From Garbage to Gold: How to Compost for Planet & Profit | Seventh Generation
Skip to Content
  • Pin It

From Garbage to Gold: How to Compost for Planet & Profit

Author: the Inkslinger

They are known as the three Rs, the holy trinity of sustainability that asks us to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. I would now like to suggest a fourth R: Rot.

It may sounds strange, but rot is a crucial part of maintaining a low-impact home. Rot means composting, the art of creating nutrient-rich fertilizer from kitchen scraps, yard trimmings, and other organic wastes. Composting takes these materials out of our trash cans and returns them to the Earth where they're needed.

How much garbage are we talking about? According to the EPA, Americans generated approximately 254 million tons of solid waste in 2007 or about 4.62 pounds per person per day. Some 63.5 million tons of this trash consists of yard trimmings and food scraps. That's a full 25% of all our solid waste, yet as a nation we composted only about a third of this amount.

When we throw these wastes away, we remove the vital nutrients they contain from Earth's soils forever and break the cycle of regeneration on which nature depends. We also needlessly clog our shrinking landfills with a valuable natural resource. By some estimates, recycling and composting could together help us keep over 70% of all our trash out of landfills!

When you compost, you're simply helping microbes, fungi, and other organisms convert organic materials into the basic building blocks of soil and nature's ideal fertilizer. Here's our down and dirty Q&A on letting it rot:

Q: What can I compost?
A: Easiest to compost are egg shells, coffee grounds and filters, fruit and vegetable scraps, and yard trimmings. Break everything into the smallest pieces possible. Don't compost meat and dairy products, which can make a real stink. And bones take centuries to decompose.

Q: Where do I keep my compost?
A: Buy or build an outdoor compost bin. It should be at least 3' x 3' x 3'. Avoid wood treated with chemicals.

Q: Where do I put the bin?
A: You can site your composter almost anywhere with good drainage, but it should be reasonably close to home so transporting kitchen scraps isn't a chore. Place it over open ground to allow desirable microbes to migrate in from the soil. You can also keep a smaller, temporary container under the sink.

Q: What's a good compost pile look like?
A: The ideal ratio for your compost pile is 50% dry plant materials like twigs, dried weeds, leaves, etc.; 35% moist organic matter like kitchen scraps, green weeds, and grass clippings; and 15% soil or finished compost to provide seed organisms. Maintain this ratio as much as possible for faster composting.

Q: How do I maintain it?
A: Once a week, stir up your pile with a shovel, stick, or other tool to provide vital oxygen for its bacteria. Don't let your pile get too wet nor too dry. Water your pile during dry times or add dry material if it's soaked.

Q: What if it starts to smell?
A: Compost should not offend the nose. If yours is oozing odor, it needs less water or more oxygen. An ammonia smell means too much nitrogen or alkalinity. Dry leaves or straw will help nitrogen levels. Treat alkalinity with coffee grounds, oak leaves, or other acidic materials. Let experimentation guide you. A good compost pile literally cooks itself with temperatures as high as 160° Don't be surprised to see your pile steaming!

Q: When is my compost ready to use as fertilizer?
A: When your compost is brown and crumbly it's ready to get spread around. This takes about 6-8 weeks in warmer weather. (Composting may stop altogether in colder months.) Your lawn will love a layer in the fall. Your garden and flower beds can be fed any time. Trees appreciate a layer scattered around their base. And houseplants will thrive on an occasional handful or two.

Composting gives back to the Earth that which we take from it. It's an easy way to turn senseless waste into something delightfully decayed, and that's no rot!

photo: Anne Norman


DGillan picture
but compared to the output---it's dirt cheap!! You've been a great crowd and don't forget to tip your waiters and waitresses. Good night!
amyfiedler picture
Freezing kitchen scraps does get the bin out of the way and keeps the smell at bay because it inhibits microbes. Freezing does NOT help the compost process--it inhibits it. Similarly composting slows or stops during the winter due to the cold slowing the work of microorganisms. Of course, as soon as you take it out of the freezer and put it in your compost, the decomposition resumes like normal, so freezing is fine. I would personally put a lid on it though.
jshermeta picture
I'd like to start composting this spring but I'm worried about raccoons. I know we have them around, they use the side of our yard to get down to the lake. Any tips on what I should do if they start trashing the yard? (We do not have a dog to help :)
DeeEllen picture
Instead of keeping a compost container on your counter or under the sink, I have a medium-sized plastic container that I keep in the freezer. I put about 1" of water in it, and simply put all my compostable materials in it when necessary. Utilizing the freezer benefits many ways; first, it keeps the bin out of the way and does away with occasional fruit fly issues; and second, freezing actually helps break down the matter and aides in the composting process.
birdnscrap picture
I agree with those who said not to sweat it. Compost can be as easy or as much work as you make it. I do use a commercial bin, which I got at a low price from my county offices in California. They also sell discounted worm bins, so check your own counties; they want to reduce land fill. Anyway, before that, I used a cylinder of fence wire about 4 feet across and 4 feet high and just dumped stuff in. It worked. I throw a shovelful of dirt or leaves on top of kitchen waste now and then. I don't include any perennial weeds or weeds with seeds or diseased plants. Grass clippings and leaves are spread on the ground under fruit trees. I also compost tea bags, coffee filters, paper towels, hair from haircuts, laundry lint. I'm not in the business of making tons of garden fertilizer, but just letting biodegradable stuff rot. I never turn my piles, measure temperatures, or worry about them. They eventually subside into nice brown stuff. I have a second bin, so when one gets pretty full, I can start on the next one and let bin 1 finish up. It takes months. Don't worry. Compost happens.
pomly picture
I've been putting my scraps in the blender and digging the mush directly in to the garden. I do this because I have no room in my tiny yard for a compost bin and I don't really want to buy or build one anyway. I save the scraps in a large plastic spinach container in the fridge so it doesn't smell, and then get to blending when the box is full. If you have a cheap blender like I do, you probably will have to chop up banana peels and the like before blending them. Be careful not to chop off your fingertip! Fingertips are not compostable. Lucky you if you have a fancy powerful blender! I do have a small container outside where I keep the weeds I've plucked. Sometimes if I don't feel like digging in the compost smoothie I just pour it in the weed bin. Otherwise I stir it around in the dirt until it is totally hidden in the dirt. The plants and the worms both seem very happy!
nikandmarie picture
I would like to know how to make a large do-it-yourself vermicomposting (with earthworms) bin that will allow me to remove castings and liquid without removing worms. Any advice?
Weatherlight picture
In fact, I think one of the reasons that a lot of people don't start things like composting is the well-intentioned advice, such as this. It sounds short and easy to people who've already been doing it, but many people want to read no more than 10 sentences and spend no more than 20 minutes total per month on something new. There are composters who want a convenient way to help their garden, and they learn a few basics and use their compost. There are composters who want to know more about composting, invest a few more minutes per week into making it, and work for consistently high-quality, fast-finishing compost. And then there are "recycling" composters. They just want to reduce the amount of garbage they throw out and perhaps help the soil. They might not even have any cultivated grass, flowers, vegetables, etc growing on their property; it might be all dirt and weeds. They might have no use for the finished compost and don't care if it takes years for it to finish. Tell people that if they're interested in "recycling" style composting, here's what they can do: Pick a spot on the ground, get a container, or something like that. Dump in compostable materials. That's all. No need for ratios, nutrients, additives, microbe levels, ventilation, stirring, moisture adjustments, temperature checks, or any of that stuff. You CAN do some or all of them, if you want the compost to finish faster, or you want it to fertilize your crops better, or whatever, but it's completely optional. The only other thing that's probably very useful is to keep the smell down. As the guide says, you need more oxygen, more "browns," and/or less moisture if it smells bad. I threw down a layer of "browns" over "greens," or covered a compost hole with burlap, to reduce the bugs last year. This year I'm using a barrel that I got over the winter for kitchen scraps, and throwing yard waste into piles. If you want to give nutrients to plants and don't care to wait for finished compost, you can just mix it straight into your soil as fertilizer or put it on the soil as mulch. Obviously this works better with some materials than others.
wanderso76 picture
No composting bin, just dig a hole in my organic garden and bury the stuff. I use my dogs droppings in my rose garden, just drop and turn the earth with a shovel. My grandparents also never buried meat or dairy. Their reasoning was that it attracted animals. However, I still have to deal with racoons digging it up. I have deers, racoons, armadillos, rabbits and other varmints. O.K. here is how I managed to keep them away from my garden. It works, we use motion sensored Christmas decorations and Halloween decorations that sing and move. You know those funny ones, this is the only thing that works. The stupid things last forever. We use re-chargable batteries so we are sort of enviornmentally sensitive. But, believe it or not these things work. The animals haven't touched a thing since we installed the things. A side note, when working in my garden I get a kick out of the trees singing "Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas then singing You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry, Santa Claus is coming to town, Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas!!!" they sing every time I walk by.
Lucy Kaufman picture
Lucy Kaufman
Composting was a normal part of life in my family. In addition to composting, my mother burried fish heads in the garden whenever someone brought home a fresh catch. After moving to the city, she frequently went to the fish market and collected the fish heads to take home. The garden sometimes smelled pretty bad but she sure had a bountiful crop. When she had extras to bury around her roses, the produced large, healthy blooms and the fish smell did not seep into them. Just the dirt smelled bad. I am encouraging the manager of the Community Garden in our small town to add compost bins and teach the participants how wonderful that black gold can be for plants. Live long and compost.
jladybug picture
This is a great and simple explanation of composting!