daffodil graves (aka storing food waste in the fridge)

wilted daffodils & coffee grounds in thrifted Glad container ($1)

Growing up, I lived next door to my maternal grandparents. After saving up for and building a modest dream home in the semi-rural country in the early 1970s, they owned an acre-and-a-half in which to spread out and garden, including a big mound in the backyard of eggshells, coffee grounds, grass clippings, and vegetable peelings—in other words, compost that my grandfather turned with a shovel every so often. This wasn't something they ever talked about in the look-what-I-do-to-be-green way people do these days, but rather something they were simply used to doing, like reading the newspaper front to back or making their own household cleaners with vinegar and ammonia. These were folks who'd lived through the Depression, and they'd built themselves a windowless cement root cellar for home-canned goods between the two-car garage and the rest of the large basement that stored an extra refrigerator (the old kind that had to be defrosted periodically), a large top-loading freezer, and everything else they'd ever owned since the Depression, including a spare set of furniture, a huge radio, and a domed travel trunk holding glass-eyed, curly-haired dolls, tiny leather button boots, and a small painted cast-metal dog. 

When I moved into my current apartment two-and-a-half years ago, my then-roommate, a vegan who works for a local food co-op, was already composting, keeping a big lidded bucket under the sink. While composting is an ancient recycling method, in domestic practice it can become a smelly mess. The winter after I moved in, we stopped composting because the black plastic compost bin out back was full, its contents not breaking down fast enough because of the long months of wet cold (or maybe we weren't aerating it enough). Then that roommate moved out, a new roommate moved in, and still everything vegetable headed into the trash . . . 

until one day last fall, when the City of Portland rolled out a new composting program, allowing us to dump food waste—even meat and pizza delivery boxes—into the big green yard-debris bin, which is now collected every week and regular garbage every other week.* The City of Portland has spent over a million dollars on the program, with part of our tax funds buying each household a smallish brown plastic bin with a hinged lid and handle that, at least in my home, has been collecting dust in the attic since the day the City compost elves left it on the doorstep.

Portland Composts!

Apparently, some local households have been having trouble getting accustomed to the new composting system—but not us—because we have two secret weapons: a plastic food-storage container and the refrigerator.

Easy Composting in Six Steps:
  1. Ignore the brown pail the City of Portland gave you. Donate it. Or do as my neighbor does and store kids' toys in it, or use it to store something else—anything but food scraps.
  2. Choose a medium-sized plastic food container with a tight-fitting but easily opening lid. You probably already have one somewhere around the house that could be put to this use. The container size will depend on your scrap needs and fridge space. 
  3. Label the container "Compost" or "Don't Eat!" with a permanent marker if someone in the household might think it holds edible leftovers. (That would be gross.)
  4. Dump all compostable scraps in the container, replace the lid, and keep it in the fridge, repeating this step till it's full.
  5. When the container's full, run it outside and dump the contents into the green yard-debris bin.
  6. Quickly wash out the plastic container and then return it to the fridge, somewhere easy to see and grab.

And that's all there is to it. Any moderately sized, tight-lidded Tupperware, Rubbermaid, Glad, or other plastic (or glass) food-storage container will work. Since I don't like storing edibles in plastic and gave all my plastic food containers away some time ago, last September I picked up a looks-like-new, square GladWare container at Goodwill for $1, and it came with one lid and two bottoms.

So enjoy your new way to temporarily store food waste that doesn't make a mess under the sink or stink up the kitchen.** You can thank my friend Jeff, whose simple, brilliant idea this was and something he's been doing for years. And if you have a compost bin or mound of your own out back, this refrigerator way-station method will work for that, too.

*Note: Remember that other countries and some U.S. cities have already been separating food waste from landfill trash for years. In my opinion, government should make us all pay for garbage as they do in South Korea—you should have seen all the ajummas (married, middle-aged women) out sorting their trash and recycling in front of the apartment buildings on trash day to make their garbage bags as small as possible—garbage on a diet. Trust me, their trash and recycling system works, though circa 1950s America in gender dynamics.

**Note: Let's all work to avoid letting good food go to waste before it's eaten. Americans are notorious for this.


  1. Anonymous10/4/12 10:36

    I like my city compost bucket. I leave it on the counter so after awhile it really stinks. I don't have room for it in my fridge, and I make a lot of compost since I only eat fresh.

  2. It's good to have options, and certainly the fresher we eat, the more compost stink we make, which is only a positive. I don't mind running downstairs to the green bin frequently (though I never feel I eat as many vegetables as I should, even being vegetarian), but others might. As an FYI, I had commented about the bucket on the City of Portland Web site (the same thing I posted here) the other day and received the following e-mail reply yesterday, which gives more info about what to do with unwanted, unloved brown buckets.


    Thank you for your comments. There are many kitchen pail options to choose from, [sic] each household can pick the one that works best for their circumstances. If you do not have a use for the Portland Composts! promotional pail you can notify your garbage and recycling company and they will arrange for it to be put back into circulation.

    If you need more information about curbside collection service, you can visit www.portlandcomposts.com or contact us at wasteinfo@portlandoregon.gov or 503-823-7202.

    [name & title withheld for privacy]
    City of Portland
    Bureau of Planning and Sustainability
    1900 SW 4th Ave, 7th Floor, Suite 7100
    Portland, OR 97201


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