Composting is a process of decomposition that happens everywhere in nature. When organic material breaks down, it results in compost – a nutrient-rich soil-like substance that is an extremely effective fertilizer.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 28 percent of our landfill is food and yard waste, all of which could be converted into compost and used to return nutrients to the soil.1 When organic material (like food and yard clippings) goes to the landfill, you might think it eventually composts on its own; however, that’s not the case. When our trash goes to the landfill, it’s usually tightly compacted, buried, and sealed with a layer of clay and a lining to keep liquids from leaking out. Composting requires the right balance of heat, oxygen aeration, and moisture to work. In landfills, none of these conditions are met.2 When organic material is starved of oxygen, it emits methane as it breaks down, which is a greenhouse gas with 30 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. Some landfills collect this methane as a source of energy, but many do not. Municipal solid-waste landfills are “the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States.”3
Composting at home is easy and produces natural, organic, free, and highly effective fertilizer for your plants. Compost made from real organic material is the superior choice for your garden than buying synthetic fertilizer, which is detrimental to the environment. Fertilizer only feeds plants by giving them a direct dose of certain nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. Compost contains a living ecosystem of microscopic fungi, bacteria, and other organisms that all work together to create a beneficial food web within the soil. Compost prevents erosion, replenishes the soil, controls weeds, and does a much better job of nourishing plants than synthetic fertilizer.4 One of our biggest environmental problems comes from synthetic fertilizer that leeches into streams, rivers, and lakes, causing eutrophication: The excess nutrients from fertilizer cause algal blooms, which deplete the oxygen in the water and wreak havoc on the ecosystem, killing fish like trout and salmon.5
Composting at home provides several benefits such as saving money, giving your garden a boost, and helping the environment significantly. There are a couple of methods you can choose depending on how much space you have. Composting can be done in a pile in your backyard, in a store-bought or DIY bin, and even in a container under the kitchen sink. There are plenty of options out there ranging from expensive automated systems to cheap homemade solutions. In this guide, we’ll show you a simple, affordable way to get started.
Step No. 1: Set Up Your Bin.
While a bin is not required for having a successful compost pile, we’ll go through the outdoor-bin method, which will keep your compost scraps out of sight and allow you to more easily control the elements in your compost pile. Composting needs the right balance of moisture, temperature, and aeration. There are several compost tumblers that you can buy, fill with organic material, and are easily rotated to aerate and speed up the process. You can also just as easily make your own by purchasing a plastic or rubber trash can with a secure lid. Use a drill to make five to six holes each in the lid, sides, and bottom of the bin to let air flow through. Make sure whatever container you choose is at least 3 by 3 feet.6
It’s also helpful to have gloves, shovel, and a pitchfork or aerator, which you’ll use to turn the pile every so often to improve air flow.
Step No. 2: Build Your Compost Pile.
Although industrial composting facilities can handle a larger variety of organic materials, for smaller home systems, it’s important to stick to organic matter, which will cause less problems and more easily break down.
A successful compost pile has the right balance of “green” (nitrogen-based) and “brown” (carbon-based) materials, at a ratio of green to brown at 1 to 2. There should be double the amount of brown materials than green. Below are examples of what can and can’t go in your bin.
Try to break down these materials as much as possible before putting them in the compost, this will greatly speed the process up. Some people even toss their food scraps into a food processor to get everything into smaller pieces.
Here’s what you SHOULD put in the compost bin:6
- Fruit and vegetable peels, rinds, and scraps.
- Fresh grass clippings.
- Garden waste.
- Tea bags.
- Coffee grounds.
- Eggshells and nut shells.
- Weeds that haven’t seeded.
- Shredded paper and cardboard.
- Paper egg cartons.
- Woodchips and sawdust (untreated).
- Grass and lawn clippings.
- Dead leaves, branches, pine cones, and needles.
- Wine corks.
- Dryer lint.
These SHOULDN’T go in:
- Fats or oils.
- Cooked food.
- Peanut butter.
- Lime (because it’s too acidic).
- Diseased plants.
- Human or pet waste.
- Animal food products.
- Paper with colored ink.
- Large chunks of compostable material.
- Chips or sawdust from treated wood.
Step No. 3: Layer, Water, Turn, and Repeat.
Now that you have your bin and have some organic material saved up, build the layers of the compost bin. Start the foundation with a six-inch layer of brown matter (cardboard, dry leaves, twigs, etc.) and then a two- to three-inch layer of green matter. Sprinkle on some water until the material is moist but not soggy. Repeat the layering process and remember to try to keep the right balance of brown to green matter (half as much green than brown). You can top off the pile with a layer of soil, which will add some beneficial micro-organisms that will kick-start the composting process.
Turn the compost pile about once a week with a shovel or aerator. Note that compost piles generate heat because organic materials heat up when undergoing decomposition. Depending on the size of the compost pile, external temperature, ratio of materials, moisture, and other factors, your organic material will usually turn into finished compost between two months to a year. It should smell earthy and look dark like coffee grounds. If you notice any bad smells or unwanted pests, you might have put in the wrong materials, gotten it too wet, or not given the pile enough oxygen. To fix it, you can mix in some dry brown materials, like straw, sawdust, or shredded paper. Make sure to bury food scraps well under a layer of brown material to avoid attracting bugs.7
How to Use Compost
Compost is often referred to as “black gold.” The finished product is black, earthy, loamy, and soil like. To incorporate compost into your garden, mix it into the top couple of inches of your garden. You can also mix compost with potting soil for your indoor- or outdoor-potted plants, or spread it around trees and garden beds as mulch.8 No garden? See if there are any local community gardens that you could donate to.