The Accidental Environmentalist

One woman’s resolution to live greener.

Story by Arrin D. Widmayer

Composting is easy and simple.

Composting is easy and simple.

When my husband found me picking wet paper towels out of the trash and tossing them into our new countertop compost bin, I’m almost sure he thought I was taking this New Year’s resolution thing too far.

That was last year. Now as we head into 2019, I’ve been mulling over resolutions, trying to stay within the realm of reality this time. I’m great at setting high-minded resolutions—I’ll cook seven well-balanced dinners for my family each week! I’ll respond to every email with a thoughtful reply within 12 hours!—and falling short by February.

My past resolutions often failed because I overestimated my motivation to truly make a change. My resolutions only really affected me, making it easy to justify quitting, while pledging to do better next year. I needed to link my actions to a larger outcome that would hold my interest and keep me motivated to stick with it—and, at the start of 2018, I did just this!

I hit upon an issue that I think any household with kids can identify with: the amount of food we waste. I was shocked to learn how much food Americans throw away: 40 percent of food in the U.S. is never eaten. Each year, we literally toss $165 million in food waste into landfills, where it creates tons of methane. Methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, has devastating effects on our environment.

Though I’m ashamed to admit it, I’ve had my share of ground beef that turned grayish in the fridge before I had the chance to make burgers, and bananas that turned mushy before anyone ate them. Add the leftover food from each meal that goes into the trash, and perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked by the statistics after all.

Photo by arrin d. widmayer

Photo by arrin d. widmayer

My resolution was staring me in the face: composting our food waste. I don’t mean creating a compost pile in my backyard and learning the ins and outs of oxygenating soil. That sounds great for some, but I was determined to be realistic in this process and I’m not that person. Thankfully, I don’t have to be.

Kat Nigro, head of marketing and engagement at CompostNow, leads a group of UNC–Chapel Hill students on a tour of the Interfaith Food Shuttle garden, where compost is created and used onsite. Photo by Arrin D. Widmayer

Kat Nigro, head of marketing and engagement at CompostNow, leads a group of UNC–Chapel Hill students on a tour of the Interfaith Food Shuttle garden, where compost is created and used onsite.
Photo by Arrin D. Widmayer

Kat Nigro is the head of marketing and engagement at CompostNow, the only composting service in the Triangle. CompostNow is a Raleigh collection service that helps community residents and local businesses divert their compostables from the landfill, instead using those nutrients to build healthy soil in local gardens.

“Composting is the single most important thing you can do to fight climate change and ensure your children have healthy food in the future,” Nigro tells me. “It makes a bigger impact on a local level than just about any other environmental conservation measure out there.”

A mound of food scraps doesn’t automatically compost itself; it must go through a process of heating, turning, and hydration over the course of six weeks. It takes people and resources to make composting work. With the service’s 4,000 local members providing the raw material, Nigro says the company has diverted almost 8 million pounds of compostables from the landfill since 2011, and created 3.1 million pounds of nutrient-rich compost for local use.

And I’m happy to be a resource in this process. CompostNow gave me two large sealed buckets and a surprisingly long list of items that can be composted. They accept all food scraps (including meat), paper towels, paper plates, pet food, and a ton of other things I would never have considered. My family fills those buckets up, and each week the service takes them and leaves two empties.

The first few weeks we spent a lot of time holding things up and asking each other if they were compostable. Wine corks? Yes. Dental floss? Definitely not.

It was fascinating to watch my family take on this project. My husband, who has sincere intentions but not a lot of time, took awhile to come around. It’s easier to toss everything in the garbage than take time to separate out the compostable items. In the end, what brought him around is the thought that our children, as adults, won’t be able to enjoy the outdoors if we don’t make changes now.

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The kids surprised me. They’re much smarter than I was at their age, and they’ve already been exposed to big, important ideas and global issues. They took to composting like ducks to water. I knew we were onto something when I overheard my son say to a friend, “Dude. My mom will be so mad if you put that in the trash. It’s compostable.”

Chris, Arinn, Cooper, and Dixon Widmayer.

Chris, Arinn, Cooper, and Dixon Widmayer.

Here’s the part where my family’s small actions take on bigger meaning: CompostNow delivers the newly created compost to one of its 21 local garden partners, including Raleigh’s Interfaith Food Shuttle and Raleigh City Farm. These partners use the compost in their efforts to provide community members with education and tools necessary to improve health and nutrition. We also have the option of having our compost delivered back to us—but, as we’ve already established, I’m not that kind of girl.

Composting sounds hard and more than a little gross, what with the old bones and leftover veggies, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy and sanitary. It takes minimal effort to separate food waste from garbage, and now it’s second nature. I was stunned to see how much we reduced our trash output: Now my family of four needs two weeks to fill a City of Raleigh garbage can.

This resolution was different because it wasn’t about me. It’s about a global issue that I see play out every day in my own home. Nigro at CompostNow would call me a “soil ambassador.” I can make that title stick this year and beyond.