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Composting 101: How to Turn Trash Into Treasure

Curious about composting but not sure where to start? Find out what to use, what to avoid and more with our tips and tricks.

illustration of spring vegetables being composted

Backyard garden? Tiny apartment? Yes, you can compost! Not only is it an easy solution for the scraps you’d normally toss, but it also gives soil extra love to help your plants thrive. Basically, it’s a win-win. If composting sounds intimidating, you’ll be glad to know it’s much easier than you’d expect. Get to know the basics here, and soon you’ll be turning unwanted scraps into nature’s treasure.

What Is Composting?

Composting breathes new life into food scraps, old newspapers, used paper towels and more. (In other words, the things you’d normally toss.) Once you combine these scraps in a bin or pile, they start to break down organically and transform into a soil-nourishing fertilizer that will make your garden thrive.

How long does composting take? It’s by no means an instant process — a batch of good compost can take about six months to be ready.

What Do I Need?

A successful compost has just three basic ingredients — here’s how we break them down.

  • Green: These are nitrogen-rich items like food and vegetable scraps. In other words, items that come from your kitchen.

  • Brown: These are carbon-rich items like twigs or wood shavings. Basically, items that come from your yard.

  • Water: Whether it comes from a garden hose or kitchen sink, water or moisture helps to break down your scraps into compost.

Next, consider investing in a composting bin, especially if you’re planning to do it indoors. If composting in your backyard, you can also start a pile by clearing a space to expose the existing soil.

What Can You Compost?

Fruit and vegetable scraps — along with a number of other “green” and “brown” materials — can be easily composted and used for making your garden, large or small, a place for plants to thrive. However, it’s important to follow a few key guidelines.

The “Greens”

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps

  • Plate scrapings, excluding meat and bones

  • Coffee grounds (plus the filter if it’s unbleached paper)

  • Tea bags

  • Egg shells

The “Browns”

  • Small twigs

  • Dry leaves

  • Dry grass clippings or hay

  • Wood shavings

  • Sawdust from untreated wood

  • Shredded paper, newspaper or cardboard (as long as it’s non-glossy)

  • Paper towels

Aim to fill your compost bin with a fairly even mixture of “green” and “brown” materials. With a good mix of the two, plus a little moisture, your compost bin will be thriving and decomposing — in a non-smelly way — in no time.

What to Keep Out of Compost

While it’s tempting to go all-out and compost anything and everything, there are a few exceptions to keep in mind. Here’s what to leave out of your compost bin.

Meat or animal fat

Unwanted chicken fat or hamburger meat that’s past its prime? It’s best to leave those out. They attract too many pests and can cause your compost to not break down properly.

Infested plants

If your squash plants suffered a borer infestation or your broccoli plants were attacked by aphids, those plants shouldn’t be added to the compost. The bugs may infest the compost bin and your future gardens.

High-fat foods

Home compost bins generally don’t get hot enough to properly break down a lot of fat, so don’t pour that oil you used to fry hushpuppies into your compost bin.

Pet waste

Leave this stuff out if you’re going to use your compost to grow edible plants. While some folks may say pet waste is okay to compost for decorative plants, it’s best to find a different way to dispose of it.

Nonorganic materials or compounds

Plastics, chemicals, pesticides … if you wouldn’t want it in your garden, don’t put it in your compost!

Dairy products

Butter, milk and yogurt have no place in your composting bin or pile. Not only can they stink up your home or yard, but they may also attract unwanted pests.

More Composting Tips

Keep these pointers in mind, whether you’re a composting newbie or seasoned pro.

  • Chop or blend food scraps first: Breaking down your scraps into smaller pieces first makes for quicker compost. If blending, try adding layers of “browns” in between. If you’re short on time, it’s okay to toss a whole banana peel in there every once in a while.

  • Use a filter to prevent smells: To keep food scraps from getting too smelly before they make it outside, try a small kitchen compost pail fitted with a carbon filter. Collect scraps under the sink for a few days, then make one trip out to the compost bin once you’re ready. While the filter keeps most smells at bay, it’s best to take scraps out every three days.

  • Know the signs: What does great compost look and smell like? In a word, dirt. You should not be able to recognize any of the scraps you originally tossed into it. Don’t be surprised if you have less than what you started with — compost becomes denser as it breaks down over time.

If you’re looking to cut down on the amount of waste in your home, composting is an easy first step. For more information about composting, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s Composting Guide.

Want to see how Whole Foods Market is committed to reducing food waste? Learn about Nourishing Our Neighborhoods, which collaborates with food rescue programs to redistribute food recovered from our stores and others.

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