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A Beginner’s Guide to Composting

Tom Szaky
January 20, 2016
Tom Szaky
Founder & CEO of Terracycle
By Tom Szaky
Founder & CEO of Terracycle
Tom Szaky is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, an international leader in the collection and repurposing of hard-to-recycle post-consumer waste.
January 20, 2016

Composting organic waste is one of the best things you can do for the environment.

According to the EPA, about 28 percent of the solid waste stream in the United States consists of food waste and yard trimmings. When these organic materials are buried under piles of garbage deep within a landfill, they decompose anaerobically (without oxygen) and generate methane — a harmful greenhouse gas.

Not only does composting divert organic materials from landfills, it also creates a nutrient-rich material perfect for growing a wide variety of plants and crops. The barrier to entry might seem high, but composting is as easy as you want to make it. During the early years of my global recycling company, TerraCycle, I was making compost right in my college dorm room!

This guide will help you get started:

What is compost, anyway?

Nicknamed “Black Gold” by many gardeners and farmers, compost is a soil-like substance made from decomposed organic materials, such as yard trimmings and food scraps. When used properly, beneficial microorganisms in your compost pile will break down the waste until it becomes an unrecognizable substance that is dark, fluffy and rich in nutrients. It can be used for potting plants, as a form of mulch, or as a “soil amendment" that increases the organic content of your soil.

The barrier to entry might seem high, but composting is as easy as you want to make it.

What you’ll need (and what to avoid)

Before you dive in, you'll need to know the household materials that make up a healthy compost pile. Your mix should have something from each of the following categories:

  • "Greens" – these materials are rich in nitrogen and allow microorganisms in your compost to make protein and reproduce. Examples include fruits, vegetables and other food scraps, weeds, used coffee grounds, manure, corn husks, and grass clippings.
  • "Browns" – these are your carbon-rich, typically dry materials, and they provide microorganisms with a source of energy. Covering your green materials with browns can also help reduce any undesirable smells emanating from the pile. Examples include twigs, leaves, shredded paper, egg cartons, coffee filters, cardboard scraps, and wood chips.
  • Water – compost should be slightly moist, but not sopping wet or muddy.

Finally, your compost pile needs to heat up enough to increase the rate of decomposition and kill weeds and any other parasites or pathogens that may be lurking within. The pile should stay anywhere between about 140° and 160° Fahrenheit — compost thermometers are an inexpensive way to keep track of your piles' temperature. Maintaining this temperature range will require turning the pile every now and then (we'll get into how to do this later).

Now that you know the basic ingredients you'll need, let’s take a look at what you shouldn’t be throwing into your pile. Some of these materials pose health risks, some may attract pests, and others can potentially contaminate your compost with disease or synthetic chemicals.

  • Fatty, oily or greasy substances, like soiled pizza box scraps, sauces, or grease-stained napkins
  • Meat scraps, including fish
  • Dairy products
  • Chemically treated wood
  • Diseased plants
  • Anything treated with pesticides or herbicides
  • Glossy paper, like magazines or photo paper
  • Human or animal poop
  • Walnuts and their shells (they contain juglone, a chemical toxic to some plants)

While there are certainly ways around the above restrictions (for instance, there are ways to properly compost human ‘waste’), newcomers should stick with the basics until they become composting pros.

Getting started outdoors

Now that you have some background, it’s time to get your composting system started. There are a number of different places you can store your compost depending on your living situation and size restrictions. Stationary compost bins are one of the most common choices, and they can be as large or small as you need. Tumbler bins are another popular option. You can purchase compost bins or prebuilt wire enclosures from any garden center, or you can make your own using old shipping pallets.

Once you’ve decided which option is best for you, you need to find a good spot to place your compost bin. If you have access to an outdoor area, place it on a plot that's at least 3 feet x 3 feet and is somewhat sheltered from the elements.

When you're ready to start adding your browns and greens, a good rule of thumb is to add 1 part greens for every 3 parts browns. Add the browns and greens in alternating layers a few inches thick, making sure that the materials don’t clump together. All of your greens should be completely buried beneath a layer of browns so pests and unwanted odors are kept at bay.

With your composting operation more or less up and running, you have to maintain it to keep temperatures at the 140° to 160° sweet spot and make sure it never gets overly dry or wet. Aerate your compost and control its temperature by turning it at least once a week. Take a shovel, stick it into your pile, and start mixing and turning like you are tossing a salad.

If the pile starts to smell or you get unwanted visits from pests like raccoons, ensure all your greens are buried. If the pile is sopping wet, add more browns. If it’s too dry, add some more greens or water.

When all is said and done, you should have your own homemade Black Gold in about 4 to 6 months.

Getting started indoors

Even if you live in an apartment or home with limited to no outdoor space, you can still start a simple, small-scale composting system indoors. Back in college, my friends and I composted indoors with the help of earthworms. We would feed the worms food waste from the school cafeteria, and then collect their nutrient-dense castings (a fancy word for worm poop) to use as a fertilizer. While this more extreme form of composting, called vermicomposting, isn’t accessible or attractive to everyone, there are plenty of other indoor composting options.

Even if you live in an apartment or home with limited to no outdoor space, you can still start a simple, small-scale composting system indoors.

For an easy homemade system, first get a small bin with a lid or cover, like an old 10 or 15 gallon steel garbage can. Drill a few dozen small holes, spaced a few inches apart, along the bottom and sides of the bin — these will help with drainage and aeration. Keep your bin on a tray of some sort to limit spills or messes.

Fill the bottom of your bin with a several-inch-thick layer of drainage material, such as store-bought potting mix with a layer of shredded paper on top. Next, start adding your greens and browns in alternating layers as usual. Finally, turn the pile once a week with a small spade or garden shovel. Keep the lid on your bin and cover your greens with a layer of shredded newspaper, or other browns, to prevent odors.

And that’s it! With proper maintenance, you should have fresh compost in a few months’ time.

The last thing you can do as a newly card-carrying composter is to simply spread the word about composting and its countless benefits. Encourage friends and family members to look into starting their own composting system. If you have children, get them involved! Anything you can do to motivate and educate others brings us one step closer to a cleaner, brighter, and healthier planet for future generations.

Infographic courtesy of Chloe Bulpin, mbg creative

Tom Szaky author page.
Tom Szaky
Founder & CEO of Terracycle

Tom Szaky is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, an international leader in the collection and repurposing of hard-to-recycle post-consumer waste, from used chip bags to cigarette butts. On a yearly basis and across 23 countries, TerraCycle collects and repurposes billions of pieces of waste, creating millions of dollars of donations for schools and charities in the process. Many of the world's largest consumer product companies contract with TerraCycle to collect and recycle post-consumer products and packaging. Through TerraCycle, Szaky has pioneered a process involving manufacturers, retailers, consumers, and community groups, to create circular solutions for waste that otherwise would go to landfills or be incinerated.
He is the author of three books, and an acclaimed international public speaker, making presentations to corporate and academic audiences regularly. Tom created, produced, and starred in a new reality TV show, Human Resources. Szaky and TerraCycle have received more than 200 social, environmental, and business awards from a range of organizations including the United Nations, World Economic Forum, and the Environmental Protection Agency.