With an interest in sustainability and eliminating food waste on the rise, at-home composting has become increasingly popular. But the idea of smelly apple cores and rotting banana peels can be a bit daunting for beginner composters, who may not know where to start. Luckily, at-home composting for beginners is easy once you have the right tools and knowledge! Here’s what you need to know to get started.
What is composting? Why does composting matter?
Luis Chen, the founder of Wormies Vericompost, explains that composting is the process of breaking down biodegradable material – food waste, yard waste, manure, animal parts, and insects – aerobically using millions of micro- and macro-organisms.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the finished product can improve soil and water quality, make plants grow faster and more successfully, and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.
Farmers and commercial gardening companies have been composting for many years now, and at-home composting has also gained popularity – Americans composted 2.6 million tons of food scraps (6.3% of all food) in 2017 compared to 1.84 million tons (5% of all food) in 2013.
Currently, most food waste in the United States ends up in landfills, where decomposition is not allowed to take place naturally. As Luis Chen explains, “When biodegradable waste ends up in landfills, it decomposes anaerobically (without proper airflow) and produces greenhouse gases such as methane which have negative effects on the environment.”
Additionally, 28% of all trash generated in the US is compostable – which suggests that sending all of this waste to a landfill may not be the best solution.
What kinds of things can be composted?
According to Frank Franciosi, executive director at the U.S. Composting Council, it’s best not to add meat, bones, oils, or cheese to your compost piles as these are more likely to attract pests and decompose more slowly.
All other plant materials – fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes – can be added without issue. Additionally, Franciosi advises that pet waste should not be composted as most backyard compost bins cannot generate enough heat to kill all possible pathogens.
If space allows, compost outside
According to Chen, the easiest way to start composting for people with outdoor space is in their backyard. However, burying a pile of waste and yard scraps can be complicated and may not always be an option.
Many cities also require an enclosed compost bin to keep out pests – this is the route we recommend. Additionally, Franciosi suggests that a larger bin is better as this helps speed up the decomposition process due to the increased heat generated from more materials.
Our Recommendation: The Yimby Tumbler Composter
The Yimby Compost Tumbler is an ideal choice for composting. Rotating it every few days keeps the scraps moving, allowing everything to break down at the same rate. In two to six weeks, you’ll have dark and soil-like compost that’s ready to use!
The EPA suggests using equal parts of “greens” (food scraps and fresh grass clippings) and “browns” (yard material like dead leaves, branches, and twigs) when composting outdoors. It is important to moisten the browns with water before adding them to the bin in order to ensure a successful process.
Temperature also plays a huge role in the successful decomposition and killing of pathogens; Franciosi recommends buying a backyard composting thermometer, such as the Greenco Gardening Compost Soil Thermometer, that can reach temperatures up to 130 degrees F.
Send Your Food Scraps Out: The Easiest Way to Compost Indoors
If the idea of handling your food waste yourself sounds daunting, consider sending it out for composting; many cities have compost services that come to your home with a subscription fee.
Additionally, local drop-off locations like farmers’ markets or gardening centers can provide convenient composting opportunities. For more information, [here’s a state-by-state list of resources](insert link here).
Those popular countertop compost bins are just not meant for composting. However, they do make a great receptacle for food scraps until you can bring them somewhere else, such as your backyard or a city compost service. To make it easier to collect and transport, use a biodegradable bag like these 3-gallon BioBags.
Composting Inside with Worms: The Best Way to Compost Indoors
Don’t panic! You can still compost indoors, but you need to invest in a proper indoor system—which may include worms. The Urban Worm Bag is a great option since it’s made of breathable fabric that provides airflow and odor control. The Hot Frog Living Composter is also a small yet effective choice.
Rather than relying on “browns” and other outdoor organisms, indoor composting relies on worms to break down your food scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer. When you’re ready to get started, buy some Uncle Jim’s Live Composting Worms for the best results.
More on Urban worm bags and hot frog living composters
When using an Urban Worm Bag, put the worms first then add food scraps to the top. After four to six months, there should be enough worm castings (the compost) at the bottom that you can harvest it by unzipping the lower flap. Leave the worms and newer scraps so they can continue decomposing.
For a Hot Frog Living Composter, fill up three layers with food scraps and worms—first the bottom layer, then work your way up as each one fills. In around a month’s time, you’ll be able to make use of the compost in the bottom layer. A thermometer will come in handy since temperatures need to reach 130 degrees F in order to eliminate pathogens just like with outdoor composting.
By making sure good airflow is present and new scraps are added and finished compost removed regularly, odors can be avoided according to the EPA.
It is possible to compost indoors without the need for worms, though!
If worms aren’t your thing, you can still set up a countertop compost bin without them. To get the process going, add your own bacteria to the mix in lieu of natural outdoor organisms—try adding some soil, as it’s home to millions of organisms that can break down food waste.
However, there are drawbacks to this approach. Chen warns that this method might produce anaerobic fertilizer and a stench from the lack of earthworms and other macroorganisms needed to help break down scraps for microorganisms.
Enter the Bokashi Method
The bokashi method of indoor composting is an alternative to using worms and involves adding special probiotic bacteria to food scraps. This fermentation process will kill microbes in around four weeks.
To minimize odors, you need to continuously drain the liquid (aka bokashi tea) by the bottom—which can be used to water your indoor or outdoor plants! Plus, you can add meat, bones, and dairy which are all generally a no-no with other composting methods.
At the end of this process, your scraps won’t have broken down completely into compost yet—that’s where burying them into a garden or adding it to another compost pile comes in handy. Even so, this isn’t the most efficient method out there but it does get the job done!
What to do with compost?
If you have a garden, experts recommend adding up to a half-inch of compost on top of the soil that’s currently there. For new flower beds and potting plants, use a mixture that’s 30-50% compost and 50-70% soil.
Got excess compost? Don’t worry—you can donate it to neighbors who garden or to local community or school gardens. You can even call or email local farms if they’re interested in taking some!
Our final thoughts: Composting for beginners is a snap!
Composting is a simple and effective way to help the environment—no matter if it’s done at home or elsewhere. By doing so, you’re reducing the greenhouse gases that result from food waste in landfills, plus the 30-40% of all food in America that isn’t eaten. All that makes composting an activity worth considering!