So, you’ve always been curious about composting, but you don’t where to start. We got you! Compositing your family’s food scraps is a great way to reduce the amount of organic trash your household contributes to landfills and lessen greenhouse emissions. Along with trying to buy only food you’re actually going to eat and donating your unused food, composting can set your household down the path to that sustainability Holy Grail: zero waste. Still, composting can be a bit intimidating. Don’t fret, we’re here to break down everything you need to know about controlled food decomposition. Before long, you might turn into one of those obsessed compost die-hards, blissfully boasting about your bountiful batches of so-called “black gold.” Is composting really great for the environment? Yeah, it kind of is. Its benefits to the planet are clear and far-reaching. Not only is composting great for sustainability, it has health, social and economic benefits. There are tons of good reasons to compost. Here’s a taste:
12 great reasons to start composting
- When food goes to a landfill instead of being composted its nutrients never return to the soil and it produces methane, a gas that’s 80x more potent than CO2 in warming up the planet.
- Composting reduces the burden on severely strained landfills, which are set to reach their capacity in the next 10-20 years.
- Compost can reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers that can be harmful to the environment and humans.
- Compost lowers production costs for farmers by balancing soil’s PH levels, improving its moisture, and providing it with nutrients and microorganisms that aerate and repel disease and pests.
- Composting increases soil’s ability to filter water from the lakes and ponds that feed oceans, making them cleaner.
- Composting helps reforestation, wetlands restoration, and habitat revitalization by improving soil.
- Composting leads to carbon sequestration when plants produce food for microbes in compost, removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
- Compost can inexpensively rehabilitate soil contaminated by hazardous waste.
- Compost decreases topsoil erosion by absorbing the water that washes it away.
- Compost makes soil more nutrient-rich and the microbes in it make those nutrients more bioavailable, producing more healthful, nutrient-dense food for us to eat.
- Composting is good for the economy, creating more jobs than other methods of disposal.
- Compositing makes us aware of our true food needs and less prone to waste.
See what we mean? Before we move on to how you can compost at home let’s first discover . . .
What is compost anyway?
Compost is the result of a process of decomposition that transforms organic wastes, like food scraps, yard trimmings and paper products, into something called humus, a dark brown or black finely textured, soil-like substance with a slightly sweet smell.
The basic formula for creating compost is mixing “brown” or dry, carbon-based material with “green” or wet, nitrogen-based material–plus soil, air, and water. Microorganisms in the soil use nitrogen, carbon, and water to break down the green and brown items and release nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, leaving behind a nutrient-rich compost. The mix also requires a little oxygen-introducing stirring by you (hence the name Aerobic Composting.) The process isn’t for the patient of heart: It can take 2 months to 2 years, depending on compost amount, type, and temperature, so settle in.
What you can compost
“Brown” Items for Composting: “Green” Items for Composting
Shredded newspaper, office paper, school papers, non-glossy junk mail & bills (paid, of course!)
Used, plain napkins, paper towels
And paper plates
Brown paper shopping/lunch bags, shredded
Torn up plain corrugated cardboard boxes
Cardboard egg cartons
Cardboard tubes from toilet paper, paper towels and wrapping paper
Paper coffee filters
Dryer lint, dust & dirt
Bedding from small pet cages
Dry fall leaves
Chopped up twigs and small branches
Fruits and vegetables
Fruit and vegetable peels
Freezer burned fruit & vegetables
Tea bags & leaves
Leftover cereal (milk drained)
Cooked and uncooked plain pasta Cooked and uncooked plain rice
Popcorn (popped & not, with butter & salt OK)
Houseplant and grass clippings
Dead plants (disease and insect-free)
What you can’t compost
This can depend on whether you are composting yourself or dropping off scraps for collection, in which case you should find out what is allowed in your area. The EPA, however, recommends that you steer away from certain items, either because they attract pests, take too long to (or never) degrade, or might contain pathogens or toxins. In general, you should not add to your compost:
- Inorganic materials like plastic, glass, aluminum foil, metal
- Meat, poultry, fish and bones
- Dairy products
- Eggs (other than the shells)
- Walnuts or any part of a black walnut tree (contains juglone toxin)
- Coated or glossy paper and cards, junk mail, magazines, catalogs and wrapping paper
- Yard trimmings containing pesticide
- Items like bags, cups and utensils marked “biodegradable but not “compostable”
- Bakery goods like cakes, cookies and pastries
- Cooking oil
- Dog and cat poop
- Coal or charcoal ash
OK, so how do I start composting?
Some questions you might first want to ask yourself include:
- How much space do I have?
- Is it indoors or outdoors?
- How much effort do I want to put in? (Cold composting means minimal effort but can take 1-2 years vs hot composting, where you have to keep on top of it, but results take mere months.)
- Do I have need for the compost I make, or will I donate it?
- And finally . . . How comfortable am I with worms? (More on that later.)
At home or drop-off composting?
Full-on composting isn’t for everyone. This just might not be the right time or place–or limited space–for you to start composting whole hog. It might make more sense to drop off your scraps. Does your municipality offer curbside composting? Is there a community garden, local farmers market, restaurant, grocery store, or program that accepts food waste? If so, you can simply save your leftovers every week in a cute tabletop scrap container or a simpler and greener option: a paper or other compostable bag that you store in the refrigerator or freezer and can drop directly into the compost bin on collection day. Voila! Easy peasy. The downside is you don’t get to keep the fruits of your food waste. So, you might want to consider . . .
Backyard composting: pile it on
The way nature meant it to be. Composting outdoors, if you have the space for it (at least 3x3x3 feet), is the gold standard of scrap heaping. Here you’ll section off a spot o’land and go full brown thumb. You’ll apply a 1-part “brown” to 1-part “green” compostables formula, add water when needed, and you should be making some sweet microbial magic (with help from slugs, worms, bugs and spiders too) within a couple of months to a couple of years, depending on the method you use.
Temperature check: Cold or hot composting?
For cold composting, you pick a dry, shady spot, toss and leave the pile alone. That’s the low-maintenance choice. For those who want quicker results, there’s hot composting, which means placing the pile in direct sunlight, keeping it slightly moist to encourage microbial activity and using a rake or shovel to aerate (or a special tool called an . . . aerator!) twice a week. Note: Outdoors you have a little more leeway in terms of what you can break down and compost (you can bury stuff, after all), but it’s still not going to be overnight, so sit tight.
One thing’s for sure, your heap will not always be pretty, so if you prefer to keep a lid on your (somewhat messy looking) composting activities, you can opt for an outdoor container instead of a pile. Types of outdoor composters include: continuous, batch and triple (to separate different stages of the process) and tumbler (to speed things up).
Composting indoors: Containers for confined spaces
Not going to lie: Composting in your cute, little flat might seem flat-out challenging. But there’s a big plus to doing the deed inside: Weather permits it year-round (unlike outdoor composting which faces challenges from extreme temperatures). First step: acquire a vessel for your undertaking. This can be:
- A 5 to 18-gallon (good for 1 to 4 people) plastic bucket, garbage can or tub with 4-6 holes drilled in both the bottom and lid, two rows of holes every 4-6 inches on the sides, and a tray beneath it to catch run-off (or a second “drainer container” with the same holes on the sides but none on the bottom for it to be placed in)
- A found wooden container, like a drawer, box, or crate with a piece of wood or a tarp used as a cover
- A composter or worm bin you buy at the hardware or garden supply store
Set up your container in a pantry closet, under the sink, or a corner of your kitchen. You can pick a sunny spot if you want, but your bucket might dry out faster, so be warned. Next, add a few inches of some healthy soil (it’s OK to use old potted soil, but first pasteurize it to get of any pathogens by leaving in the sun for a week in a black, heat-attracting, plastic garbage bag). Then layer with a slightly moistened, absorbent material like shredded newspaper or sawdust. Now you’re ready to add your household’s refuse each day, burying it under the soil layer with a trowel (or even an old salad fork).
A word of warning: Don’t go ana-rogue-ic
You’ll want to strive for a dewy, rather than drenched vibe in your container. Don’t let it get too wet or your compost could go the dreaded “anaerobic,” meaning the air to water (carbon to nitrogen) balance is out of whack and the wrong microorganisms have come to party. The result: A rot pot. A good sign this has happened will be a bad smell. The aroma should be faintly earthy. This goes for indoor and outdoor composting.
To worm or not to worm, that is the slippery question
Speaking of anaerobic (air-free) composting, there is a way you can go that route. Bokashi composting uses a bin containing inoculated bran to ferment food waste, including meat and dairy, into a safe potion for your plants.
Or you could go high tech with a compost machine (yes, we did mention machines in an article about sustainability). There are a variety of (mostly four-letter) smart electric composters on the market (Lomi, Pela, Zera, Tero) and on the plus side, they will be fast, grinding up small amounts of food scraps in several hours. But on the less-green, downside, they emit carbon emissions in their manufacturing, use some electricity, and it remains to be seen how recyclable they really are. They also cost $300-$1000. What you get isn’t exactly compost either, it’s clumpier and before using you may have to cure it for weeks.
A popular, natural option to speed things up is to add worms to your compost, red wigglers to be exact. Not everyone is up for vermicomposting, or keeping thousands of worms in a bucket in their apartment (or balcony), but if you are, it can be a kid-friendly, entertaining, educational, and efficient way to compost. It takes two pounds of worms, or two large handfuls of them, twenty-four hours to compost one pound of food. The cost: $30-40 per pound, a lot less than a machine. Simply place worms on top of your soil layer. Then, once a week, bury food there that you’ve collected in a separate container and let your wriggling friends have at it. (Replace the lid so your worms don’t make a freedom dash!) You’ll harvest the results of their wriggly labor every three to six months. You’ll know your compost is done when the items you added are no longer visible and it crumbles in your hand like dirt.
7 tips for composting success
- Keep supplies of shredded newspaper (or dead leaves), soil and water nearby, so you can adjust your wet/dry level as needed.
- Get an extra container to use if the old one gets too full.
- If you can’t bury new scraps in the soil layer, use other “brown” items to cover them or your compost will attract fruit flies (buzz kill).
- Don’t overdo it! Wait for food to break down before adding more.
- Too much water isn’t the only cause of bad smells: You might need to increase oxygen by adding holes, turning the compost more often or elevating the container off the ground with–an old pot?
- Each time you begin a new composting cycle, carry over a handful of finished compost from the previous batch to the new soil layer to give your microbe farm a head start.
- Shredding or chopping scraps into small pieces will make the worms’ or microbes’ work go much faster.
9 fine ways to use your compost
Ah, the black gold at the end of the rain bucket. You have your soil and plant-boosting prize, now what? Use your compost to:
- Add it 2:1 to flower and vegetable beds.
- Rake it around trees.
- Spread it on your lawn.
If you don’t have a yard:
- Sprinkle in your houseplant pots as mulch.
- Mix with soil and sand to pot houseplants.
- Gift it to a gardening friend.
- Donate it to a local community garden, school garden or farm (ask at a farmer’s market).
- Drop it around a local park or green.
- Dilute one cup of the liquid runoff from your compost with 10 parts water to create the famous, nutrient-rich “compost tea” and spray it on your houseplants’ leaves.
Composting for our future
And if all those uses aren’t enough incentive, maybe a historical perspective is in order: Sustainable agriculture has been around for more than 5,000 years. Researchers have uncovered clay tablets from the Mesopotamian Akkadian Empire dating from 2350 BC that describe making compost for farming. If we want to be around for another 5,000, we might do well to continue the tradition.