The Ultimate Guide to Composting (in Any Sized Space)
Eek! I said the scary ‘C’ word – at least, it was for me before I got started on my own composting journey. But let me say, it is So. Much. Less. Intimidating. then I was making it out to be. Seriously. I promise you.
I live in an urban setting with a small backyard, and I was terrified that I was going to screw the compost up and it was going to stink up the whole neighborhood.
Good news: that hasn’t happened yet.
More good news: I quickly learned there isn’t really a way to ‘screw compost up’. If something seems a little astray, you just make a minor tweak and you’re good to go.
Even more good news: Once you implement composting into your routine, it is easy and very low maintenance.
Before I jump in with how to compost using an FAQ style of organizing material, I wanted to say a quick note on purchasing items for composting.
I am a huge believer in the zero waste movement that you do not HAVE to buy new items in order to practice reducing your waste. I am a big proponent of using what you have. That all being said, I do share options of types of compost bins and containers that are out there if you feel one of them fit your needs.
I personally have a bin that we received new, and I also use an old laundry hamper that I found on the side of the road.
If you are at a point where you want to start composting but have limited resources (whatever those may be), I would suggest paying close attention to the ‘advanced tips’ at the end of this post.
Now: let’s get into all things compost!
Why do I need to compost? Doesn’t food just break down and decompose in a landfill?
Short answer: Yes, but not in the wonderful breakdown-of-food-into-fertilizer sense. It’s actually much worse.
I believed this for a long time, so if you do/did too, you’re not alone. I think this is a really common misconception. But as you’ll read below, composting requires simple yet specific ‘ingredients’ to work.
When a traditional compost pile is ‘working’ properly, a fancy-smancy chemical reaction happens to create heat and break down the compost pile contents.
Please know that although I have my masters in Natural Science and Environmental Education, I did terrible in Chemistry and am nowhere near chemist level knowledge. However, I do know that traditional compost piles need four main ingredients:
- Carbon (brown materials: leaves, twigs, branches, cardboard, paper, etc)
- Nitrogen (green materials: veggie scraps, fruit peels, egg shells, grass, etc)
- Oxygen (self-explanatory)
- Water (self-explanatory)
These four ingredients provide the necessary ‘habitat’ for what I like to call ‘little guys’ (actually called microorganisms/bacterial organisms) to break down the content. These bacterial organisms are aerobic, meaning they need oxygen.
If you think of a landfill, there isn’t much oxygen getting anywhere below the surface of the pile.
So, if there isn’t any oxygen, there isn’t any composting. So what is there?
Methane. Lots and lots of methane. A greenhouse gas that is significantly worse than carbon dioxide and that accelerates climate change at an alarming rate.
And considering that 40% of all food in the US ends up in landfills….
I’ll let you do the math (also not a strong subject).
Related Post: The ‘So Big it Should’ve Been an E-book’ Guide to Growing Your Own Vegetables (Zero Waste Style)
Composting is a super easy and cost-effective way to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Why? When conditions are right in a traditional pile, as the little guys break down the organic content, heat is generated. As heat is generated, the contents break down faster. Eventually, you’ll be left with beautiful, rich ‘garden food’, as we like to call it in our house, aka, natural fertilizer. All made from stuff that would have ended up in a landfill producing methane.
Isn’t composting expensive? Don’t I need to buy a bin?
It definitely doesn’t have to be.
There are a number of composting methods out there, but I’ll only cover two-and-a-half main ones (yes, just stick with me):
- Traditional composting (method described above) done outside in a bin, pile, or container. Compost process is done through microorganisms using four main ingredients.
- Vermicomposting using worms – perfect for small spaces such as apartments or condos. You feed the worms, the worms do all the work.
- Industrial/Commercial composting is composting done at a large scale level. Think: when a waste company or city collects compost from residents in some type of program (drop off or pickup). Compost that goes in an industrial level can usually handle items such as meat and
dairy,because temperatures get much hotter than in traditional backyard composts (to clarify: you can’t put meat or dairy in a backyard compost because the temperatures do not get hot enough to kill off certain pathogens). I’m not going to talk much more about industrial composting, because I am going to guess that if you are here reading this post, you are interested in traditional backyard composting. If you are interested in learning more about this type of composting, check out this article here.
Besides the two and a half I mentioned above, there are in fact even more composting options. Check them in this blog post from Misfit Gardening.
Traditional composting is done by storing kitchen scraps in a bin inside and then taking them outside to a larger bin or pile.
The easiest way to compost using this method is to have a waste reduction company or city who collects organic waste via curbside collection. Check with your waste reduction company/city to see if they offer this service. Using this method you only have to worry about collecting the scraps and bringing them outside when it’s time for pick-up.
If you don’t have access to this option (like me), and you have a yard, an outdoor compost bin or pile is your next best option. This is what my family and I do!
What receptacle do you choose for traditional composting?
There are many varieties all the way from a simple pile on the ground to a compost tumbler. There are some you can buy premade or there are many different DIY options.
My family and I have one that came as a kit that we assembled (by we I mean my husband) out of some wood and chicken wire.
We also have another one that I started as an experiment, but has actually turned out to be a decent compost bin. I found a tall hamper that someone was giving away for free, and wanted to see if that would work. I’m pleased to say it did!
I’ve also seen wire dog kennels, old Rubbermaid storage bins, old garbage bins, and pallets all being used as receptacles.
As you can see, the possibilities are endless. It all depends on your handiness skill/desire, budget, and space.
Interested in building your own? Here is a great post with 16 DIY Compost Bins.
Looking for a pre-made one? Some cities or counties offer discounted bins to residents – something worth checking in to! This is how we got ours. It is nothing fancy, but it works great!
When looking for a bin, whether you are making your own or buying one, the important things are:
- Ventilation in order to provide oxygen for the microorganisms
- Room to stir
- Capacity (how much will your bin hold versus how much organic waste you produce)
- Critters such as mice, squirrels, etc (we don’t have an issue in ours, but something to consider)
One more thing about traditional composting:
What about in winter? Can you compost in winter?
I live in Minnesota, and if you’ve ever heard of Minnesota you have probably heard one thing: it gets cold and it snows. And guess what. Composting still works year-round (and is actually easier in the winter)!
In the winter, we just keep adding scraps to the pile as normal. In the spring or even some warmer winter days, the pile will compress down, and you can then stir as needed. That’s it!
Still not convinced? Or maybe you live in a small space and a large outdoor bin isn’t possible. That’s OK! There is a second method I haven’t talked about yet, and that is vermicomposting…aka, worm composting.
Two other things to pay attention due regarding weather is rain and temperature. If you start receiving a lot of rain, your compost bin may get too wet. But don’t worry, all you need to do is add some more brown materials (I’ll go into detail about this below) which include leaves, cardboard, newspapers, etc. You’ll notice you need to add some dry, brown materials if you start to notice a smell coming from your compost.
If you are in a dry period where you have received no moisture, you may need to add a little water to your pile. During the summer, I follow the rule of thumb that if I’m watering my garden (meaning it hasn’t rained that day), I just spray some hose water onto the pile. You’ll notice you need
If you are using an enclosed bin, you will probably want to check for dryness/wetness on a more regular basis, since weather may not necessarily play as big of a role.
What is Vermicomposting?
Before I lose you to the whole worm thing, let me tell you, it isn’t as creepy as it sounds.
I’m going to be 100% upfront with you here, I don’t have any experience in worm composting, so I can’t speak from experience. Because of that, I’ll link to a lot of great resources I found in case you’re interested in learning more. But I think it’s important to give an option for anyone interested in composting, whether you have a yard or not.
Vermicomposting is composting using worms in a small container versus having a large outdoor bin. This means that worm composting is perfect for anyone who doesn’t have a yard and/or lives in a really small space.
Instead of the Carbon, Nitrogen, Water, and Oxygen reaction I talked about above, the worms do all the work. All you need to do is make sure they have all the food they need (aka compost and shredded paper or newspaper), and that their bin doesn’t get too hot or cold.
This post from Queen Bee Coupons (don’t let the name fool you) has a lot of really great information about worm composting, including DIY instructions for making your own bin out of two storage containers and a troubleshooting guide.
Here is a similar post with great information from the EPA. As you saw from the link above, DIY worm bin options are readily available.
Otherwise, you can purchase one like the options below:
Ventihut Bin: Perfect for a porch or balcony, as long as it doesn’t get too warm or cold. Otherwise, can work indoors.
Don’t forget to get the Worms! There are specific types of worms you need to get (red wigglers are most recommended because they can break down material quickly).
I live in a small apartment/condo/house with a small yard, and I’m not into the worms. What can I do?
If you’re looking for other ideas for apartment/condo composting, check out this apartment composting guide from Going Zero Waste.
This post from Apartment Therapy talks about creating a DIY compost bin (similar to the ones outside), but for indoors.
You can also check in with your city or county to see if they have a drop off site (our local nature center has one). Or check in with your local farmer’s markets, co-op, or garden center, or local trash company (if you have one that is not run by your city) to see if they offer an industrial/community compost. In this type of program, residents would (most likely) drop off compost at a designated area, but some programs have a pickup option. Many of these places offer a program like this, but don’t necessarily have the budget to advertise. It is definitely worth asking around.
And if they don’t? Use your voice to start advocating for one in your area!
My city recently implemented a program with two dropoff points. They not only surpassed their goal of 500 households within 6 months, but they are also well underway to reaching 600 households! The program has been wildly successful and could be in your area too. And who knows, maybe the city/farmers market/co-op was already thinking about doing one!
Ok. I’ve got the bins and types of composting down. What types of things can I compost?
Both traditional and worm composting can effectively break down similar organic materials such as:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Fruit/vegetable scraps
- Tea and coffee grounds
- Bread/pasta (with no dairy or oil)
- Paper products such as napkins, paper towels, tissues, shredded paper, newspaper
- Grass clippings
- Sawdust and wood shavings
- Dryer lint
- Vacuum contents
- Dust/dirt from sweeping
- Any type of compostable disposables
- Toilet paper and paper towel rolls
- Hair (animal or from your hairbrush)
- Beans and lentils
- 100% all natural fabrics
Things you can’t compost or feed your worms*:
- Grease and fat
- Sanitary products
- Greeting cards
- Wrapping paper
*If you have access to an industrial/commercial compost – usually through a city or trash company pickup, you usually CAN add in meat and dairy. Double check with the program to see what they will and will not accept.
How do I collect the organic waste inside before adding it to a bin, and should I use compost bags?
My family and I use compost bags from the brand UNNI and LOVE them (we have found them to be the most durable), but you don’t have to use bags at all. Some people put their waste right into a container without a bag.
There is no right or wrong way; just whatever works best for you.
As for bins, we use a regular old Rubbermaid storage container or just a bowl with the bag in it on the counter. It only stays out a day or two, and we’ve never had an issue with smell. Sometimes we also put it in the fridge if it has been a couple of days and we’re not ready to take it out yet.
Once the bag is full, we take it out to the main bin! That’s it.
There are ‘official’ compost pails available that come with smell-control venting if that is a concern for you.
Here are some options:
Ok, you’ve convinced me. How do I get started?
First, you need a bin (see above). If you are worm composting, you can revisit the links I provided earlier on how to get those set up.
If you’re going the traditional method, here are the steps:
- Set up your bin
- On the bottom of the bin, put branches to help create some air flow to the bottom of the pile
- Add in some brown material – leaves or cardboard are great options
- Pour some dirt on top (can be from your garden or yard, doesn’t have to be fancy)
- Then, add in whatever scraps you have
- The brown/green ratio should be about 3 times the brown for 1 green. This is just an estimate though – don’t feel like you have to measure anything out
- On top of the scraps, add some more brown material (we save all our leaves from the fall to use for our compost)
- Add some water
- After a few days, you should start to see an area in the middle of the pile that looks like it has sunken in. If you hold your hand over that area, you should feel some heat. This means your pile is working!
- Mixing: You will want to mix your pile every 1-2 weeks to make sure those microorganisms aka ‘little guys’ (remember them) are getting enough oxygen. I use an old shovel and just mix the contents around a little bit.
- Each time you add ‘green’ materials, make sure you add approximately three times the brown
- Your compost is ‘done’ once you have beautiful, brown, soil-looking material! If you find a few pieces that aren’t fully broken down yet, add them back into the pile.
- Smelly: If your pile starts to smell, it’s probably too wet. Add some more brown materials and you should be good to go
- Dry: If your pile does not seem to be composting, try adding some water. I usually sprinkle some hose water on the pile each time I water my garden.
- Not breaking down: If your pile does not seem to be composting, you may need to add some more green materials.
- Soil: If you’ve tried adding some water and more greens, and your pile still isn’t breaking down, try adding some soil in.
Neither of these tickle my fancy. What can I do?
As I previously mentioned, check with your local county or city to see if they collect organic waste at their drop-off facilities – some do. If you go that option, you can freeze your organic waste until you drop it off to ensure you don’t have a ton of rotting food sitting around (another bonus for composting in the winter months – just put the materials in a bin in the garage or outside).
I’m also going to gently encourage you to step out of your comfort zone. Composting can make a huge impact on climate change. I know change can be hard. Implementing more into your routine can be hard. But you know what? The alternative (our climate changing to catastrophic levels) is a lot scarier, in my opinion.
Composting was really intimidating for me as well, as I’ve already mentioned. But I’m SO glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and did it. If you need a little more encouragement, my friend Jen from Honestly Modern has a FANTASTIC series called ‘You Can Make Dirt’, where she interviews everyday people about their composting journey. The interviews are what I wish I had when I was first looking into composting because they would have eased a lot of my fears.
If you are still on the fence, take some time to look through the interviews to ease some of your concerns. I think it will help!
Final question: what do I do with the compost?
Here are some ideas for using compost if you have a garden:
- Use it as fertilizer in your yard (grass and trees)
- Use it as fertilizer for your flower and veggie gardens and/or pots
- Use it as a fertilizer for your houseplants
You may have noticed that all the options I mentioned have to do with fertilizing. Because compost is so rich in nutrients and doesn’t have the same drainage/water holding properties as regular soil, it is not a good idea to use compost in place of traditional soil.
Here are some ideas for using compost if you don’t have a garden or have excess compost:
- Give it to your neighbors: Get ready to be the favorite neighbor on the block. Many of your neighbors would likely LOVE to get some lovely, rich garden food!
- Give it away on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Freecycle.org, or Nextdoor.
- Check with a local school or daycare: some schools and daycares have local gardens as a teaching tool
- Check with a local garden center
- Find your favorite farmer and offer it to them!
- Do you have a community garden in your neighborhood? I am sure they would love it!
Composting is great, but what about food waste?
Last but not least, in a post about composting food waste, I would be irresponsible not to talk about food waste in general. And while food waste in itself is a whole separate post, I wanted to quickly bring up a couple of things.
First, yes, composting is awesome. It keeps food waste out of landfills which means less methane in the atmosphere. But it’s important not to use that as an excuse to become lenient on food waste. Even with composting food, you are:
- Throwing away money
- Wasting all of the resources that went into growing, harvesting, and transporting that food
- Literally throwing away food when some of our fellow humans are going hungry
Remember, 40% of all food is thrown away. And while composting is a great solution to avoiding the landfill, let’s also focus on reducing food waste!
For some great resources on how to do that, check out my Food Waste Pinterest Board here.
Advanced Tips for Composting
Already composting? Here are some advanced tips:
- Advocate for
city-wide, farmers market, local co-op, or local trash company composting – whether it is curbside pickup or drop off at a local location. Allow others the chance who may not have the resources to do it themselves.
- Offer to take some of your neighbors organic waste to compost
- Help others start a compost pile of their own
- Work on reducing your overall food waste
I hope that the information in your post has answered any questions you may have about composting, AND encourages you to get started!
Have questions? Ask in the comments, via any of my social media channels, or better yet – join my Trash Talkers FB group and ask there!