Home composting is one of the most environmentally friendly things you can do to cut down on food scraps and recycle garden waste. Composting helps divert food waste from polluting landfills and creates nutrient-rich compost you can use in the garden. This comprehensive home composting guide helps you get started by teaching you what you can and can’t compost, how to compost, and even how to get started with a community compost scheme if home composting might not be the best option for you.
Why is composting important?
Composting helps you cut down on household waste in a positive way. Composting is nature’s recycling!
Composting prevents compostable food scraps and garden waste from going into landfills. When any organic matter breaks down in landfills, it produces methane - a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide - contributing to climate change.
Not only does composting help cut down on landfill emissions, but by recycling your homemade compost back into the earth, you’re helping create healthy soil. This helps cut down on the need for industrial fertilizers and traps carbon essential for water and drainage - therefore helping sustain the crops we eat and slow down the erosion of our land.
We’ve written more about why looking after our soil is important here.
What should I be composting?
Any vegetable or plant-based food waste can be composted, from vegetable peelings to pieces of fruit that are a little past their best and no longer suitable for eating.
You can also compost garden waste such as weeds and hedge cuttings, but do check each specific plant to check that they’re suitable for composting. A few outliers, such as tomato plants, may degrade your compost if harboring undetected fungi or bacteria.
As a general rule of thumb, if it is part of a plant that is alive recently, you can compost it.
What can I compost?
You can compost almost anything plant-based, cardboard, and synthetic plastics marked as compostable, such as special ‘plastic’ compost bags.
However, some items will break down faster than others, so if you only have a small composting setup, you might consider only composting scraps such as soft fruit and vegetables or peelings, which will break down quickly, rather than tough matter such as melon rinds and pumpkin stalks which usually take a lot longer to break down.
Regardless of your setup, you should always try to compost:
- vegetable peelings
- banana skins
- avocado skins
- onion skins
- old herbs and spices
- grass cuttings
- fallen leaves
- coffee grounds and paper filters
- used plain paper napkins and paper towels
- tea leaves and paper tea bags
- shredded paper (but exclude items printed with colored ink)
- vegetarian animal manure (ex., rabbit droppings as they are vegetarians, but not cat feces as they are omnivores)
- sawdust or wood shavings (but not if the wood has been treated)
- wood ash (from a natural log burner or fire pit, not barbecue charcoal)
If you choose vermicomposting - otherwise known as worm farm composting - check out our guide on Everything You Need To Know About Worm Farm Composting, which includes a list of what you can and can’t feed your worms, which includes a few items that can take a long time to break down in traditional composting but can be beneficial to your worms, such as eggshells.
Regardless of what you compost, variety is key: you won’t get good compost if you compost too much of one thing, and some compostables, such as grass clippings if overused, can form mulch rather than compost, which is not always desirable.
Do I need to prep any of my compost?
Not always, but it can be helpful. For example, a whole watermelon rind will take a long time to break down, and it won’t be much extra effort to chop it up for composting while prepping the flesh. Tearing up an egg box and peeling off the printed label will only take a minute or two.
Compostables will have a much easier time breaking down if they are no larger than your palm.
What shouldn’t I compost?
You should only compost plant or vegetable matter or plastics and compound cardboard labeled as compostables. You should also avoid animal matter such as cooked or raw meat, fish, and dairy products as they can attract rats and other pests to your compost heap and may also spread disease.
You should not compost:
- raw or cooked meat or fish
- cheese rinds or other dairy products
- fats, including solidified vegetable, canola, coconut, or sunflower oil
- avocado stones
- tomato plants
- plants that have died from disease
- sawdust or wood shavings with wood that has been treated
- garden waste from the black walnut tree
- ash from charcoal
- cigarette butts
Countertop storage options
Things can get a bit smelly, and you’ll attract fruit flies and other pests if you keep your kitchen scraps in an open container on the countertop, so you’ll want something to collect your scraps in with a filtered lid to allow air to escape to prevent a build-up of gases, but which will mask the smell. Here are some of our favorite options:
- Bamboozle Food Composter, Indoor Food Compost Bin for Kitchen (Graphite). Made of biodegradable, dishwasher-safe, and durable bamboo fiber.
- 4W Kitchen Compost Bin with 4 Charcoal Filters - 1.3 Gallon Indoor Compost Bin for Kitchen Counter for Food Waste Odor-free (White).
- D'Lifeful Farmhouse Compost Bin Indoor Kitchen - Sealed with Airtight Lid - 1.3 Gallon Carbon Steel Compost Pail with Charcoal Filter - Stylish, White.
- All Green Chetnole Compost Caddy - The part-glazed All Green Chetnole Compost Caddy is made by hand in England from English terracotta clay. All Green's range of food waste caddies is sturdy and well-made.
- Kilner Stainless Steel 2-Litre Kitchen Composter is made from durable materials. The Composter has an easy-grip handle and includes two carbon filters.
- Joseph Joseph Editions Food Waste Caddy, Sky Blue, 4L - This clever caddy has been carefully designed to help reduce odors from collected food waste. It has a unique, ventilated design that allows air to enter and circulate inside the caddy, which helps to reduce moisture.
- A Net-Zero Compost Bin is the ultimate must-have for all eco-friendly gardeners and composters. This chic stainless steel compost bucket with a lid gives your compost pile & garbage extra mileage without subjecting you to smells.
- EcoCrock Counter Compost offers a modern 3-liter ceramic countertop compost bin featuring a vented lid, removable inner bucket, and a replaceable natural charcoal filter that traps and absorbs odor.
- Joseph Joseph 30016 Intelligent Waste Compost Bin Food Waste Caddy with Odor Filter and Ventilation, 1 Gallon / 4 liters, Graphite design with stainless steel handle.
- The Bokashi One Bench Bin is a handy collector of kitchen scraps, small enough to sit on the kitchen bench. Stop your kitchen waste from becoming a landfill!
- D'Lifeful Farmhouse Compost Bin for kitchen countertops is made of high-quality carbon steel that won’t rust or lose composition, promising longevity and durability that resists scratching, cracking, and chipping.
- EcoCrock Compost Bin (Green/White) is a contemporary countertop composter with a dual bucket design for easy removal and a charcoal filter that eliminates odor.
- RSVP Bamboo Compost Pail sits on your countertop for convenient fruit and vegetable scrap collection. The pail includes two charcoal filters in the lid, and the plastic liner is top-rack dishwasher safe.
- Joseph Joseph Stack 4 - Editions (Sky) has an easy-to-access flip-top lid, stainless steel carry handle, and a liner-retaining hole that keeps the liner tidy.
- Appetito 5L Compost Food/Waste/Scrap/Trash Kitchen Veggie Canister/Bin Green - Stainless Steel Lid, Powder-coated Steel Body, Carbon Filter.
Buying an indoor or outdoor compost bin.
While building your own is the best option if you’ve got outdoor space, if you’ve got any space, however small in an out-of-the-way part of your home, on a small balcony, or in a small garden, buying a compact compost bin can be the best option to help you get started.
Bins tend to come in 3 designs: compost bins, compost tumblers, and standing composting structures.
Compost bins are great if you have limited space or plan on composting indoors. Like with your kitchen scraps, you want to choose a design that will allow the compost to breathe but won’t release bad odors or attract insects.
We like the Urban Composter, which includes a compost accelerator spray and a tap to collect garden fertilizer.
Compost tumblers are great if you have more space to tumble your compost and don’t like using a compost accelerator.
We like the FCMP Outdoor Tumbling Composter but would not recommend using one indoors.
Standing compositors are great if you’ve got a bit more outdoor space, but you’d rather your composting took up vertical space rather than spread itself out horizontally. Brands will vary, and you need one that fits your dimensions, but only buy a composter made of recycled, UV-stabilized plastic.
Can I build my compost bin?
Yes! If you have the space, building your compost bin or series of bins out of recycled materials is easy. We like this tutorial for making one out of old pallets.
Is there anything else I need to know about composting my kitchen scraps?
- As well as ensuring you have a good balance of different compostables in your heap or composter, layering different types of compostables so you are not creating micro-areas of the same thing is essential to produce rich, healthy compost.
- If you have space, having multiple compost bins on the go is also helpful so that while one bin matures, you can get started on the next one.
- If your compost heap is too wet (you might wish to cover it if it is open to the elements and you get a lot of rain; this will also help accelerate the decomposition process!) - add more fibrous matter such as torn paper and cardboard, rather than more kitchen scraps.
- While many of the microbes you’ll need will already be in your compostables - especially in the green matter and kitchen scraps - if things are not moving fast enough, you can add a compost starter or compost accelerator from the hardware store. This is usually only recommended for indoor composting, where a spritz of a compost accelerator spray every time you add more scraps can help you keep up with household waste. Alternatively, you can add a few scoops of soil from the garden for a budget outdoor version.
How can I use my homemade compost?
Use your compost anywhere in the garden that would benefit from an extra burst of nutrients, such as on plants that require plant feed or in vegetable beds ahead of planting another year's harvest - the soil has most likely been stripped of most of its nutrients by last years plants so it will welcome a little extra help!
I don’t have space to compost my kitchen scraps! Do I have any other options?
Yes! If you don’t have space to compost, the most obvious option is to find a friend who does and has enough capacity to take on your kitchen scraps, too. Be sure to check with them if there is anything they prefer not to compost.
Otherwise, for US residents, check this great resource page on the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) website that lists waste food programs and resources on a state-by-state basis, including lists of local compost drop-off points and how to arrange curbside composting scraps pick up in metropolitan areas.
In Canada, the Compost Council of Canada has bilingual information and interactive maps broken down by province and territory, listing what can be composted at which facility and the location of your nearest site.
In the UK, all household waste disposal is arranged on a local authority basis, so check the waste services section of their website to see if they offer any composting services.
Community composting is big in New Zealand. Do search for schemes that are local to you online as there are so many out there, but if you’re in Nelson, do check out Community Compost, The Compost Collective if you’re in Auckland, and Kaicycle looks like a great organization to get involved with if you live in Wellington, also running CSA boxes and salad clubs.
If you live in Australia, check different waste disposal options on your local authority's website. Some areas, such as Canberra, are piloting the collection of food scraps in garden waste bins for composting. If you live or around Sydney, ShareWaste has created an interactive map to help you connect with composters who would be happy to take your scraps.
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