A Beginner’s Guide to At-Home Composting

Cora Whalen

by | Updated: December 10th, 2019 | Read time: 4 minutes

Think you’re eco-friendly because you reduce, reuse and recycle? Chances are, you could probably still cut your waste by another 30 percent.

The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, estimates that food scraps and yard waste make up 20 percent to 30 percent of what we throw away, and that could be composted instead.

A Beginner's Guide to At-Home Composting

Diverting your organic waste from the trash can to the compost bin keeps unnecessary rot out of landfills, which is a huge win for the environment. Food disposed into a landfill generates methane, a greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.

And composting creates nutrient-rich organic matter, so it can also save you money on fertilizers and mulch the next time you visit a nursery or garden center.

Though composting has (rightfully) been getting more buzz recently, nearly three in four Americans, or 72 percent, still don’t do it, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association.

Here’s how to be the first person on your block to upcycle food scraps and yard waste into DIY plant food.

What you need to get started

Like having a wastebasket or a recycling bin, you’ll need a pile or bin to collect your compost. These structures vary in size, shape and material, and can be built or bought.

“With composting, you can be as frugal as you want to be, or can spend as much as you want,” says Sandra Mason, horticultural educator at the University of Illinois Extension. “Figure out ahead of time how much compost you’d like to generate to decide on a size for your unit.”

Mason says that the unit should be at least 3 feet deep by three feet wide by three feet tall, as anything smaller isn’t likely to heat up enough. The organisms that break down organic materials need to stay warm and happy in order to keep working.

“There are plenty of ways to build a unit inexpensively,” says Mason. “Nail wooden pallets together to make a four-sided box, or create a cylinder out of fencing.”

The EPA advises placing your unit in a dry, shady or partially shady spot near a water source, and preferably out of view.

“When composting outdoors, consider aesthetics and the sensitivities your neighborhood,” says Mason. “Not everyone thinks compost units are beautiful. You may even want to opt for a closed-top bin.”

The best practices of composting

According to composting math, “greens” plus “browns” equals a nutritious soil additive. You’ll want to add both to your bin.

Green materials include food scraps such as vegetable and fruit peels, coffee grounds and tea bags. Wet yard waste like fresh grass clippings and green leaves are also considered green.

Brown materials include shredded paper, cardboard and dry yard waste, like crunchy leaves and small sticks and twigs.

“The green stuff is wet. Mix it with a brown, dry product. Use two times brown stuff to green stuff,” Mason advises. “And cover your food waste with browns, or make sure you have a cover on your compost bin.”

Meat products, bones, cat litter and animal waste are always no-nos for your compost bin. Aside from health concerns, they can also attract unwanted pests, rodents and animals. But rinsed egg shells are fine.

“A big thing to remember is to always add either soil or finished compost to compost mix,” says Mason. “Think of it like baking sourdough bread — you have to have that starter in there. Organisms that exist in finished compost are what create new compost. Adding a sprinkle of soil or finished compost makes all the difference in the world.”

Just don’t buy a compost starter, says Mason. There are plenty on the market, but you don’t need them. Using soil as a starter works just as well.

Turn or mix the compost regularly. If you have a pile, you can aerate it with a pitchfork when you add new materials, or use a turner if your bin has that feature.

Go at your own pace

You know your compost is ready when the material at the bottom is dark and you can’t detect the remnants of your organic waste.

So, when can you expect that to happen? The EPA says this could take anywhere between two months to two years.

“Composting just happens, and it will happen eventually,” says Mason. “But there are ways you can speed it up, and even make the soil more nutritious.”

Adding finished compost or soil to your unit can help move things along, as well as shredding materials down to smaller sizes before adding them to the bin. Mixing or turning not only regularly, but at the right time, can also accelerate the process.

“Compost naturally rises in temperature. In cooler months, you can see steam coming from the compost and feel the warmth,” says Mason. “Turn it or mix it when you see it warm up then drop in temperate again. Composting happens faster if you turn after the heat and decline.”

Of course, optimized turning or mixing requires extra attention. Missing a turn isn’t a big deal — it just means that the composting won’t happen as quickly.

“You don’t have to compost everything. Something is better than nothing. You’re doing a good job just by reducing food waste that goes down your drain or into your garbage,” says Mason. “Think about starting with leaves in the fall instead of sending them out. They’re abundant and easy to break down.”

Editor’s note: For more tips and tricks for reducing food waste (and creative ways to use fruit and veg that are “on the edge”), check out our Zero Hunger, Zero Waste initiative.