What Can I Put in My Compost Pile?

Play with your food — by turning it into rich compost. Evan Lorn/Shutterstock

A single home compost bin can divert about 600 pounds of waste from the landfill every year. And, of course, composting not only reduces the volume of organic material squandered, it is also a vital soil amendment, turning waste into an asset.

You can save money and valuable resources by avoiding the costs of landfill disposal, and you can avoid the need to buy fertilizers or other soil amendments. Keep in mind that even organic materials may not decompose in a landfill. In fact, all those grass clippings and leaves and kitchen scraps that end up in the landfill create methane (a potent greenhouse gas), and pollute groundwater.

You can easily find plans to build your own bin, and there’s an abundance of readily available how-to information online and locally, so I won’t get into that. Instead, I offer up this advice: don’t take it too seriously. As the bumper stickers say, compost happens. Composting can be as labor- and time-intensive as you choose. Make a pile of biodegradable waste, and it will — eventually — degrade. You can speed up the process by turning the pile regularly and keeping a good balance of materials, but don’t let all the rules scare you away.

That said, here are a few tips if you do run into problems:

• Compost shouldn’t stink. If your pile does, there is most likely not enough oxygen circulating through the pile. It may be too compacted or too wet. In the first case, simply aerate and turn the pile; in the second, add dry material to soak up excess moisture.

• A compost pile needs to heat up to decompose. If it isn’t heating up (steam in the center is a good sign), it may be lacking nitrogen. Just add fresh grass clippings or manure. If it seems dry, add moisture. The pile may also simply need to be turned. You may also need to make a bigger pile.

Things people don’t usually think about adding to the compost pile: cotton swabs and balls; hair (human and pet); drier lint; tissue, toilet paper and the roll tubes; newspaper (torn into strips to avoid matting); nail clippings; biodegradable litter and bedding; urine; vacuum cleaner lint; brown paper bags; cardboard; and cork.

Most compost guides will tell you not to put meat, dairy or bread in your compost pile. That’s because these foods can attract vermin. I put all of the above in our pile. What I don’t put in the pile is anything coated in oil because the grease acts as a protective layer, effectively blocking the decomposition process.

If you live in an apartment or don’t have outdoor space for composting, a worm bin is a great option. (They are self-contained, as large or as small as you decide, and can be kept indoors.) You end up with an amazing soil conditioner (called worm castings), and a concentrated liquid plant food. If you don’t have a need for the castings or plant food, get some houseplants! Houseplants are great indoor air filters.

Is composting just not for you? Don’t trash your food waste: put it out with yard trimmings for municipal pick-up. Also, a few cities are starting food-waste collection programs. Some are creating large-scale composting programs; others are using the materials to generate energy. Organize and get a program for organic material recycling going in your area.

For information on what to recycle and where, check out Earth.911. Enter your ZIP code and the item you want to recycle.

Work with nature, it’ll work for you.