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How To Compost At Home

One major step in reducing your food footprint? Save your scraps.

collage on composting
Sarah Ceniceros

Have you ever prepped a vegetable-heavy dinner, looked around at your pile of carrot tops, onion peels, and broccoli stems, and been shocked at all the scraps you've produced? Tossing food remnants like these in the trash can feel like second nature, a seemingly harmless step of meal cleanup. I used to do it without skipping a beat. Now, I search for even the tiniest food particles (garlic skin on my cutting board, lemon zest stuck in my Microplane) in pursuit of making sure they meet my kitchen BFF: the compost bowl.

OK, so why the obsession? Food scraps and garden waste account for 28 percent of what we throw away at home, according to the EPA, and even though tossing organic material might not feel as bad as, say, used paper towels or plastic wrap, it still ends up in a landfill. Composting is a way to recycle your food scraps. Before you start thinking composting isn't for you, you're not a treehugger, think again. Composting can be as simple as stowing food scraps in your freezer, then dropping them off to a community group who wants them so much more than you do.

Composting can be very simple (or more complicated if you want to get really into it). How you do it depends on your living situation: Will you be composting on your fifth-floor fire escape or in your backyard? Learn the basics with our guide, and before you know it, you'll be saving your micro food scraps, too.

rear facade of tenement in the lower east side, manhattan, new york city

What is composting?

The easiest way to think of it: recycling your food scraps. Rather than sending them to a landfill (and further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions), composting turns banana peels, citrus rinds, and egg shells into nutrient-rich, fertile soil. This happens at a faster speed than the natural decomposing process, as composting provides an environment with the ideal microbes and bacteria.

What can I compost?

More than just food!

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Nutshells
  • Tea bags
  • Houseplants
  • Garden and grass clippings and leaves
  • Small pieces of cardboard (uncoated)
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Wood chips

    What can't I compost?

    You want to avoid items that attract rodents and pests, create odor, or might contain harmful substances to either plants or humans.

    • Dairy products and eggs
    • Fats, grease, oils
    • Meat, meat scraps, or fish bones
    • Pet feces
    • Diseased plants or yard trimmings treated with chemicals
      rear facade of tenement in the lower east side, manhattan, new york city

      How do I start composting...if I live in an apartment?

      If you don't have an outdoor space that can house a compost bin, fear not. Many towns and cities have organizations, often associated with community gardens and farmers markets, that offer free compost pickup. Head to CompostNow, enter in your zip code, and see what local services are in your area. (Note that some have been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.) Check to see if your hometown offers composting with garbage pickup. There are now more than 90 cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Boulder, that offer a compost bin not just for yard waste, but food scraps, too.

      Once you figure out where you'll be dumping your food scraps, start saving them. Some people prefer to keep a small compost bin on their counter or under the sink, while others (myself included) would rather eliminate any chance of smell and keep everything in the freezer. This also makes the commute with your compost more enjoyable—and stink free!

      If you have access to a small outdoor space (ie a balcony) you can try stealth composting: "for those who are constrained by limited space, or hypercritical neighbors, or are discouraged at the prospect of crossing a snowy yard to the compost bin", according to The Compost Education Program. Essentially you create a mini compost system within a trash can so it stays concealed. All you need are two plastic containers, one smaller than the other and a drill.

          How do I start composting...if I live in a house with a backyard?

          Grab a garbage bin, drill some holes into the bottom to help with aeration, add a thick layer of dry, crunchy leaves on the bottom, and you're ready to toss in food scraps. Whenever there's an excess of fruits and vegetables in your compost, add "brown stuff", like dry leaves, coffee grounds, and cardboard, to prevent it from becoming overly slimy (which makes the whole composting process less effective). Also make sure that you're giving everything a good turn with a rake once in a while to help break things down.

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