A Beginner's Guide to Composting

It's good for the planet, in more ways than one.


Composting is practically magic.

I mean, you take otherwise worthless food scraps and turn them into fertile, nutrient rich soil.

If that’s not alchemy, what is?

But, like Harry Potter’s first visit to Diagon Alley, it can also be kind of intimidating.

Keeping track of what’s compostable and what’s not, perfecting the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio, and preventing smells can all seem like a bit...much.

But trust me, once you commit to the process and just start doing it, you’ll quickly discover that it’s not that scary after all.

And it has a ton of great benefits!

Why Should I Start Composting?

If you want to reduce the amount of waste your household generates, composting is an invaluable tool. Once you start, you’ll be amazed how much less ends up in your kitchen garbage can, and how much less gross it is overall.

Yeah, the things that make kitchen trash stinky and nasty are mostly food scraps, which will now be diverted to the compost pile! And don’t worry, there are plenty of tips and tricks to keep your compost bin smelling fresh as well.

The benefits reach far beyond the kitchen, though.

Composting provides you with a steady supply of awesome fertilizer that your garden (or houseplants, or neighbors) will love.

Zooming out even more, composting has many positive effects on the environment. Keeping compostable items, which make up about half of the average family’s municipal garbage, out of the landfill or incinerator significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Using compost also helps reduce dependency on chemical fertilizers, AND, at the same time, it actively improves the health of soil, which makes it better at filtering pollutants and keeping them out of our water supply.

Ready to start that compost pile yet?

Let’s get to it!

What Can I Compost?

To get a feel for the huge impact a good composting system can have on your household waste, you’ll need to know what kinds of things can be composted. So, here’s an abbreviated list of items that will never be seen in your trash can again:

  • Fruit and veggie scraps

  • Coffee grounds

  • Loose leaf tea and plastic-free teabags

  • Grass clippings

  • Leaves

  • Paper

  • Cardboard

  • Wood shavings, ash, and sawdust

  • Paper towels

  • Egg shells

  • Natural fibers like wool and cotton (100% only, no blends!)

  • Hair and nail clippings

Once you get started, you may be amazed by how much of your everyday kitchen trash can go into the compost pile. That being said, there are a few things you should leave out, like:

  • Dairy

  • Meat and bones

  • Cooking fats or oil

  • Diseased plant material- the disease may not be killed by the composting process and could spread to other plants when the compost is used

  • Weeds- While technically these can be composted just fine, some types of weeds are particularly hardy and can re-establish themselves from the smallest pieces of plant material. Including them in your compost pile and using that compost on your garden later might help spread the weeds around, so be careful!

  • Manure- Technically, you can use manure from vegetarian animals like cows, hamsters, and rabbits in your compost pile without issue. Non-vegetarian animals (including humans) are a bit of a different story. Their manure may carry pathogens which your compost pile will need to get very hot to kill off. To be on the safe side, either leave it out, or only use this compost on non-edible plants.


The DIY Approach

Now that you know what can go in your compost pile, it’s time to actually set the thing up! There are many ways to go about this, but we’ll start with the simplest.

All you really need to start composting today is a patch of land you can turn into your compost heap. Some kind of receptacle inside helps too, so you don’t have to run outside every time you have some scraps to add to the pile. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy- my parents still use an old ice cream bucket under the sink.

For your outdoor pile, you’ll want to start building it on top of bare earth so that worms and other “helpers” can aerate the compost for you. This will help it break down faster.

Then, lay down a layer of twigs or straw that is a couple inches deep. This will help the pile drain off excess water, but worms will still be able to move through it to the pile.

Once you’ve got that base down, it’s time to start composting! An easy way to balance the contents of your compost pile is to add material in layers. So, spread out your “green” stuff like food scraps which provide nitrogen to the pile, then sprinkle a thin layer of “brown” carbon sources like shredded paper, sawdust, or dry leaves to cover it. No matter what you’re adding, remember that it will break down faster when it’s in smaller pieces.

Ensure that your pile is moist, but not soaking wet. If you have a lot of wet food scraps or it’s rained recently, you may not need to add any water. If it’s been dry, sprinkle a little water on.

You’re almost done! Just cover your pile with a tarp or plastic sheeting to keep in the heat and keep out excess rain. Keep adding to your pile, and every few weeks give it a turn with a shovel to keep the pile aerated and mix up the contents.

All that’s left is to sit back and wait for that black gold!

The High Tech Method

If the previous method seems a bit too hands on for you, don’t worry.

There are tons of composting products you can buy to make the process easier, from rotating bins that you just need to roll over every now and then, to newfangled gadgets that use electricity to “recycle” your food scraps in just a matter of hours!

Many of these products can be used in a small amount of outdoor space like a patio or balcony, or even indoors, making them a great choice for almost anyone. Although the processes that these high tech gadgets use don’t always technically qualify as composting, they still turn food waste into fertilizer and keep it out of the landfills, so I think they qualify for our purposes.


Composting for Apartment Dwellers

Now, if you’re living in an apartment building with little to no access to outside space, you may have given up on the idea of composting.

Not so fast!

There are actually a few different composting methods that may work for you, and they’re super low maintenance.

For starters, some cities are starting to offer city-wide composting services where you collect your compostable items in a bin each week and then they’re picked up and all the composting is done for you. The finished product might be made available to those who contributed, or it may be used on city landscaping projects.

If your city doesn’t have such a program, you’ve still got options. Indoor composting is totally a thing, and you don’t even have to spend a lot of money on the fancy gadgets I mentioned in the last paragraph.

You can either build your own mini aerobic compost pile into a box or bin, as described above with the understanding that it will take longer to complete your compost indoors than it would outdoors, or you can let the superstars of the compost world help you out with vermicomposting.

Vermi What Now?

Vermicomposting is the indoor composter’s dream. It relies on a community of worms to break down your food scraps and turn them into nutrient-dense vermicompost and worm tea, which sounds kind of gross to humans, but your plants will drink it up.

Now, if you’re squeamish, don’t discount this option. There are several premade worm bins out there that barely require you to interact with or even see the worms. You can also make your own out of a plastic bin or two.

Vermicomposting is a cheap and low maintenance way to compost that virtually everyone can do. All you’ll need to do is add moistened, shredded paper as bedding every so often and keep adding in food at a rate appropriate for your worms.

Trust me, they’ll be the least bothersome roommates you’ve ever had.

Why Not Rot?

Now that you’ve seen some of the different ways there are to compost your kitchen scraps, I hope you’ll try at least one. It doesn’t have to be difficult, smelly, or gross, and there are plenty of resources available to help you if you run into problems.

The most important thing is to just get started!


Kayla Robbins
DoneGood Contributor

A freelance writer working with bighearted businesses who want to better our world.



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