How to Start Composting – No Matter Where You Live

Recycling your food waste and reducing your carbon footprint is not as hard as you think.

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According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), our food and yard waste makes up 20 to 30 percent of what we throw away. Why does that matter? Because not only could all that waste still be put to good use, it's bleeding us dry: The United States now spends $218 billion producing, transporting, and discarding food that isn't eaten.

Enter composting, which is the practice of saving and gathering all that waste in one pile, making sure it gets the right amount of water and air in order to break down, and then using the resulting mixture to nourish and enrich soil. The benefits? Composting reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, diverts waste from landfills, and lowers methane emissions.

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"Any time you can go in the direction of zero-waste, you're on the right path because you're considering the environment.," says Pashon Murray, owner of Detroit Dirt, an organization that creates compost for businesses through a closed-loop system that keeps tons of food waste out of the landfills and regenerates that waste into soil and promotes healthy food growth. "I want people to connect back to the soil and the Earth."

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Sounds good to us! Here's how to get started.

What Goes Into Compost?

Compost consists of two types of waste: food scraps or "green material," which can be vegetable or fruit waste and coffee grounds; and "brown material," which is usually leaves, branches, and weeds.

What You Can Compost

  • Food scraps (fruit and vegetable peels)
  • Egg shells
  • Coffee grinds and filters
  • Tea bags (remove staple)
  • House plants
  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Old bread
  • Nuts
  • Grains
  • Weeds
  • Leaves
  • Shredded paper/cardboard
  • Wood chips
  • Straw and hay

What You Cannot Compost

  • Meat, fish, poultry, bones
  • Oils, lard, grease, fats
  • Dairy (butter, milk, cheese)
  • Diseased plants
  • Cat and dog feces (may contain diseases)
  • Non-biodegradable material

How to Compost If You Have a Back Yard:

1. Check the rules. Some states have rules and regulations when it comes to composting. "If people are participating in composting it's important to know what laws and policies are in place," Murray says. Look up composting laws by state here.

2. Determine the type you want and find a spot. Decide whether you want to have a loose compost pile or if you want to keep your compost in a bin or container. You can purchase a compost bin or container from your local hardware or garden supply store for anywhere between $20 and $100. You should also buy a pitchfork, shovel, and water hose. Select a dry, shady spot in your yard for your pile or your bin.

3. Start preparing. If you have a bin or container, line it with newspaper or cardboard to soak up liquids from your kitchen scraps. Before adding your brown waste material, chop and shred it into smaller pieces, which helps speed up decomposition. Make sure you also dampen the dry materials as you add them. "Your compost should be equivalent to a moist towel or sponge. Not dripping wet, but moist," Murray says.

4. Mix it up. Once your compost pile or bin is established, mix in the green material and bury the fruit and vegetable waste about 10 inches beneath the brown material, according to the EPA.

5. Take good care. You should turn and harvest your pile periodically. "Stirring and aerating encourages decomposition after months of monitoring," Murray says. "Manage the pile and make sure it's decomposing over a period of time so it will create nutrient soil. Depending on your climate, the soil should be ready in five to eight months."

How to Compost If You Don't Have a Back Yard:

1. Buy a bin. Just because you don't have a back yard doesn't mean you can't compost indoors. Find the appropriate space in your apartment to stash the special indoor bin, which you can purchase at your local hardware or gardening store.

2. Keep track. You can add the same type of waste to your bin as you would an outdoor compost pile. But make sure you keep track of what's going in and turn and stir it often. If your bin is properly managed, it shouldn't emit odors or attract pests.

3. Decide what to do with the soil. Depending on your city or town, you can have a company pick up your compost or you can bring it to a drop-off site. Visit your town's official website to see your options.

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