My first exposure to compost was the small compost bin kept behind the cabinet door beneath the sink at my maternal grandparents' house. My grandfather, a.k.a. Farmer John, was a chemist by trade but a gardener by passion. And so he composted. I remember my grandmother dutifully scraping plates off into the compost bin as well as discarding egg shells and coffee grounds there. But I didn't really understand what composting was all about. Although they are concerned about conserving energy and my mother is an active gardener too, my parents don't compost. In fact, when they renovated their kitchen in 1979, they added a garbage disposal.
A guy I was dating who worked at one of the DC-based environmental organizations informed me that using garbage disposals was actually worse for the environment than just putting food-based waste in the garbage. He may have suggested composting as a better way to manage and dispose of such waste, but if he did, it went in one ear and out the other. I think I was too busy listening to him go on and on about his ex-long time-girlfriend.
When I met my (then future) husband Cedar, I learned that his parents composted, even when they didn't have much of a garden. When Cedar and I moved in together and later bought a house, though, we didn't compost. I'm not sure why we didn't think to follow in our elders' composting footsteps. I think I still thought that composting was just for people who gardened, rather than a sound environmental practice.
Then we moved to Oakland, California, where the city composts everything: milk cartons, pizza boxes, food scraps, used tissues. We collected our compost in our beverage cartons and had our kids take it to the green (of course) compost cans outside, which were emptied once a week. Once we moved to Ashland , Virginia, one of the first things we did was take advantage of Hanover County's offer of free composting bins and made a compost heap in the back of our house. (And actually, Hanover County has a well-done bit about composting on its website.) Because the soil here seems to be pretty bare bones and we are renting (and Cedar, the gardener of our household, is working toward tenure), we don't garden, but we still compost. In fact, after life in Oakland, as we constantly work towards running a more eco-sustainable household, we can't imagine not composting. Here is a link to an article on what can be composted. Cedar says things like food-soiled paper products can not really be composted on a small scale (like the compost in our backyard), but I'm sure some would disagree with him.
Besides encouraging them to buy sustainably produced meat and seafood and to cart home their groceries in re-usable shopping bags, I have been encouraging my parents to compost. My mom keeps telling me she will as soon as she teaches herself how. This is a woman who has taught herself about a dozen languages, has a PhD in linguistics, and a law degree. So here, Mom: Adapted from an e-mail from my father-in-law: 1) Get a half-gallon plastic container (we use yogurt containers).
2) Fill it with all of the stuff you'd normally out in the garbage disposal (plus any food scraps you normally put in the trash like banana peels and corn husks).
3) When full, transfer to a five-gallon container outside and then when that's full transfer to a small hole in the ground. Or empty each small container directly to a small hole in the ground.
4) Shovel some leaves and dirt over the top and "presto, chango, it goes back to Jesus in no time" (in about six months).
5) Every once in a while turn the mixture over with a shovel to mix up the new and old compost.
For a more comprehensive look at composting, here is a link to thecomposters.com site.For example, some people don't use a hole in the ground but buy or build one of the high-tech jobbies you see below.