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Home Composting and Reducing Wasted Food

photo of boy turning a compost pile

Introduction to Composting

Composting at home is relatively easy, even for those who may be unfamiliar with the process. All it takes is a little time, effort and patience.

After plants and animals die, they decompose naturally as bacteria and fungi go to work breaking down the remains. Once decayed, the original material is no longer recognizable and takes the form of a rich, dark, soil-like substance. When humans help this process along it is called composting and the product is called compost. We can help by piling up the materials and making sure there is enough air and water for the microorganisms to quickly break things down.

Why Compost?

  • Composting organic materials such as yard trimmings and food scraps reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or combustion facilities.
  • Adding compost to the soil provides valuable nutrients, improves soil structure, adds beneficial soil micro-organisms and attracts earthworms, suppresses certain plant diseases, reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and helps prevent soil erosion and nutrient run-off.
  • Composting, like recycling, is an easy way to ensure a sustainable future while also giving your plants a boost!

Where to Compost?

  • You can compost in your backyard and in your home! Outdoor composting is as easy as building a compost pile or a bin and adding the right mix of ingredients. Although slightly more challenging, indoor composting is a great alternative for those who live in an urban area or an apartment.

How to Compost?

Outdoors: Compost Piles and Bins

  • Compost piles and bins come in many different shapes and sizes. There is no right one to make or buy, although some have advantages that will suit your specific needs. For instance, a family of six or more might use a three-bin system for their larger volume of waste, while a smaller household may choose to use one or two bins. While a gardener wanting compost fast may choose a rotating drum.
  • For a comprehensive list of compost bins, complete with pictures, their pros and cons, and instructions on how to build them, visit Cornell University's Waste Management Institute website and check out "Bin Designs." (link in right column)
  • You can make a compost bin or a compost pile on your own, but if you'd rather buy a bin there are many kinds of options available. Check out your local hardware store or do some research on-line!

Indoors: Vermicomposting

  • Through indoor vermicomposting worms, usually Red Wigglers, break down organic material. This kind of composting works well in urban environments or apartments. As the worms tunnel through the composting material, they create air channels allowing the air to get into the center of the bin. Red wigglers are attracted to food odors and eat the degrading food and microorganisms, which reduces potential odors coming from the bin.
  • The DEC's composting pamphlet (437 KB, PDF) can help you to start a worm bin.

Compost Ingredients

  • Food - A good working compost pile has a mixture of high nitrogen, moist materials called "greens" and drier, carbon-rich materials called "browns".
    • Greens include food scraps (such as fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, tea bags and old bread), fresh grass clippings, fresh weeds and manure.
    • Browns include fallen leaves, dry weeds, shredded paper, wood chips and straw. Add greens and browns in layers.
    • Every time you add food scraps, cover them with browns or with partially degraded materials to deter unwanted creatures from your compost pile or bin.
  • Microorganisms - Bacteria and fungi do most of the work in a compost pile. They eat the food and turn it into compost. Having enough food, air and moisture will help the microorganisms to thrive.
  • Air - Compost microorganisms need oxygen! While not necessary, turning (or mixing) the pile twice a month will add more air and speed up breakdown.
  • Moisture - Composting works best with the right amount of moisture. If the pile is too wet, add some leaves, shredded newspaper or sawdust. If it's too dry, add some water. How do you know if the pile is too dry or too wet? Take a handful of material from the center of the pile and squeeze it. Just a few drops should come out.

What Can't I Compost at Home?

  • NO meat, fish, poultry, bones, or fatty foods such as cheese and oils. These attract animals and do not compost well in a home system.
  • NO dairy products. They attract animals and do not compost well in a home system.
  • NO cat litter or dog feces. These materials may contain disease organisms that remain after composting.

How to Use Compost

  • Compost has many uses around the home. It is ready to use when it is dark and crumbly, and smells earthy. This usually takes 6 months to one year.
  • Gardens and Lawns- Mix it into the garden soil or sprinkle it on the lawn to improve moisture retention and soil texture and add beneficial microorganisms and nutrients.
  • Prior to adding compost to the lawn it is best to screen it with a ½ inch mesh or smaller.
  • Landscaping - Use it around garden beds, trees or shrubs as a mulch.
  • House Plants - Use 1/2 to 1/3 of your container volume instead of soil.

Trouble Shooting Your Compost Pile

Problem Cause Solution
The Pile Smells Too many "greens" Add more browns and turn the pile
Not enough air Turn the pile
Too much water Add dry browns and turn the pile

(Just a few drops should come out when you squeeze a handful of the partly degraded composting material.)
The Pile Isn't Doing Anything Pile is too small Increase the size of the pile and add more material.
Too wet/not enough air Turn the pile, add more browns.
There are too many browns Add more greens and mix in.
The Pile Freezes in the Winter Pile too small and not insulated Increase the size of the pile and add more material. Add a layer of browns around the bin as insulation.
Flies are on top of the Pile Food is not buried Bury food three inches under browns or composting material.
Animals are Attracted to the Bin Food is not buried Bury food three inches under browns or composting material.
Bin is not Animal Resistant Use 1/2 inch hardware cloth around the bin.

Community Composting

Small neighborhood compost sites and larger municipal composting facilities offer another way for residents to compost their organic materials. To learn more, visit ILSR's Guide to Community Composting (link leaves DEC's website).

Neighborhood Composting

  • Local community composting programs are gaining in popularity all over the state of New York. Communities are diverting food and yard wastes from the waste stream and supplying participants with fresh, local compost! These neighborhood sites are often located in or near community gardens where neighbors gather to grow food and share community.
  • Check out these programs if you want to learn more: NYCWasteLess Program (link in the right column)

Municipal Composting

Many residents do not have the time or space to compost large quantities of organic materials, such as fallen leaves. Some municipalities operate compost facilities that accept leaves, grass and branches. These facilities divert materials that would otherwise take up space in landfills. In addition, many municipalities now ban leaves from landfill disposal. Since burning leaves is prohibited in New York State, sending leaves to a compost facility is one of the few options still available to residents. Finished compost is often available free or at a reduced rate for residents. Find out what's happening in your area. If no program exists, urge your community leaders to put one in place.

Leave it on the Lawn

Even better than composting grass clippings and leaves, mulch/mow them into the lawn. This can save homeowners time and can improve lawn health. For more information go to "Leave it on the Lawn" or visit Love 'Em And Leave 'Em (links in the right column) an initiative of Westchester County to reduce organic yard waste.

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More about Home Composting and Reducing Wasted Food:

  • Reducing Wasted Food from Households - Americans waste about 25 percent of the food we purchase. We waste food by not preparing it before it goes bad and by not eating all the food we do prepare.