How to Compost at Home—A Beginner's Guide
Starting July 1, 2020, Vermonters are no longer permitted to put food scraps in the trash. This is the final phase of Vermont’s food waste landfill ban—part of the Universal Recycling Law which passed in 2012. The goal of the law is to reduce the state’s trash and increase recycling and composting of food waste. Why does this matter? We want to reduce dependence on landfilling, conserve valuable resources like aluminum and oil, and reduce greenhouse gases created from landfilled food scraps and other organic matter.
What can I do with my food scraps after July 2020?
Once the law goes into effect, you will have multiple options for disposing of food waste:
- Compost at home (more details below),
- Bring food scraps to a transfer station or bag-drop for a fee,
- Sign up for curbside food scrap pickup with a hauler (available in some regions), or
- Join a community compost site (also available in some regions).
What is composting? How can I turn food scraps into dark black soil?
Composting happens when we help microorganisms decompose, or break down, organic materials. It is basically the same decomposition process that happens in nature, but we speed it up by actively managing it. The final product, compost, is decayed organic matter that benefits soil by helping it retain water and nutrients. Compost added to soil also helps sequester carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere.
Composting at home is simple and inexpensive, especially if you’re only looking for a way to keep food scraps out of the trash and not to make compost for gardening. First, find a small bucket or container to keep in your kitchen to collect food scraps. Next, you need a place to dump the food scraps outside. You can either dump them in a large plastic compost bin, which you can buy from most solid waste entities (find yours at 802recycles.com), or make your own bin out of wooden pallets and hardware cloth or wire mesh. Another option is to purchase a Green Cone, or solar digester, that uses the sun’s energy to break down food scraps. For more information, go to VTrecycles.com, click on Compost, and download “The Dirt on Compost” guide.
What can I put in my compost bin?
You can feed your compost anything that once was alive—fruit and vegetable scraps, grains, coffee grounds, uncoated paper like paper napkins and paper towels, leaves, wood chips and sticks, spoiled food and plate scrapings, etc. Though fats, oils, meat, or bones can be composted, we don’t recommend it as they can attract unwanted critters to your compost pile. It’s okay to continue to put meat and bones in your trash, even after the landfill ban goes into effect.
Does my compost pile need anything else?
To spur decomposition, your compost needs a mix of nitrogen (food scraps or “greens”) and carbon (wood chips, dried leaves, and straw and hay, often referred to as “browns”). Ideally, there should be a 1:3 ratio of greens to browns. Every time you add one part food scraps, you should add three parts dried leaves or other browns.
The microorganisms that eat the nitrogen and carbon are living creatures so in addition to food, they also need air and water. The compost pile will naturally have some moisture and oxygen already, which should be enough for the organisms to function, but if your pile is smelly, you should add more browns and turn it with a pitchfork to add oxygen. The pile should have the consistency of a squeezed-out, wet sponge.
So, to recap, your compost pile needs:
- Nitrogen or “greens” from food scraps,
- Carbon or “browns” from dried leaves, wood chips, sawdust, ripped up cardboard, etc.,
- Air, and
Once you’ve added these things, you’re done. It’s that easy, and the pile will magically reduce in size as the microorganisms get to work.
How long does the composting process take?
If you are a lazy composter, like me, the process can take up to six months. If you are actively adding the right amounts of materials and turning your pile often, the process can take around a month in the summer to produce earthy, soil-like compost. If you want to use the compost, scoop it out from the bottom of the pile. It should be dark and look like soil but may have some eggshells or peach pits in it!
How can I discourage bears, and other critters, from coming into my yard?
To discourage bears, make sure to remove anything that may attract them. Keep meat and bones out of your compost pile, and if you have bird feeders up, take them down when bears are active (usually from April to December) and store the bird seed inside your house. Cover your compost bin with a thick layer of browns and turn it frequently to reduce odors. For more tips, go to vtfishandwildlife.com.
This is a quick introduction to backyard composting. For more information, visit VTrecycles.com and click on Compost.
About Anne Bijur
Anne Bijur joined the Waste Management and Prevention Division of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources in 2017 and works with a team to implement Vermont’s recycling, composting, and waste reduction initiatives. She is a sustainability professional with more than 15 years’ experience designing and delivering education and communication programs for both the non-profit and private sector, including Shelburne Farms and AllEarth Renewables.