Composting 101: Literally Everything You Need to Know, No Matter Where You Live

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If you're on a mission to reduce food waste, consider composting your kitchen scraps. Composting transforms food scraps into a nutritious, soil-like matter that can feed plants without potentially harmful chemicals. You can think of it as all-natural, eco-friendly recycling.

Composting is also an excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint. Consider this: About 30-40% of our food is wasted, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And when that food waste enters landfills, it releases methane, a carbon-containing greenhouse gas. By composting your kitchen scraps, you can keep food waste out of your local landfill while helping protect the environment.

The good news is that composting is easy to do. There are also many composting methods to choose from, so it's possible to help out Mother Nature even if you don't have the outdoor space or resources to do it yourself.

So, how do you get started? We reached out to composting and gardening experts for the lowdown.

Basic Ingredients of Compost

Compost is essentially one big recipe. According to Enjoli Ferrari, operations and programs manager at LA Compost, it requires four ingredients:

1. Nitrogen:​ In composting, microorganisms (like bacteria) break down organic materials. Nitrogen provides nutrients for these microorganisms, Marcus Bridgewater, CEO and founder of Choice Forward, tells Hunker. Sources of nitrogen include plant clippings, coffee grounds, tea, and fruit and vegetable scraps. These are called the "greens" of compost.

2. Carbon:​ "Carbon provides energy for the microorganisms," explains Bridgewater. Good sources of carbon include dry materials like sawdust, straw, shredded paper, twigs, wood chips, or fallen leaves. They're called the "browns" of compost.

3. Oxygen:​ The microorganisms in compost need oxygen to survive, says Bridgewater. That's why compost piles are tossed and mixed.

4. Water:​ "Water helps regulate the temperature of compost, which determines how materials break down," explains Bridgewater. The microorganisms also need moisture to survive.

Composting Without Outdoor Space

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need a garden or backyard to compost. You don't even need a lot of space.

For indoor composting, there are several systems to choose from. One method is to add food scraps to a countertop compost bin. As you tend to the scraps, they'll decompose and become compost. Another option is Bokashi composting, which uses a special mix of bacteria to compost food scraps in a bucket. Then there's vermicomposting, or composting with worms, if you don't mind having a couple hundred worms as roommates. A worm composter allows worms to feed on your scraps and produce castings (aka poop), which is ​super​ nutritious for soil.

If these options don't work for you, consider outsourcing. Some cities have compost pick-up or drop-off programs. These services "collect organic materials from people and add them to a large compost unit," explains Bridgewater. This is ideal if you can't compost — or don't want to compost — at home. For example, in Los Angeles, Compostable LA offers food waste pickup services. There are also community-led organizations like LA Compost, which "can connect you to a large network of community compost drop-off locations across Los Angeles," says Ferrari.

To find a composting service near you, reach out to local farms and community gardens. They might provide such services or, at the very least, point you in the right direction. Your local farmer's market might also have a drop-off program.

What You Can and Can’t Compost

The things that can go in your compost depend on your specific system.

For most forms of home composting, you can add:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • eggshells
  • coffee grounds and filters
  • tea bags
  • uncoated, shredded paper and cardboard
  • wood chips
  • leaves
  • houseplants
  • 100% cotton

And here's what you can't add to a home compost:

  • diseased or insect-infested plants
  • fat, grease, oils
  • meat or fish bones
  • eggs
  • dairy products
  • pet feces
  • litter
  • coal
  • yard trimmings exposed to chemical pesticides

Some of these materials might attract rodents, while others contain substances that are dangerous to humans or plants. They should never be added to your home compost pile. (The exception is Bokashi composting, which can compost meat, bones, and dairy.)

If you're using a local pick-up or drop-off program, your lists might look a bit different. These services may have the necessary space and/or equipment to process some of the "do not compost" materials above. "At our larger sites, we have accepted rice, pasta, and breads, as the compost piles at [these] sites heat to temperatures that can properly break down those items," says Ferrari. "There are also compost styles that can process meats, shellfish, dairy, and bones as well." The best way to know for sure is to check with the service before collecting your scraps.

As for man-made products labeled "biodegradable" and "compostable"? (Think: utensils, plates, and bags.) That depends on the item. According to Ferrari, paper products (like paper straws) can break down at home — but only if they aren't plasticized (aka coated with a hard material). "Biodegradable bags can be hit or miss [because these] bags can have traces of plasticized materials, depending on the brand," she says.

Bottom line: Research your specific "biodegradable" or "compostable" materials before putting them in your compost, encourages Bridgewater. Many of these products "are designed for industrial composting facilities," he notes. "They can take around a decade to break down, which isn't ideal for a home compost."

How to Compost at Home

While there are many ways to compost, the general steps for getting started are similar:

1. Examine Your Food Waste

The most appropriate composting system for your lifestyle depends on your volume of food waste. This can vary greatly, depending on the size of your household. So, start by assessing how many food scraps your household makes per week, suggests Ferrari.

2. Choose a Space

If you have a backyard or garden, choose a dry and shady area for your compost pile. Make sure it's accessible to a water source, like a hose.

If you're composting indoors, pick a dry and dark space. Ideal spots include the garage or under the kitchen sink.

If you're outsourcing, you can store scraps in the above locations or in the freezer until it's time to pass them on. You can also keep scraps on your patio, given you have a container with an air-tight lid to keep out curious animals.

3. Choose a Container

If you have outdoor space, you can make a pile right on the ground. You'll need a space that's about three feet wide by three feet long. For a tidier option, use an outdoor compost bin, tumbler, or stackable box. You can also use an old plastic storage bin with holes drilled into the top.

If you're composting indoors, you'll need a home composter bin. These typically look like mini buckets with covers that have holes (because air is required for decomposition). You can also punch holes in the bottom of a small plastic container, then place it inside a larger one. Punch holes in the top of the larger container, too.

Pick-up services will likely provide an air-tight bucket. Otherwise, you can collect food scraps in a plastic bag in the freezer or in a small bin.

4. Add Organic Materials

For outdoor composting, start with a layer of fallen leaves, shredded paper, or wood chips (browns). Add food scraps (greens) as you make them, always adding a brown layer on top. Water the pile to keep the layers moist, but not soggy. Continue alternating layers, always ending with browns, until it's about three feet high.

For indoor composting, add a layer of wood chips to the bottom of your large container. Place the small container inside, on top of the wood chips. Add more wood chips to the small container, then add a layer of browns. From there, the steps are similar to outdoor composting. Add greens as you produce them, adding a brown layer after each one. Add water if the materials become dry.

Remember: The browns, or carbon sources, are key for decomposition. Ferrari recommends keeping mulch (or another "brown") next to your compost pile; this can help remind you to add a brown layer after each layer of greens.

For outsourced composting, don't worry about the order. The service will add your scraps accordingly to a larger compost pile.

5. Aerate and Mix

For outdoor composting, toss your pile every three to four weeks to aerate the contents. This is known as "turning." You can use a large shovel or garden fork; if you have a compost tumbler, this step will be easier.

For indoor composting, turn the materials once a week. A small shovel or wooden stick should do the trick.

Avoid turning your compost pile too often. Otherwise, the materials won't have a chance to decompose. Also, with proper moisture and balance of browns vs. greens, your compost shouldn't smell. If it starts to stink, try turning the contents and adding dry materials.

Again, for outsourced composting, you can skip this step. The organization will take care of turning.

6. Be Patient

Depending on the size of your pile, and how often you add to it, the contents will become compost between one to several months. For outsourced composting, some services might give you free finished compost a few times a year.

7. Use Your Compost

Now, for the best part: using your compost. Add it to the soil of your potted indoor plants, container garden, and/or garden beds. You can also add it to lawns or around trees. If you don't have plants at home, consider giving it to a community garden, park, or neighbor.

Wherever the compost is added, it will nourish the soil with a rich cocktail of essential nutrients. Your plant babies — and Mother Nature — will thank you.


Kirsten Nunez is a journalist and author focusing on food, health, and DIY. In May 2014, she published a craft book, "Studs & Pearls: 30 Creative Projects for Customized Fashion." Her work has appeared on eHow, PopSugar, Shape, VegNews, and more. She lives in Beacon, New York.

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