composting guide
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One of the top ways to reduce food waste and help the environment is to compost, but it can also be confusing—what exactly can you put in the compost bin, and then what do you do with it? We’re here to help with this guide to composting.

Food is a major part of my life. I’m more on top of dining and restaurant news than world news. My personal Instagram feed is basically all food porn. I keep massive wish lists of restaurants and iconic dishes I want to try, and checking off items is pretty much as close as I get to having a hobby. Hell, I was a food studies major in college and have worked in hospitality for more than half of my professional career.

But I’ll admit to having a bit of a guilty conscience of late. I realized that for as much as I spend time focusing on the pleasure of consumption, I hardly give any thought to the less sexy aspects of the industry. Like, say, food waste and the massive impact its management has on our planet.

Technical Assistance7 Products to Help Fight Food WasteAccording to the EPA (a.k.a. the Environmental Protection Agency), some 20 to 30 percent of what we discard to landfills are food scraps and yard waste that could just as easily be composted. It’s the kind of sobering statistic that makes you really feel kind of lame for relying on that all-too-easy playing dumb defense for so long: “I don’t get it, what is composting?”; “How do I know what I can compost and what I can’t?”; “I live in too small a space to compost, won’t it stink up my house?” … Yada yada yada. Enough with the excuses already, this 101 guide to composting has all your questions covered.

What Is Composting and Why Is It So Important?

Ok so let’s knock out the technical stuff first: Composting is simply the act of compiling decayed/decaying organic material to create a nutrient-rich, soil-like fertilizer that’s used to improve plant growth.

If you’re like, “that’s all well and good but I don’t garden, why should I care about making fertilizer?” The short answer: The issue is bigger than you and your non-existent garden. As plant-based chef and sustainability expert Filippa Harrington explains, “Home composting is one of those small, quotidien ‘planet-friendly’ actions that really packs a punch in terms of knock-on positive impact on our environment. Organic matter that makes its way from our home bins into landfill decomposes and creates methane emissions. Methane is one of the most potent and harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.”

Aside from that major planet plus, using compost enriches soil to help it retain moisture and fight plant diseases and pests. It also boosts the production of good bacteria and fungi and decreases the need for chemical fertilizers.

So, What Can I Compost?

The EPA breaks it down like this: All compost piles should be made up of browns (dead leaves, yard waste, etc.), greens (fruit and veggie scraps, coffee grounds, grass), and water. You want your pile to have a relatively equal amount of “browns” (the elements that provide carbon) to “greens” (the elements that provide nitrogen). The water is there to provide moisture to help break down all that organic matter.

DO compost these items:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • eggshells (pro tip: Harrington recommends crushing them prior to disposing)
  • coffee grounds and filters
  • tea bags
  • nut shells
  • paper and shredded newspaper
  • cardboard
  • yard and grass trimmings that have not been treated with chemical pesticides
  • houseplants
  • hay and straw
  • dead leaves
  • sawdust
  • wood chips
  • cotton and wool rags
  • dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
  • hair and fur
  • fireplace ashes

DON’T compost these items:

  • meat and fish bones and scraps
  • dairy products
  • any fats, grease, lard or oils (leads to odor problems and attracts pests)
  • diseased plants; coal or charcoal ash
  • pet wastes (no thank you potential parasite, bacteria, germ, pathogen, and virus infestation)
  • black walnut tree leaves or twigs (seemingly randomly, but apparently they release substances that can be harmful to plants)

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Related Reading: The Best Products to Help Reduce Paper Waste in the Kitchen

It’s Easy to Integrate Composting Into Your Everyday Life

As someone who has lived in a small urban apartment my entire adult life, I totally get the knee-jerk “my living space is too tiny for this” reaction. According to Harrington, all you need to start composting at home is a container with a tight-fitting lid that will sit under your sink or on your kitchen counter and to do a little research into what compost collection services or drop-off points are available locally. “For some of us that means a trip to the local community garden, and for others, that means simply putting your compost out with your bin for weekly collection. When compost collection is a municipal service, this often means that you can access a free compost container and compostable bags from your local council.”

Sidebar: If you want to get fancy with your indoor composting bin, there are plenty of options for that now too, with tons of innovation taking place in the home composting space.

If you do have access to outdoor space at home, the EPA explains that all you need to do is pick a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile. Add your “browns” and “greens” (processed into smaller pieces as need be) as you collect them and moisten dry materials as needed. Oh, and make sure to bury food and veggie waste under at least 10 inches of compost material. Once the material at the bottom of the pile is a dark rich color (anywhere from two months to two years), you’ve got yourself some usable compost.

Two Common Misconceptions About Composting

1. The compost bin is going to stink up my living space. “Generally if there is a bad odor, you are doing something wrong,” says Harrington. “Bad odors arise from bad compost systems, usually when you are adding things you shouldn’t be or neglecting to empty your bin frequently. And if this is a really sensitive point for your, avoid adding brassicas to the container.” (For the uninitiated, brassicas include items like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, rutabagas, and turnips).

2. Won’t composting indoors attract creepy crawlies? “Once again, with the right approach, a rodent or insect infestation is highly improbable, and in my experience, unheard of if you are removing your scraps weekly via a collection service or trip to a collection point.”

Long story short, make sure you’re on top of what can and can’t go into your compost bin and make sure you dispose of it regularly.

What Else Can You Be Doing to Manage the Food Waste in Your Life?

The easy answer is more obvious than you might realize: “Look to work with the produce in your refrigerator more creatively and more resourcefully,” say Harrington. “Eat the greens and whites of the leeks, eat the green tops of carrots as well as the carrots themselves (hello, carrot top pesto), and utilize the stems of your swiss chard, and the stalks of your broccoli.” And if you’re low on dish inspiration, remember, you can always throw any odd bits and ends into a pot to make vegetable stock.

Beyond adjusting your home cooking habits, Harrington also recommends getting in touch with local food waste and surplus organizations to see how you can help promote their work. She’s a particular fan of the program run by Imperfect Produce which source “ugly, would-be-waste vegetables directly from farmers and delivers it to consumers by way of a weekly vegetable box.”

For more information, be sure to check out, or follow Harrington’s Instagram @filippaharrington.

Also See: 6 Ways to Minimize Meal Prep Food Waste, Cookbooks That Help You Fight Food Waste, and 9 Produce Subscriptions You Should Know About.

Related Video: How to Use Compost in Your Garden

Header image courtesy of Food52

Maryse Chevriere is a certified sommelier, James Beard Award winner for @freshcutgardenhose, and author of "Grasping the Grape," a no-nonsense but really fun guide to wine.
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