Basics of Composting

Basics of Composting

Composting is super easy and rewarding. Before you begin, it's good to know what's compostable before adding it to your compost. You might also need to find a composting service or equipment that works well for your lifestyle. Below you'll learn all sorts of information to help get you started. 

Benefits of Composting

Let's start with the advantages of composting. It's important to keep organic material out of the landfill because in a landfill it rots slowly and releases harmful greenhouse gases like methane. According to the EPA, methane is more than 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. And methane concentrations in the atmosphere have more than doubled over the last two centuries, owing primarily to human activity. When using organic matter as compost, it reduces methane, enriches the soil, and helps your garden grow. 

Here are some quick benefits of composting:

  • Adds nutrients back into the earth⁣⁣.
  • Creates beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter.
  • Decreases the need for chemical fertilizers.
  • Lessens landfill usage and waste.
  • Reduces methane emissions⁣⁣ and lowers your carbon footprint.
  • Supports a circular, regenerative future⁣⁣.

What is Compost?

We've established composting is great for the environment, but what exactly is it? Composting basically takes advantage of the natural process of decomposition that occurs regularly in nature. When vegetation dies off, worms, insects, fungi, and microbes break down organic matter that can then be used to enrich the soil and nourish plants to help them grow. When humans took up agriculture, they harnessed the power of this natural process and created composting. Composting essentially turns organic waste into something useful and decreases the amount of trash you produce.

Composting requires the following basic ingredients:

  • Carbon from Brown materials. Examples include dry leaves, branches, twigs, hay, straw, and paper.
  • Nitrogen from Green materials. This includes fresh grass clippings, coffee grounds, fruits and veggies, and other food scraps.
  • Water. The right amount of water added to your greens and browns can help create a quality compost by sustaining microbial life.
  • Oxygen. The presence of oxygen helps aerobic microorganisms to survive and supports their metabolic ability to break down organic matter. With anaerobic compost, the absence of oxygen is just as important. (You'll learn more about this later.)

Most recommendations call for twice as much of the brown materials to the greens in your compost. Add water to provide moisture and tumble to provide oxygen. This combination will help break down the organic matter into nutrient-rich plant food.

What To Compost


  • Dry leaves
  • Eggshells 
  • Fireplace ashes
  • Fabrics like cotton, linen, hemp, ramie, silk, and wool
  • Hay and straw
  • Nutshells
  • Sawdust
  • Soiled paper products, including napkins, paper plates, paper towels, muffin wrappers, etc
  • Wood chips
  • Woody plant materials


  • Coffee grounds
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Hair 
  • Horse, Rabbit, Cow, and Chicken Poop (Avoid if the animal is sick.)
  • Houseplants
  • Pet fur

Be Cautious Before Composting at Home

  • Bioplastic items. These are not backyard compostable, but they are theoretically compostable in the proper facility. However, these items often land in the trash or pollute the environment because municipal composting centers are ill-equipped to compost bioplastic. 
  • Black walnut tree leaves or twigs. Be careful composting these materials. They can release a toxic substance known as juglone, which can be harmful to some plants. Compost these materials for at least six months to allow the chemicals to break down to a safe level for plants sensitive to juglone.
  • Bread, rice, cakes, pasta, and donuts. These all will decompose pretty quickly in your compost pile, but the scent might draw rodents and flies to your compost pile. If you are vermicomposting, starchy salty foods could harm the worms.
  • Citrus Peels and Onions. The acidity from citrus peels and onions could slow down the decomposition of your compost pile. And for vermicomposting, the acid could be detrimental to the worms.
  • Dairy products like butter, cheese, milk, yogurt, and eggs will create odor issues that attract rodents and flies.
  • Meat, fats, grease, lard, fish bones, and cooking oils are generally not great for traditional compost piles because they create a highly unpleasant, pungent smell, which can also attract rodents and flies.
  • Diseased or insect-ridden plants. These issues could be transferred to other plants.
  • Weeds bearing seeds. You might need to avoid these if you do your own backyard composting.

Always check with your local composting or waste management service to see if your community curbside or drop-off composting program accepts these items. They might not be ideal for backyard compost but might still be accepted by local facilities. A little research on all your options can help eliminate a lot of volume from the waste bin!

What Not To Compost and Why

  • Coal or charcoal ash contains metals and other potentially harmful substances toxic to plants.
  • Dryer lint. If you are drying fabrics that contain synthetic fibers, these will produce microplastics in the dryer lint. Even if you dry 100% cotton clothing, the lint may still carry plastic microfibers from a previous load with synthetic materials.
  • Fabrics made from synthetic materials like acrylic yarn, polyester, nylon, and spandex. These will not biodegrade into a natural organic material.
  • Inorganic and non-biodegradable materials. Never throw any plastic, styrofoam, aluminum foil, or synthetic corks into a compost pile because they will never break down into organic matter. 
  • Pet wastes such as dog or cat excrement and soiled cat litter. These can carry parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and harmful viruses.
  • Plastic-coated papers like catalogs, magazines, wrapping paper, and any paper treated with plastic-like coatings to make it bright, colorful, and glossy should not be added to your compost pile. The plastic will not decay.
  • Teabags. Some tea bag brands are compostable, but many use plastic or other synthetic materials within the porous lining of the teabag, which can then break down into microplastics.
  • Yard trimmings that are treated with chemical herbicides or pesticides. They could kill beneficial composting organisms.

Ways to Compost

Check with your community garden, local farm, animal sanctuary, plant nursery, or neighborhood school to see if they can take your compost. You can also contact your city waste management service to see if a compost drop-off site or a curbside pick-up service is available. Be sure to follow any composting guidelines from these organizations.

Aerobic Composting

If you plan to compost on your own, most people opt for a small-scale low-odor aerobic composting style that requires ventilation. This can be done in a container that provides air circulation and it is the easiest way to compost for most households. You can also create an aerobic compost pile in your backyard. Pick a spot near a water source. An area with full sun will require more watering, while more shade could slow down the decomposition, so find a place somewhere in-between. You will need a balance of green and brown natural materials. Make sure to keep materials shredded or cut into tiny pieces to speed up the decaying process. Layer your compost in a two-to-one ratio, browns to greens. You will need to stir your compost pile pretty regularly. Use a pitchfork or an aerating tool to stir things up.


Vermicomposting is another style of aerobic composting and is great for apartment dwellers or small offices. It requires a specific species of earthworm known as Eisenia fetida (older spelling: foetida) to break down organic matter. These earthworms, also known as Red Wigglers, thrive in rotting vegetation and compost. They can eat kitchen scraps and live in shredded office paper. Chop your food scraps into small pieces and keep them in a container in the freezer. When it's time to put them in your vermicomposter, make sure to bury them underneath the shredded paper (or bedding). Damp shredded paper, newspaper, or cardboard works well for bedding. Soak the paper scraps in water, then squeeze out the excess water before placing them inside the bin. You can also water the paper in the container, but it's less effective. Use a combo of greens and browns in your vermicomposter, but be careful not to include any of the items that may cause harm to the worms.

Anaerobic Composting

There are some things that require anaerobic bacteria to decay. Anaerobic composting works without oxygen and is typically done in trenches or pits. Composting anaerobically takes more time than aerobic. Generally, you won't be able to tell when the process is complete unless you dig it up. This process is very stinky. Despite these drawbacks, anaerobic composting might work well if you live in an area where the odor and appearance of your compost are less important.

Composting Products From Ecological Market

When shopping with Ecological Market, you might notice an "End of Life" tab at the bottom of each product with recommendations on what to do once a product has reached the end and requires disposal. This means it is way past the point of "gently used," and it's time to retire the item. Many of the products we carry are either backyard compostable or should be sent to a municipal composting facility to properly be broken down.

Start Slow and Make it Fun!

Like all new habits, we firmly believe the best way to start is with what seems easy and fun to you. Find a method that works for your situation, and don't overwhelm yourself. As you grow more comfortable with where all the compostable goodies can go, you'll be amazed at how much you can save from the landfill! Not to mention all that nourishment for those gardens. Happy composting!

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