Last updated on September 25, 2022.
Composting should be part of everyday life for most of us. It’s one of the best things you can do for the environment. You don’t have to be a gardener or live rurally to compost your own food and yard waste. It can seem difficult, but I want to tell you how easy it actually is!
In some parts of the world, including parts of the U.S., composting is part of regular municipal waste management. For example, San Francisco implemented a citywide residential and commercial curbside collection program that includes the separate collection of recyclables, compostable materials, and trash. This means every resident and business has three separate collection bins.
But many of us don’t live in a city or even a state that prioritizes waste management, much less composting. I’m going to explain how you can easily compost on your own, regardless of where you live. Let me begin by explaining why we should all be composting in the first place.
Composting reduces how much we are putting in landfills. Between twenty and forty percent of our landfill contents are organic waste, depending on which study you read. So even the lower 20% number represents one-fifth of our waste which could be eliminated by composting!
Consider the amount of food waste and yard waste (including leaves) we dispose of in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whom I consider to have a more conservative appraisal, the U.S. disposed of an estimated 35.4 million tons of yard waste, leaves, and brush in 2018, which is 12.1% of total municipal solid waste. They also estimated that the U.S. generated 63.1 million tons of food waste in 2018, or 21.6% of total municipal solid waste. If we calculate these numbers together, 34.2% of 98.5 million tons, that’s more than 3.3 million tons of waste we could avoid putting in landfills…without too much effort.
Greenhouse Gas Reduction
“Landfills are not meant to encourage decomposition.”4
We know that food and yard waste doesn’t break down in landfills. See infographic:
“By reducing the amount of food scraps sent to a landfill, you are helping to reduce methane gas emissions. Food waste in landfills is packed in with nonorganic waste and lacks the proper space, temperature, and moisture to degrade. The waste will never break down.”
Worse, oxygen-deprived organic matter releases methane into the atmosphere, which is a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change. This process is called anaerobic decomposition. Methane is 28 to 36 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over the course of a century. “Although most modern landfills have methane capture systems, these do not capture all of the gas.”
“Landfills are the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the United States.”
How to Compost
This includes food scraps and food waste, yard trimmings, leaves, and tea and coffee grounds. It can include paper and cardboard if it is not plastic coated or full of toxic inks. You can include sawdust, hair from hairbrushes, dryer lint if your clothes are made from natural fabrics, used silk dental floss, wooden toothpicks, and cut flowers that have wilted. Remove produce stickers (they are made of plastic) and do not include bioplastics because most of those are only made for industrial composting, not home composting (and if they are home compostable, the package will say exactly that).
Generally, you’ll want to exclude animal products such as scraps and bones, but you should compost eggshells. We are largely vegetarian, so the limited animal waste we have either goes in the dog’s dinner (appropriate parts such as fish or chicken skin, fat, or bacon renderings) or to my mother’s pigs (bones after boiling off for broth and such) who can eat anything. There are exhaustive lists of types of waste you can and should not compost, as well as comprehensive articles on advanced composting. I’ve listed a few of these under Additional Resources below.
I keep an old plastic container (one I stopped using several years ago after learning about the hazards of storing food in plastic) on my kitchen counter next to the sink. You can use a metal pail or buy a prettier compost container if you so desire (sometimes called compost pails or crocks). Or you may want a covered one if you are not able to make regular trips to the outdoor compost bin. But even a large jar or bowl will work. You do not need “compostable” scrap bags, they are a waste of money and are made of plastic. Just wash out your container regularly.
Update: I bought a stainless steel compost container from the Package Free Shop, which has an aerated lid and cotton and activated charcoal filter (that is also 100% compostable). I’m very happy with it, as it looks much cleaner in my kitchen.
Deposit Waste into an Outdoor Compost Bin
If you have an outdoor area, you can build or buy a simple compost bin. There are many DIY instructions on videos on how to do this, and there are also many options for purchasing. I suggest reading up on the various types of bins and their reviews to find the right one for you. Our compost bin is a plastic Rubbermaid compost bin that my mother-in-law handed down to us. Though not the type we’d buy today, it’s very functional and does the job. We had to add some “security” around it to keep out critters. At the beginning of every spring, we use the side hatch to remove the bottom layer of rich compost to incorporate into the garden boxes.
Composting Indoors/Apartment Options
Ask permission (if you live on a managed property): Request to place a small compost tumbler on your patio or outdoor area.
Electric composters: These machines “grind and heat your organic refuse into a dark, dry fertilizer.”
Worm composting: This practice uses earthworms that eat food scraps and digest the waste, breaking it down into a nutrient-rich compost called vermicompost. There are lots of resources online for worm composting and I’ve included a couple below under Additional Resources.
“Compost does not smell bad. The reason your trash stinks is because organic and non-organic materials are mixed. Just like in the landfill, the organic matter can’t break down, so it lets off really stinky odors.” -Kathryn Kellogg
Last, there are private collection services. If you are able and willing to include this in your budget, you’ll have the easiest and most convenient method of compost while doing a good thing for the Earth. A quick internet search can locate the compost services in your area. Litterless.com also offers a state-by-state listing of where you can compost.
Compost needs three main components: oxygen, heat, and moisture. These allow for biological activity, meaning worms and insects, which is what breaks everything down. I suggest covering the compost bin (if it didn’t come with a cover) but allowing it to stay moist. Most compost bins have air holes. Between moisture from rain and food scraps, this is usually not an issue. You can add water if needed, but only a little. Stir or turn your compost every few weeks to allow for aeration between the layers.
It’s really that simple unless you want to get super scientific about it and try to achieve a certain compost quality, which is cool! But it can just be an easy way to lovingly dispose of food scraps and other organic waste.
Compost is Great for Gardening
Compost is the ultimate and most natural fertilizer for a home or urban garden. I have several garden boxes like the one pictured below, using a mixture of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Growing your own food reduces reliance on large agricultural farms that use heavy pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic modification.
If you have no desire to garden, you can give your compost away to a friend who does.
Or Do Nothing with It
You can also compost and do absolutely nothing with it! The important part is reducing what is going in the landfill where nothing decomposes, which in turn reduces greenhouse gases. Compost makes the world a better place! Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.
All photos by me unless otherwise noted.
Article, “A more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane emissions will leap as Earth warms,” Princeton University, ScienceDaily, March 27, 2014.
Guide, “Composting,” Earth Easy, accessed March 14, 2021.
Article, “10 Pro Composting Tips from Expert Gardeners,” Earth Easy, August 6, 2019.
Guide, “Composting At Home,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 18, 2021.
Article, “How to Make Compost at Home?” The University of Maryland Extension, accessed March 18, 2021.
Guide, “How to Create and Maintain an Indoor Worm Composting Bin,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 18, 2021.
Article, “Slimy pets to eat your garbage and entertain your kids,” by Colin Beavan,
How to Compost in an Apartment,” Earth Easy, March 8, 2019
Article, “You Should Be Composting in Your Apartment. Here’s How,” Mother Jones, December 31, 2019. Features how-to’s on worm composting.
- Website, Zero-Waste FAQs, San Francisco Department of the Environment
- Website, “Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling: Yard Trimmings: Material-Specific Data
- Book, Life Without Plastic: The Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Avoiding Plastic to Keep Your Family and the Planet Healthy, .
- Book, Living Without Plastic: More Than 100 Easy Swaps for Home, Travel, Dining, Holidays, and Beyond
- Guide, “Composting 101,” Natural Resources Defense Council
- Guide, “Composting 101,” Natural Resources Defense Council
- Guide, “How to Compost in an Apartment,” Earth Easy, March 8, 2019
- Book, 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste, by Kathryn Kellogg, The Countryman Press, New York, 2019.
- Guide, “Where To Compost,” Litterless, accessed March 17, 2021
- Book, All New Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew, Cool Springs Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2018.