect some stuff in our kitchen before we take it out to the garden or whatever. But then you get fruit flies, and you had a really awesome trick for catching them.

no waste composting
photo credit to Andrea MacFarland

Michelle Balz 12:11
Yes, I actually have one on my counter right now. So if I knew you were going to mention that, I would have brought it with me. But the idea is, when we purchase fruits and vegetables, we bring home fruit fly larvae on the skin of the fruits and vegetables. It’s kind of gross to think about; it’s another reason to wash before we eat. But, those fruit flies are naturally attracted to our compost. And so, a lot of people will blame the compost, but it’s actually what we’re bringing home. So, the fruit fly trap is really simple: You get a clear container, and you want to fill it up about an inch with apple cider vinegar. And then I use a banana peel if I have it; this past week, my kids ate all the bananas, and I didn’t have a banana peel, so I used the tops of strawberries. And that worked just as well. But you want something in there that’s sweet that’s going to attract them. And the reason I say “clear” is because the lid—you want to poke holes in the lid. And the fruit flies will smell that and go down through the holes and get trapped inside there. And, because it’s clear, they can’t tell the difference between the holes and the lid, and so they can’t get out. And they drown. Which is, you know… I feel bad saying that right now, but we don’t want them in our kitchen. So it’s a great way. You know, there’s lots of alternatives. If you look up online, it’s people who use old beer for the same purpose—anything like that would work. But the idea is you are trapping them, and it really does help in your kitchen. Another tip would be to take out your compost more often. So once or twice a day—if you’ve got a big infestation of them that, you know, they’re all around your kitchen—that should help alleviate that and get rid of those flies.

Deborah Niemann 13:52
So, indoor composting is something that probably… People who live in an apartment a lot of times think like, “Oh, there’s nothing I can do for composting.” So, I know you had so many different alternatives. What’s one of your favorite options for indoor composting?

Michelle Balz 14:08
I think my favorite is the classic vermicomposting bin. So, if you are not squeamish about worms, having a little worm bin in your yard… It’s a special kind of worm; you don’t just go and dig up earthworms. They’re called Red Wigglers, and they will eat up to half their body weight in food scraps a day. You have to provide them bedding, and, you know, a nice little container, but you can put that container underneath your kitchen sink and it will truly safely compost. Vermicompost is some of the best product for your garden. It’s great for starting seeds. It’s wonderful for your houseplants. So, it really is a fantastic way to compost if you don’t have a backyard, or if you just, you know, you don’t want to go outside in the winter, or you like keeping worms—there’s lots of reasons to do it.

Michelle Balz 14:57
One of the innovative ideas that I put in the book is something that is becoming very popular in India, which is composting in terracotta pots. And, this you really want to do on, like, a covered fire escape or patio or terrace or porch, and they have… Basically, terracotta pots are stacked on top of each other that have air holes. And, instead of using leaves as your brown material, you use something called “coco peat,” which is pretty much the inedible parts of the coconut. So, when they make coconut milk or coconut oil, they’ve got all this husk, they grind that up, and that acts as your carbon material. And you can add your food scraps to it. And it really works! It’s something that I thought, “This sounds really cool. I just don’t know if it’s gonna work,” and I tried it, and it actually works, it actually breaks down.

Deborah Niemann 15:48
Is that the same thing as what is also called “coir”?

Michelle Balz 15:51
I think it is, yes.

Deborah Niemann 15:52
Okay. It sounds like it, from the way that you described it. So, all right. What are some of the biggest first-timer mistakes that you’ve seen people make?

Michelle Balz 16:06
Besides not burying your food scraps, I would say putting too much food scraps compared to how much leaves you’re putting in. Especially this happens with tumblers, because it’s so easy to do. You just put food scraps in there, and you forget about that carbon material, and it turns into this kind of sloshy, stinky mess, because you don’t have that dry carbon material adding air and absorbing the moisture. So, you really do—any composting you do—you need to add that dry material. Even in vermicomposting, you start with bedding, and, you know, you’ve got the worms eating the food scraps. So, you really do need to add the dry material. And you want to balance it about 3 to 1 or 2 to 1 carbon versus green material.

planting flowers
photo credit to Andrea MacFarland

Deborah Niemann 16:50
Is there anything else that you think that people need to know?

Michelle Balz 16:56
Well, you did mention a little bit about the dog waste composting chapter. So, I get this question every time I teach a class about dog poop, because we have so much of it. And so I did some research. I mean, most of the time I tell people “Don’t compost your dog poop,” you know, it does have harmful pathogens that could end up in your finished compost. But what I found was that there are a few special composting techniques that you can use—separate from your regular compost bin—that will help you break down that dog poop without having to put it in the garbage, and that your garden can benefit from it. So, I list two of those. One of them is using a product that’s shaped like a cone that you dig down into the ground. And, in that method, you compost not only dog poop, but things like meat. And it… Basically, you use a special powder to help it get started, but it breaks down into almost nothing. For several years you can compost with it, and then—you don’t end up harvesting a lot of material. But it ends up going into the soil around it. And so that’s a really neat product. And then the other one is a DIY that you can build with a 5-gallon bucket in your yard; you can dig down, and it’s basically building a little mini septic system for your dog manure. And that also does the same thing in that; the nutrients will leach out into the surrounding soil and help them, but you also can deal with your dog poop without having to pick it up with a plastic bag and put it in the garbage on a regular basis.

Deborah Niemann 18:34
That’s really good to know. I’m sure that’s something that a lot of people will find useful. It has been really great having you here today to talk about your book! I really enjoyed it. So, just to remind people, it is No-Waste Composting: Small-Space Waste Recycling, Indoors and Out. And you can find it through all of the booksellers; we’ve got links in the show notes where you can order it. And you can also get it from your favorite local bookstore. If they don’t have it in stock, they can definitely order it for you. And, Michelle, can you tell people where they can find you online if they want to connect?

Michelle Balz 19:11
Absolutely! So, I’m on Twitter and Instagram under the @CompostGeek handle, so you can find me on there—mostly on Instagram posting pictures of my compost and other fun stuff. So, absolutely follow me on there.

Deborah Niemann 19:27
I love it. That’s a great handle. Thanks again for joining us today.

Michelle Balz 19:33
Thanks for having me, Deborah.

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