How to Compost at Home, No Matter Your Living Situation
Citi is a proud sponsor of the 20 in '20, a list that spotlights up-and-coming leaders striving for change with one common goal: to make things better for all of us. Click to meet the honorees and learn more about Citi's initiatives here.
Ever since quarantine started, you’ve been cooking more than ever before. That means you have more potato skins, carrot tops, broccoli stems, apple cores and banana peels in your trash than ever before, too. But what if we told you they didn’t need to end up in a landfill? Composting is a great alternative—whether you have a personal garden or not—as it puts your food waste to good use and helps combat climate change. Even better, you can do your part no matter where you live (yup, even your tiny apartment). Ready to save the world? Here’s how to compost at home.
What Is Compost?
Compost is organic material that can help plants grow when added to soil. A collection of organic waste plus moisture inspires microorganisms to break down the materials into a rich, powerful soil that works wonders in the garden. Compost helps the soil stay moist, suppresses plant diseases and pest infestation and reduces the gardener’s need for chemical fertilizers.
If you have a garden, odds are you’ve already hopped on the bandwagon in some capacity. But what many people don’t know is that food scraps and yard waste alone make up more than 30 percent of what Americans throw away, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Composting has the potential to change that, as it keeps the waste out of landfills, where it would produce methane, a type of greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. So, even if you don’t have a garden, composting is a more resourceful way to dispose of your food waste. Plus, you can always donate it to a community compost bin if there’s one near you.
What Can I Compost?
You can basically compost anything that’s 1) organic matter that 2) won’t attract pests. Here’s a basic rundown:
- Fruits and veggies, tops and bottoms included
- Coffee grounds and tea bags
- Rice and grains
- Cooked food, as long as it doesn’t have oil, dairy or meat
- Yard trimmings
- Sawdust, wood chips, newspaper and cardboard
- Hair, fur and vacuum lint
- Plant trimmings with chemical pesticides, insects or diseases
- Meat and fish
- Oil and butter
- Cooked food with oil dairy or meat
- Pet waste
- Coal or charcoal ash
How to Start a Compost Pile
Composting requires a mix of dry organic matter (brown ingredients like branches and dead leaves), wet organic matter (“green” ingredients, like grass clippings and fruit and veggie scraps) and water. Carbon from the browns + nitrogen from the greens + water = fast decomposition. This is called hot composting, a process that uses intentional layering to spark a chemical interaction that speeds up decomposition considerably. You’ll need more browns than greens (the ratios vary, but you can start at 3:1), as having something to soak up the moisture is key in preventing your compost from turning to a pile of soggy, rotten mush.
While you could throw your waste in a bin or pile willy-nilly (that’s called cold composting, a process that takes way longer to complete than hot composting), layering it properly will save you lots of time in the long run. If you’re hot composting, you’ll likely have a surplus of food scraps waiting to be added to the compost pile. Feel free to store those in your fridge or freezer while they wait their turn, so it doesn’t start to smell or attract bugs.
When you start layering, begin with the dry browns on the bottom and top them off with wet greens—this allows the dead materials to aerate and drain the wet, which gives the microbes the oxygen they need to break down the compost and work their magic. Over time, just continue layering brown under green, each layer being about an inch or two high. Topping the pile off with browns can also help keep bugs away.
You can use a proper compost bin, or substitute a trash bin, wooden chest or even a milk carton. In fact, you can keep them loose in a pile with no container at all as long as you have an outdoor space. Some tools that might help outdoor compost piles include square-point shovels and pitchforks to turn the compost and a water hose with a spray nozzle to keep it damp. It also helps to chop or shred large pieces of waste for the compost, so they break down quicker.
How to Compost at Home in the Backyard
First, you’ll have to pick a dry, shady spot (ideally near a hose if that’s what you’re using to water your compost). Then, all you have to do is add your browns and greens to the bin or pile. While a closed bin keeps everything need and tidy, it’s important to note that it’s harder to harvest and turn compost in a bin. This is why they’re best for cold composting, which is less work than layering but a slower overall decomposition. An open bin offers both the neatness of a closed bin with way more airflow, so open compost bins are great for layered hot composting and cold composting alike. The only con is that they can be more expensive to construct or buy. The choice is yours.
Either way, you’ll want to bury the fruit and vegetable waste under nearly a foot of compost. If you go with a naked pile instead of a bin, cover it with a tarp to keep it moist. Spray the compost with water periodically so it’s always damp, but never drown it. Once the material at the bottom of your pile is totally rich and dark, the compost is ready to use. This can take as little as two months or as long as two years, depending on the size of your compost pile and the method you choose.
How to Compost at Home Indoors
Vermicomposting, aka worm composting, is a great option for those with limited space and modest scraps (and arguably the easiest). Don’t worry, they don’t crawl around like the earthworms you’re picturing. With this method, the worms basically do the tough work for you, but they can only eat what’s on the surface of the bin. So, if you collect a ton of scraps every week, this process might be too slow for you. But if you only cook for one most of the time, the worms might be able to keep up with you.
If you’re not chomping at the bit to bring a bucket of worms into your home and you don’t have outdoor space, lean on a compost bin. They’re ventilated and available at most gardening or hardware stores. Get yourself some odor-resistant liners and find an inconspicuous place to keep the bin, like under the sink. You can also use stackable five-gallon buckets, old wine crates or ten-gallon plastic bins instead of a compost bin. Depending on the size of your compost pile and how often it’s turned, you can have ready-to-use compost in a matter of weeks. The biggest concern with indoor composting is making sure it’s won’t attract bugs or rodents, so make sure you’re not composting anything that they’ll want to nibble on (see our “Don’t” list above) and keep your compost in some kind of container, so it doesn’t stink up your whole house.
Tips for Maintaining a Compost Pile
Here are a few more guidelines to stick to once your pile is established:
- Turn (in other words, rotate and flip) the pile frequently to ensure adequate airflow. It speeds up decomposition and prevents the pile from staying too wet. If your compost needs to be turned very frequently, odds are you need more browns in the pile to soak up the moisture of the greens.
- Be patient. A compost pile may take two months to complete in the hot summer, while a cooler indoor compost pile can take three times as long. The process usually works faster with more compost, so just stick with it and keep on layering. It’s worth the wait.
- Trust your senses to know when the pile is ready. If your compost reeks like trash, it’s likely too wet and your ingredients are rotting instead of properly decomposing. Compost that’s ready to use is fluffy with an earthy, not-unpleasant scent. The compost should also feel warm, a sign of proper decomposition, until it’s fully dry and ready to use.
- If you intend to use your compost pile in your own garden or are vermicomposting, consider not including citrus, onion or garlic to the mix. These can repel earthworms, which are crucial in helping your garden flourish.
- If you don’t want to maintain your own compost pile, see if there’s a community garden or compost pile in or near your town that will take your scraps.