In college I shared a bathroom with a girl who made her own cheese. She rode a bike with no brakes and handlebars that you had to hold crooked to go straight. She washed her hair only once a week, and convinced me to do the same.

She also composted.

One wet spring evening I saw her crouching down on the grass outside our dormitory, holding a Tupperware container. I asked her what she was doing, and she showed me, by peeling back the turf to reveal a hole about a foot deep filled nearly to the top with food scraps. As my eyes adjusted to the dim sky, the smooth blanket of grass became patchwork. Other ragged-edged pieces of turf showed themselves; she had obviously been burying food scraps for some time.

Eventually, the college’s head landscaper caught her and she moved her composting to a spot next to the abandoned sofa, deep in the web of cross country trails. The very next year, the college started composting on an industrial-scale as part of its eco initiative.

Seven years later, the girl owns chickens, and I now live in Washington, D.C., city of monuments and brunches. I moved to an old, somewhat dilapidated, more transition-house than group-house here, where the inhabitants, though nice, threw beer cans in the trash and let ashtrays topple over into the yard. No one owned tie-dye, no one dabbled in vegetarianism or organic produce, no one knew what composting was.

So I became that girl for them—the one who opened the way to a more alternative, more eco-friendly lifestyle. And while we’re still more transition-house than group-house, now we are a transition-house that composts. When I find cigarette butts outside these days, they’re in the composter, and they’re only there because some housemates are still a little confused about the term “biodegradable.”

Build Your Own Rat-Proof (or Deer-Proof) Composter

You will need:

  • a small area of yard (even two square feet will do)
  • a shovel for digging a sizable hole
  • a drill or an electric screwdriver
  • a ½” drill bit
  • a hack saw
  • a large plastic trash can with lid
  • a bungee cord

Not including the drill, this cost me less than $40.00.

Steps:

  1. Dig a hole wide enough and deep enough to fit the trash can, up to the trash can’s rim. Don’t forget to wear shoes with sturdy soles—otherwise, you will hurt the arches of your feet while pressing the shovel into the ground. Do this step before the ground is frozen hard in the winter. You can also do this step on winter days while experiencing a thaw—melting snow will soften the ground. A composter underground will help keep the temperature of the compost from dipping below freezing.
  2. Place the ½” drill bit onto the drill or electric screwdriver, and drill dozens and dozens of holes on the sides and on the lid of the trash can. In the end, you should have a trash can that looks like Swiss cheese. You are aiming for an extremely porous container, to let worms and other compost-eating organisms from the surrounding soil into the composter.
  3. Take your hack saw and hack the bottom off of your trash can. Again, you are aiming for maximum porosity.
  4. Place your Swiss cheese trash can into the ground. Fill in the gaps between the sides of the trash can and the edges of the hole with soil—this will help keep vermin out.
  5. Use the bungee-cord to attach the lid firmly to the top of the trash can. This will also help keep vermin, like raccoons and rats, out.
  6. Fill your composter with yard waste, newspaper, and fruit and vegetable scraps. If rats aren’t a particular problem, you can also fill it with starches, like moldy bread and old rice. If rats are a particular problem, calorie-rich starches may be too attractive a temptation, and induce them to chew through the plastic.
  7. For a few weeks in the spring or summer, pause putting new material in the composter and stir existing compost from time to time. Remove the rich, organic compost-soil from the trash can when it’s ready. Use it, give it away, or merely spread it on the ground to help grass grow. Begin adding food and paper scraps once more.
  8. Bonus step: Nitrogen will speed up the composting process, and human urine is mostly excess nitrogen. Pee in the compost yourself, or get someone else to do it for you. Boys can be useful after all!

A Note About Worms: My first attempt to compost in frost-prone and rat-overrun Washington, D.C. was a plastic worm composter that looks like an awkward ottoman. I bought it online, and I still have it sitting in the living room. Done correctly, it doesn’t smell or attract roaches. The key disadvantages of this kind of indoor worm composter is that the worms can’t handle the volume of organic material produced by my six-person house. But the worms are fun to look at, and my housemates like them, as do my cousin’s small sons. They produce a small amount of very high-quality compost, which noticeably perks up our house plants. So I keep the worm composter around, and funnel a small amount of select scraps to it each week.

No matter what kind of living arrangement you’ve found yourself a part of, you can always find ways to compost.