How to Start Composting

Yard debris and food waste account for nearly 30% of the materials disposed in U.S. landfills. But both items can easily be composted instead! Composting enables you to turn organic waste — such as leaves, fruit peels, food scraps, coffee grounds and more — into a resource that can help nourish your soil and spruce up your yard. When thrown into an oxygen-deprived landfill, however, the very same items break down slowly and produce methane, contributing directly to global warming. 

Composting is easy and there are many ways to use it. While this alternative waste method is becoming increasingly popular all over the country, not everyone has access to municipal composting systems or available backyard space to consider composting. In cities like Philadelphia, where renters make up almost half the population, it can be especially challenging. 

Yard debris and food waste account for nearly 30% of the materials disposed in U.S. landfills. Neslihan Gunaydin/Unsplash

So, if you find that you have too much compost and not enough space to put it, consider giving it away to a local school, church or garden that might need it. Work with your friends or the people on your block who also have too much to organize a donation to a compost collection and pick-up company. Swap your compost with a friendly neighbor for extra vegetables or offer it to others on an online Buy Nothing group. You can mix it with soil for your potted plants or even make a natural liquid fertilizer by steeping the compost in water for a day then removing it. And you can also simply rake it over your lawn or add it with mulch for extra nutrients.  

Regular composting requires aeration, or turning, which supplies oxygen for the decomposition process. As it decomposes, your waste heats up, breaks down and develops beneficial bacteria and fungi, excellent byproducts for growing healthy plants. This can be done by regularly turning the materials with a shovel or rake or using a tumbler.  

Vermicomposting, or worm composting, is fairly simple and requires less space, effort and material than regular composting. All you need is an empty bin, newspapers and some food waste — the worms will take care of the rest. If you lack outdoor space and have an empty kitchen or bathroom cabinet and a penchant for reducing your household waste, give vermicomposting a try!

sign about composting
By taking just a minute each day to compile organic waste, you can reduce your contributions to the landfill. Toni Reed/Unsplash

Composting Basics

Yes! What items can go into compost? No! What items should not go into compost? 
Fruit and vegetable peels, cores and ends Meat and dairy 
Coffee grounds and filtersHousehold cleaners and chemicals 
Paper tea bagsFats and oils 
Bread crusts, crackers and cereal (fresh, stale or moldy)Greasy food scraps 
EggshellsFermented products 
Leaves and grass clippings without pesticidesNon-edible materials (plastic, foil, clingwrap, etc) 
Newspapers and brown paper bagsTreated weeds that have gone to seed 

Get Started with Outdoor Composting  

  1. Gather browns such as dry leaves, sticks, pine needles, newspapers, wood scraps, paper waste, dead flowers and other dry organic matter.   
  1. On about 9 square feet of land, surround the heap of organic, compostable materials with inexpensive fencing to keep out uninvited animal guests, or place your items into a garbage can that is drilled with holes. You can also use a ready-made compost bin.  
  1. Alternate layers of browns with layers of greens, which include your vegetable and kitchen debris, grass clippings, weeds, eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags.   
  1. Always keep a layer of browns on top of the pile.  
  1. Periodically, using a shovel or pitchfork, turn and aerate the pile, rotating items from the center to the outside of the pile. This will help the waste break down. Keeping pieces small will speed up the process. Avoid adding meat and dairy products to home compost piles, as these can decompose slowly and attract animals. 
Regular earthworms do not digest food fast enough and make poor vermicomposters. Sippakorn Yamkasikorn/Unsplash

Get Started with Vermicomposting

If you don’t have space to compost outdoors, you can try vermicomposting, which is done in storage bins and relies on particular types of worms to get the job done. You do not need to aerate the soil by turning it, and it requires far less space. Although both methods can compost the same kinds of food waste materials, vermicompost can be done indoors and on a smaller scale.     

  1. Build a worm bin using leftover Styrofoam containers or wood planks. Plastic storage bins can be used, or you can start with a commercial, ready-made compost bin.  
  1. Drill small ventilation holes in your bin on the sides and bottom. Holes on the lid will help but cover these with a cloth to protect against fruit flies. 
  1. Layer the bottom with a hefty amount of moist newspaper and then some handfuls of soil.
  1. Add your worms! The recommended species are red wigglers (Eisenia fetida or Eisenia andrei), and they can be purchased online. Regular earthworms do not digest food fast enough and make poor vermicomposters.   
  1. Then add your food waste and cover with more newspaper. Spray with a little water. It might take some time for the worms to get started, so add your scraps in slowly and at small intervals.
  1. The bin should be left in a cool, dark place like under the kitchen sink or in the basement and should be disturbed as little as possible. Over time, be sure to check which types of foods your worms prefer, and regularly add more moist newspaper if needed. 
  1. For harvesting and troubleshooting your worm bin, check out Rodale Institute’s user guide for helpful hints and tips.  
Adding meat and dairy products to your compost should be avoided. Sigmund/Unsplash

Winterizing your Compost 

Composting does indeed continue to decompose throughout the winter months despite the cooler temperatures. Collect leaves, twigs and pine needles in autumn and store them to use as “browns” in the upcoming cold months. Chop them up into smaller pieces to encourage faster breakdown. Be sure to store these materials covered so they don’t get wet.  

Harvest your compost, if it is ready or looks like soil, in the autumn so there is plenty of room in your bin or tumbler — compost can build up faster in the winter due to slower decomposition. Consider insulating your bin or tumbler with straw bales or bags of leaves to block out the freezing wind. And there is no need to turn it until warmer temperatures arrive, as it will let out the necessary heat inside. 

By taking just a minute each day to compile organic waste, you can reduce your contributions to the landfill, put your kitchen or yard waste to good use, enrich your soil and benefit the environment — all at the same time. It’s also a fun family activity and a great way to teach your students or the young people in your life about practical ways to support our planet.   

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And, be sure to check out these additional composting resources, too!


    1. I have made simple “walls” for my pile with chicken wire, or with logs or larger branches. They gradually break down and add to the compost. I have also simply made an open pile, beginning with cardboard then alternating greens and browns and throwing on a bit of soil. In both cases, I rely mainly on garden worms or resident microbes. I rarely turn the piles, but the earthworms happily serve to break down the piles. Then again, I am a patient gardener! (And a friend of mine uses an even simpler technique, burying his garden scraps in a hole in the ground and digging it all up the following year.)

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