How to compost at home and reduce the waste in your life

Summary List PlacementWhether you're looking to nourish your garden with nutrient-rich soil or want to help fight food waste right at home, learning how to compost is a great way to give back to the planet — and you don't even need a green thumb to do it.   The idea of...

kitchen scraps composting

Summary List Placement

Whether you’re looking to nourish your garden with nutrient-rich soil or want to help fight food waste right at home, learning how to compost is a great way to give back to the planet — and you don’t even need a green thumb to do it.  

The idea of home composting might sound intimidating, messy, and smelly, but when done right, it’s actually much easier than you think. There are many composting methods available depending on how involved you’d like to be and how much space you can set aside. 

Whether you live in an apartment or in a detached home with a sizable backyard, you can get into composting. Here’s what you need to know about turning food scraps and green waste into compost, and all the different methods at your disposal. 

What is compost?

Compost is decomposed organic matter that can be added to soil to help plants grow at their best, which is why you’ll hear gardeners refer to compost as “black gold.” Composting is the process of breaking down organic matter, like food scraps and yard waste, into an all-natural fertilizer.

In short, composting is nature’s recycling program with many benefits: 

  • Enriches soil: Packed with important nutrients like nitrogen and potassium, compost helps naturally boost soil health and doesn’t come with the harmful additives of some commercial fertilizers. 
  • Reduces waste stream: Food waste and yard scraps make up 30% what we throw away. Composting at home helps divert waste and reduce methane emissions from landfills.
  • Recycles kitchen and yard waste: Instead of tossing your scraps and grass clippings, composting turns them into something you can use again in your garden, yard, or even houseplants.

For Pashon Murray, founder of urban compost company Detroit Dirt, composting is simply a way of reimagining trash. “We need to think about ways we can look at waste not as waste, but as another kind of resource.” By feeding your pits, peels, and stems straight back into the earth, you can help keep Mother Nature cleaner and healthier.”  

What can you compost? 

Compostable materials will fall into one of two categories: greens or browns. 

What to include in your compost

“Greens,” or wet items, include food scraps, coffee grounds and tea leaves, and grass clippings. These items are rich in nitrogen, which is important for the microbial growth necessary in the decomposition process.

“Browns,” or dry items, come in the form of dried leaves, cardboard, newspaper, wood shavings, and hay. These carbon-rich additions act as the energy source to the organisms that break down the waste. Browns also allow oxygen and water to circulate through the pile. 

The composting process is basically alternating between brown and green layers. According to Murray, keeping a good balance of greens and browns in your compost mix will not only help reduce odors but also give you a better end result. 

You can tell your compost is too wet, for example, if it starts to smell. To balance this out, try adding more browns. Likewise, if your compost is feeling too dry, adjust by adding more greens or gently mist with water. 

While a good rule of thumb is a ratio of three-parts brown to one-part green, every pile will be different. You’ll need to check your compost regularly as ideal conditions will vary depending on your environment and how often you are adding to your compost.

What not to compost

What to avoid composting

While dairy and meat products can technically be composted, avoid adding these to your home compost as they will take much longer to break down, release stronger odors, and attract pests. Similarly, avoid adding any food scraps that have a lot of added oil or grease. 

Plastic marked “compostable” should also be avoided in a home compost system. For browns, avoid waxy cardboard, like milk or juice cartons, and glossy paper, like magazines. 

Other no-nos include: any plant remains that are diseased or have been treated with pesticides (as these diseases and chemicals can transfer to your compost), pet waste, and anything soiled in human waste, blood, or fluids. 

Types of composting methods 


Most people may think home composting requires a lot of outdoor space. And while that’s certainly one option, Rebecca Louie, author of “Compost City: Practical Composting Know-How for Small-Space Living” shares a few composting methods that can work for any situation. “There are a lot of different ways to get started depending on your lifestyle, how much outdoor space you have, and how involved you’d like to be,” Louie says. 

  • Heap composting: A common and popular method for people with outdoor space, green and brown material is layered one after the other in a pile and mixed periodically to aerate. You may choose to leave the pile freestanding as a heap or you can use an enclosure, like a compost bin, to keep it tucked away.
  • Trench composting: A method for if you already have a garden, this technique involves burying kitchen and garden waste into the soil. Trench composting requires little to no maintenance. Once your compost breaks down (over a month or so depending on the climate) the nutrients go directly into your soil. 
  • Compost tumblers: A tumbler is a round, enclosed system that, once filled with your compostable materials, is maintained by manual rotation. They are ideal for homes with smaller yards or apartments with balconies. Because they’re not as breathable as open-air composting, Louie suggests adding more browns in your mix to help absorb excess moisture. With regular daily rotation and the right conditions, tumbler compost can be ready in as little as a few weeks. 
  • Vermicomposting: An option for small and limited spaces, this system functions with the help of red wiggler worms who act as a catalyst in the decomposition process. If maintained regularly (ensuring texture isn’t too wet or dry) and properly (avoid overwhelming your worms with more scraps than they can consume) your first batch of vermicompost could be ready in as soon as two to three months. 

There’s always community composting 

If you’re not ready to commit to managing your own compost mix at home, you can also collect your food scraps and take them to a drop-off site. 

Louie suggests looking into local initiatives like community or school gardens and other green spaces that already have compost programs. You can also research existing compost collection sites in your area like farmers’ markets. 

In fact, your city may even offer a curbside composting program. If none of those are available, Louis also recommends connecting with your neighbors to join or start a composting effort. 

How to know if compost is done 

Various factors like the size of your compost pile or bin, your compost method and the climate can all affect the rate at which your compost is created. You’ll know your compost is ready when it resembles dark, crumbly, rich soil. 

Insider’s takeaway

Composting is not only a great way to help reduce food waste and keep the planet cleaner, but it’s a way to better understand where your food comes from and where it goes, says Louie. “And, if anything, composting can also be a healing and restorative practice. You’re engaging in a process that literally brings life to this world.” 

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