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How To Compost In Four Easy Steps, Even If You Don't Know Where To Start

Yes, you can even compost inside.

Composting — we've all heard of it and seen the bins. While most of us understand the concept and importance of recycling, some of us still don't really get composting (or how easy it is to do!).

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Here are the receipts: According to the EPA, more than 30% of what we throw away could be composted. Instead, these food scraps and pieces of yard waste (i.e., organic materials) end up in landfills.

You might wonder: Can't these organic materials just compost there? Yes and no. Because the organic materials are buried under mounds of trash, they don't receive enough oxygen to properly decompose, so they release methane as they break down. (This is called anaerobic composting, meaning without oxygen.)

Fact: Methane is a greenhouse gas that's estimated to be 28-36 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 100 years. Yikes.

So you could say (aerobic) composting is kind of a big deal.

Ok, great. Now, how does composting even work? What's going on?

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Compost is pretty much decomposed organic matter. So composting is what happens as the organic matter breaks down into a soil-like state. But compost is not like fertilizer, which feeds plants; it's more like a soil conditioner.

Composting happens thanks to lil' microorganisms and four main ingredients: nitrogen, carbon, water, and oxygen. The nitrogen helps microorganisms build protein to grow and function. Carbon provides the microorganisms with an energy source. Water and oxygen are similarly necessary for microorganisms. They need to breathe and stay hydrated, too!

You've probably read about what you can compost before. Like when you toss out your lunch and stare at the recycle, compost, and trash bins for five minutes trying to figure out what goes where. So here's a refresher of what you should (and shouldn't) put in your compost pile.

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Things that are compostable: fruits and vegetables, tea bags, nutshells, non-greasy food scraps (including rice, pasta, and bread), flowers, branches, paper bags, coffee grounds and filters, eggshells, shredded newspaper, cardboard, paper, grass clippings, houseplants, hay, fur, dryer and vacuum lint, cotton and wool rags, wood chips, sawdust, and leaves

Things that are NOT compostable: meats, greasy food scraps, chicken, fats or oils, fish, dairy products, coal, charcoal ash, diseased or insect-ridden plants, pet manure, black walnut leaves, and anything with oil residue on it

The non-compostable items above can cause odor issues, attract pesky rodents and flies, or spread diseased seeds.

So how do you actually do this whole composting thing? Well, the basic pile technique is pretty simple!

1. Pick a spot for your compost pile or bin. It should be dry and shady but also near a water source (like your garden hose!).

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Location is really important for composting. (That's why people generally opt for some type of bin.) But before you choose a spot, make sure you check with your local community guidelines about where you can set your compost.

Once that's out of the way, find a spot with good drainage that's not in direct sunlight. Pro-tip: Don't set up your compost near trees, because they could root into your compost for the water and nutrients — then, you'll end up hurting the roots as you turn the pile. Talk about lose-lose. Also, avoid being too close to a wooden fence, because you don't want to cause the fence to rot.

2. To begin your pile, lay your first brown layer. Then continue to alternate between green and brown layers. (Make sure to shred or chop any big materials.)

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Remember how lil' microorganisms need nitrogen and carbon to do their composting thing? Well, any materials that are rich in nitrogen are called "green," and any materials rich in carbon are called "brown." Green things are usually fresher and moist, while brown stuff is usually dry.

For instance, green materials include things like coffee grounds, eggshells, fruits and vegetables, grass clippings, hair, etc. Meanwhile, brown materials include things like corncobs, branches, twigs, dead leaves, cardboard, paper, pine needles, sawdust, vegetable stalks, straw, etc.

Your first and last layers should be brown, especially to mask the odor. If needed, sprinkle water onto your brown layers to make sure they're moist. For a well-balanced compost pile, you can try this carbon-to-nitrogen ratio compost calculator.

3. Every few weeks, use a pitchfork (or shovel) to turn your pile. Turn it from the center out, making sure the pile stays moist.

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To aerate (introduce air into) your compost pile, you'll have to turn it every few weeks. As you turn it, you can sprinkle it lightly with water as needed to make sure the pile isn't too dry. Remember, the microorganisms need oxygen and water — but you don't want to drown them, either.

Don't be surprised if you see some steam come from the pile as you turn it! Heat is a natural byproduct of decomposition. That means it's working!

4. Once the bottom of your compost pile is a dark and rich brown, it's ready to use!

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Ta-da! You did it! It's most likely been a few months by now, and what was once a pile of organic materials now looks like dark and rich soil. Talk about a glow-up.

If you're wondering what to do with all your new compost, check out NYC Compost Project's tip sheet!

Of course, your compost doesn't have to be a literal open pile. You can disguise it in a bin. They're especially great if you live in an apartment or want to keep your compost enclosed.

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First of all, you can totally DIY your own bin. It's really easy and common to do if you have the materials. You can repurpose plastic garbage bins, use wooden shipping pallets to create your own box, or stack cinder blocks to section off your compost bin to name a few options. Chicken wire is also an incredibly popular material for enclosing compost. Otherwise, you can purchase different types of compost bins:

Plastic stationary bin: These bins are best for regular and continuous composting. They have air vents to ensure proper ventilation. Most also come with some sort of a door so that you can easily access and turn the compost.

Rotating or tumbling bin: These bins are meant to make one batch of compost at a time. You add materials until it's full, then you rotate or tumble the bin (using the handles) every day or two. This way, you're turning the compost more often and speeding up decomposition. Typically, these bins can produce finished compost in five weeks or so.

But what if you're in an apartment? Or just don't have the yard space? Can you compost indoors?

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Of course, ya can! You can easily recreate the steps above on a smaller scale in a smaller bin. Just poke some holes in the storage bin, fill the bottom (about three inches deep) with some drainage material (like potting mix), then follow the steps above.

This indoor-mini composting still takes about three months to fully decompose. And since you're indoors, you probably only have a small bin, so you may want a slightly faster option. Which brings us to...

Another (and slightly faster) option: Vermicomposting, aka worm composting. It takes around three to four months to vermicompost, thanks to the help of red wriggler or red earthworms. These lil' dudes eat up your food scraps and cast it into compost!

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All you have to do is make sure your worms have a healthy environment to thrive in. You don't have to worry about regularly turning vermicompost, because the worms technically turn it for you! Instead, you'll need to scoop the "worm tea" out every few months (or drill holes into your bin to let it drain into a second bin). Worm tea is a liquid concentrate of worm compost, and it's known for increasing microbiological activity in soil. It's basically a natural fertilizer, so you can just pour it straight into your soil!

When the bin is full, you'll need to start feeding the worms on only one side of the bin so you can harvest the compost from the other side (rather than trying to sort the worms out). If you're in need of some composting worms, you can get 250 red wrigglers from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm, either from their site for $27.95 or from Amazon for $38.95.

Generally, it's recommended to have one pound of worms per square foot. So if your bin has four square feet of surface area, you'll need around four pounds of worms. (P.S., One pound of red worms is about 1,000 red worms.)

Check out Nifty's DIY How To Compost At Home walkthrough for more info there! You can also take a look at the EPA's guide on maintaining a worm composting bin.

Excited about composting, but not feeling it inside your space? Look for a local spot to drop it off, or sign up for a pickup service.

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If you want to compost but just aren't feeling it inside your space, you can always look into compost-collecting services — your local farmer's market may have a compost collection site where you can drop off your food scraps, or you can sign up for a private collection service to come pick up your materials regularly. CompostNow offers a map of compost pickup services across the US, so you can read through by state or enter your zip-code to find one near you.

There you have it! That's how to compost for all you beginners out there.

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Now, time for everyone to go turn their pile!