Composting 101: Everything you need to know to get started

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ByTebany Yune
Originally Published: 

Americans throw away nearly 40 percent of food produced in the nation, most of which ends up in landfills, where it emits methane as it degrades. The gas then rises into the air, where it damages the atmosphere and contributes to the acceleration of climate change. All this food waste feeds into a tragic cycle that harms everyone on the planet — especially the communities most vulnerable to climate change.

The good news, though, is that there are ways to reduce your contribution to landfills, and by extension your carbon footprint, by throwing away less food. Less impulsive purchases at the grocery store is one great way to start; but if all you’ve got are kitchen scraps, you could get into the wild world of composting.

At its most basic, composing is the process of breaking down organic material without creating additional methane. Depending on the size of your compost, it can take a few weeks, months, or even a year to create a fresh batch that you can use to nourish your garden or yard. There are large, private collection services that will take your scraps to compost, or you can create your own at home using the steps below.

1. Pick a place for your compost

Choosing where to put your compost really depends on where you live. If you’ve got a detached home with a sizable yard, you can easily stick your compost outside. Doubly so if you live on farmland, where you have plenty of property to make multiple compost piles if needed.

If you live in an apartment, things will be a little more complicated. You’ll need to check how much space you have for a composter, first. Many are about 2.5 to 3 feet wide or larger depending on the container; if your apartment is too small, maybe look into a compost private collection service instead.

Apartment-dwellers should also consider a food recycler. These are electric alternatives to composting that break down your food waste and turn it into fertilizer. The fertilizer can enhance the topsoil you’re using for any home gardens or indoors plants. The process is considerably faster than composting, but the resulting material isn’t as dense and can’t be used as topsoil.

2. Choose your composter

If you have a huge amount of outdoor space, like farmland, you can go old-school and keep a compost pile outside without having to worry much about keeping your yard clippings and food scraps in a container. Some folks with big yard space keep multiple piles, in fact, putting newer scraps in one pile and moving older, degrading material into another as it breaks down.

Homes with smaller yards or apartments with large balconies or roof space can use a tumbling composter instead of leaving their composts out in the open. These are basically sealed barrels you can easily turn or ‘tumble’ using its handle to turn your waste into compost. They’re ideal for all-year use, keeping pests away, and keeping your yard looking tidy. Because they’re sealed, tumbling composters can speed up the composting process by days or months.

Residents in small apartments may want to look into worm composting if they’re really short on space. Worm composts, also known as vermicomposting, can produce compost over a period of months as they eat up the scraps you toss them. Worm bins can be made or purchased and you can keep them inside or outside your apartment. Make sure everyone in the apartment is cool with worms before surprising your roommates with a full box of them.

3. Collect your compost materials

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There are two primary categories of compost materials, called ‘greens’ and ‘browns.’

Greens are typically items with a lot of moisture, nitrogen, and heat to release into the pile. These materials can include coffee grounds; fruit and vegetable peels, rinds, and stalks; rotting vegetables; dead plants, raked leaves, grass clippings; carbs like cooked rice, pasta, and bread; and eggshells.

Browns are items with more carbon that tend to break down more slowly. The Spruce recommends chopping these into smaller pieces so they can degrade at a similar rate to the faster green materials. Browns include materials like shredded paper and cardboard; straw, pinecones, fall leaves, and twigs; used napkins and shredded brown paper bags; and used coffee filters.

Meat, dairy, and bones need special composting bins and are more likely to attract pests. Some gardeners recommend against composting these ingredients completely to save yourself some trouble.

4. Wait, turn the compost, and wait some more

Once you’ve collected your materials and shoved them into their compost bins, you can let nature take the wheel. If done correctly, your compost shouldn’t smell that much during the process. If it does, it might mean your container isn’t sealed correctly, your compost is too wet, or your materials are unbalanced with too many greens.

Turning the compost — either with a pitchfork or using the handle on a tumbler — every week or so should help get rid of some smell. If it’s still pretty bad, add browns to absorb more compost moisture and balance out any problems with too many greens.

5. Use your finished compost

You can keep adding to your compost until the bin is about 3/4 of the way full. (You can add a little more than that, but remember that it still needs enough space to tumble.) From there, it can take weeks to months for a pile to completely become compost. This is why some people keep sealed containers to hold onto food waste while the first batch is still breaking down. Other folks keep a second compost bin and alternate between the two while one is full.

When compost is finished, it should look like crumbly, dark soil and smell like rich earth. You can use it to add nourishment to your garden as a top layer, mix it with topsoil or potting soil, spread it on your lawn for better grass and flowers, and grow plants that require a lot of nitrogen (particularly veggies like lettuce and squash).

Composting takes a lot of time and work, but the results are immeasurably positive for gardeners and environmentally conscious households. Not only does it reduce the amount of methane gas leaking into the air, it also encourages the healthy growth of plants without using fertilizers. If you’re looking to lower your carbon footprint, check to see if composting is the next step for you.