In our Green 101 guides, we explore familiar terms and buzzwords related to sustainability, eco-friendly living, and environmental issues.
When it comes to living green, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. But eco-friendly living can actually be really simple once you get the hang of it. And one of the easiest ways to start living green is to compost.
Composting is nature's way of recycling organic matter and breaking it down into a nutrient rich soil, or "compost." It's a natural process that happens on its own in nature all the time, and may already be familiar to you if you manage your own farm or garden. But thankfully for those of us who are totally new to having a green thumb, composting is simple to do and inexpensive to start. Composting is accessible to every lifestyle, and—even better—it's fantastic for the planet.
What goes into my compost?
Unfortunately, we can't add the scraps of everything we eat or use to our compost bins. Why not? While everything organic does eventually decompose, not everything interacts well with other matter. For example, you'll want to avoid putting meats into your compost, as it can attract animals and give off an unpleasant odor. On a similar note, you'll want to avoid adding matter that is particularly high in fat, such as cheese, milk, yogurt, or cooking oil, as they can also attract pests to your pile. Of course, if you have a covered bin or live in a rural area with a compost pit far from your home, you have more freedom to add any food scraps you'd like.
In terms of non-food items, sadly, we can never compost plastic. And while glass and metal do decompose, they take a long, long time.
Still, there's plenty you can put into your compost. Some of the most common items include coffee grounds and filters, egg shells, stale bread, tea bags, and fruit and vegetable scraps. You can even put plant trimmings and dead flowers in your compost, as long as they aren't diseased. Strips of newspaper, shredded junk mail, and other paper items are also fair game.
Why is composting good for the planet?
Composting is excellent for the planet for a few key reasons. First, it reduces the amount of waste that goes into landfills. What goes to our landfills is eventually incinerated, and the fumes release greenhouse gases which slowly contribute to the planet's increase in temperatures. Composting is also good for the planet itself, including the land right in your backyard. Your compost pile essentially becomes a safe space for worms, fungi, bugs, and good bacteria that can nourish your grass, plants, and garden. Unlike when waste is burned at landfills, maintaining a compost emits zero greenhouse gases.
I want to start composting. Where do I begin?
Luckily, composting is really intuitive and low-cost. There are a number of ready-to-go compost kits you can purchase, but for the DIY-minded, it's entirely feasible to make your own. The main thing to remember is that your bin needs to be breathable and have good circulation in order to prevent sour smells. If you have an old garbage can around, that can make the perfect compost bin. Simply drill some holes into the sides, make sure the lid fits properly, and you're good to go. Another easy option is to locate some spare wood pallets and create a box; this can be especially helpful if you're working with a limited space.
If you want to compost with zero equipment, that's actually possible, too. You can participate in the "pile method" of composting, which is as it sounds: You pick a spot in your yard and start piling your compostables. If you choose this method, it's important to water your compost, just as you would any garden or flowers. This method also comes with a significant risk: Composting can attract animals, so you'll want to be mindful that your compost isn't sending a message to wildlife in your area that your backyard is a dinner table.
If you're a city dweller with no backyard, check to see if there's a local composting program. Some cities collect compost scraps via specially designated receptacles or at farmers markets on the weekends. All you have to do is keep your compost in a bin in the freezer, then dump the contents at your drop spot when the bin is full. It won't smell and you won't get any bugs in your kitchen.
Does it matter where I put my compost bin?
The location of where you place your compost bin does matter, but even if you're working with limited space, you should be able to make it work. To begin with, you'll want to make sure that the ground is entirely level, which is important for two reasons: First, your bin needs to be steady on the ground so it doesn't fall over. But more importantly, you'll want the bin flat so it drains properly. From there, make sure that the even ground you're selected gets good light. Because your mixture is activated via heat, you'll want to choose land that gets direct light most of the time. The sun helps move your composting along, as it gives your matter some extra heat.
How do I take my composting to the next level?
If you're already familiar with composting and want to go next-level, or if you just want to dive right in from the start, there are tons of people documenting their composting journeys who can lead by example. While composting can be as simple and low-maintenance as you want it to be, it can also become a bit of a lifestyle. Take, for example, Trash is for Tossers. Lauren Singer, the creator of the project, lives an eco-conscious life in New York City that focuses on producing zero waste.
She is so invested in this, in fact, that she managed to fit all of her trash into a small mason jar. But not just all of her trash from a day, or even a week. All of her trash for four years. While not everyone can commit to the intensity of her project, her blog breaks down all of her tips and tricks, helping you live a more zero waste lifestyle in whatever ways you can. And if you're up for an eco challenge, this is definitely a good goal to aim for.
What does the future of composting look like?
As people become more invested in the environment, composting is picking up speed. Individuals and communities prioritizing composting is definitely a big step, but we can't ignore the impact city-wide initiatives have on bringing about change. Curbside compost pickup is gaining traction in cities like Washington, D.C. and New York — and it's already mandatory in San Francisco. Initiatives like these not only put composting into the minds of every community member, but they also make composting accessible for people who live in urban environments and may be turned off from composting due to lack of space.
It's not just cities that are looking to make large-scale changes with composting. Many companies are getting in on it, too. The Real Dill Co., located in Denver, Colorado, is a zero-waste pickle company that publicly talks about how and why they compost. The most famous result of their reusing food scraps that would otherwise end up into waste? Some goes into the compost, giving back to the planet, while others turn into Bloody Mary mixes. Unsurprisingly, these mixes are actually their best-selling item, according to Fast Company.
Whether you're starting small as an individual composter or you're looking to make composting a consistent part of your business practice, composting is without a doubt one of the easiest and most accessible ways to take care of the planet without disrupting or sacrificing too much of your everyday lifestyle and routine.
More From Green Matters
Costa Rica just had a major clean energy milestone: They went 300 days using only renewable energy.
Kelloggs has found a way to cut back on their food waste — they’re making beer out of rejected cornflakes.
Ready to start your own bin or heap? Here's how to start composting — and why you should do it.