Composting: A Guide to Different Types

Together, yard debris and food waste account for nearly 30% of the materials disposed in U.S. landfills. However, both these items can easily be composted instead! Composting enables you to turn organic waste — items 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, the very same items break down slowly and produce methane, contributing directly to global warming. 

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 in smaller spaces.  However, if you have an empty kitchen or bathroom cabinet and a penchant for reducing your household waste, try vermicomposting!  

Vermicomposting, or worm composting, is fairly simple and requires less space, effort and materials than regular composting. All you need is an empty bin, newspapers and some food waste — the worms will take care of the rest! 

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

Tried and True  

Regular composting requires aeration, 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.   

Compost is great for your garden because it helps improve the structure of the soil so that it can better retain water. It also contains nutrients, which supports plant health when mixed with garden soil, added to potted flowers or incorporated into raised beds.  

Here’s how to get started with outdoor composting:   

  1. Gather dry leaves, newspapers, wood scraps, paper waste, dead flowers and other organic matter are considered “browns.”   
  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 debris, grass clippings, weeds, egg shells, coffee grounds and tea bags.   
  1. Always keep a layer of browns on top of the pile.  
  1. Periodically add oxygen by using a shovel or pitchfork to 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.
Credit: Sippakorn Yamkasikorn/Unsplash

Something New

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. 

Here’s how to get started with vermicomposting:     

  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. 

2. 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. 

3. Layer the bottom with a hefty amount of moist newspaper and then some handfuls of soil.  

4. 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. 

5. 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 slow and small intervals. 

6. The bin should be left in a cool, dark place like under the kitchen sink or in the basement and 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. 

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.
Credit: Sigmund/Unsplash

By taking just a minute each day to compile organic waste, you can reduce your contribution 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.   

Learn more about composting, hear composting success stories, find resources and more on our Small Actions Spark Big Changes website.   

Written By Mary Alice Hartsock, Senior Director of Content Marketing 
and Brigette Brown, Editor & Content Coordinator 

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