I consider composting a sacred act. A person who composts thoughtfully is a shepherd over the transformation from death into life. Without the holy cycle of decay and rebirth that the composter harnesses for her garden, life on this planet could not exist.
For your soil, there is no better ingredient than compost, whether you till it into your garden beds or use it as mulch around shrubs and trees, it is considered essential to organic and sustainable food production. Once it’s in the soil, finished compost—or humus—increases fertility, adds both micro- and macronutrients, buffers pH, prevents diseases, and improves soil structure.
Without compost, soil is just dead, inert mineral dust. Composting is not only essential for healthy plants and soil, but it can also remove 20-50% from your household waste stream, reducing the burden on landfills while replenishing your lawn, trees, houseplants, or garden for free. And if you pay for trash pick-up, composting can save you a lot of money, too.
A compost pile can be as easy as starting a heap of veggie scraps, dead leaves, and grass clippings in the far corner of your yard, but most people like to contain their compost in a compost bin.
There are many different kinds of compost bins to fit every living situation: simple pallet bins, tumblers that make turning the compost easy, towers for urban yards and small spaces, and even worm composters that will make fast, odorless work of all your table scraps in the space under your kitchen sink. Select the bin style that works for you, and install it near the garden, away from your house.
Once you have reached a critical mass of scraps in your bin (usually about a cubic yard of material or a 3’x3’x3′ pile), it will begin to noticeably break down. After everything has decomposed and transformed into dark, rich-smelling, crumbly humus (see picture above), you can sprinkle it around your trees, lawn, garden or houseplants to help them grow.
Considered “black gold” by most gardeners, even if you don’t garden yourself, you could easily give your compost away to your neighborhood green thumb! She’d be so grateful. Avid gardeners never seem to have enough compost.
100 Things You Can Compost
The basics of composting are simple. Almost anything natural or plant-based can be composted; just don’t add meat or a lot of fat, because as they decompose, they will create a smell that will bring every critter for miles to your yard!
Always remember that an effective compost pile is a careful balance of dry or brown things that contain carbon (like leaves or paper) and wet or green things that contain nitrogen (like food scraps or rabbit droppings). So, for example, if you add a lot of shredded paper or cardboard to the pile, you will need to balance it with a nice heap of fresh grass clippings or horse manure, and probably some water from the hose so things don’t get too dry.
And, don’t forget that the smaller you can shred or chop your compostable items before you put them into the pile, the faster and more evenly they will decompose. It’s really worth the extra effort to chop and shred if you plan to use your compost for vegetable gardening, or, simply compost tough, slow things like tree branches and old rope in a separate pile.
The following list is meant to get you thinking about your compost possibilities. Imagine how much trash we could prevent from going into the landfills if each of us just decided to compost a few more things!
From the Kitchen
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Egg shells (crushed)
- Coffee grounds
- Coffee filters
- Tea bags (Make sure they are made of natural materials like hemp or cotton, and not rayon or other synthetics. If in doubt, just open it and compost the tea leaves alone.)
- Loose leaf tea
- Spoiled soy/rice/almond/coconut milk
- Used paper napkins and paper towels
- Unwaxed cardboard pizza boxes (ripped or cut into small pieces)
- Paper bags (shredded)
- The crumbs you sweep off of the counters and floors
- Cooked pasta
- Cooked rice
- Stale bread, pitas, or tortillas
- Stale tortilla chips or potato chips
- Spoiled pasta sauce or tomato paste
- Crumbs from the bottom of snack food packaging
- Paper towel rolls (shredded)
- Stale crackers
- Stale cereal
- Cardboard boxes from cereal, pasta, etc. (Remove any plastic windows and shred)
- Used paper plates (as long as they don’t have a waxy coating)
- Nut shells (except for walnut shells, which are toxic to plants)
- Tofu and tempeh
- Seaweed, kelp or nori
- Unpopped, burnt popcorn kernels
- Old herbs and spices
- Stale pretzels
- Stale candy (crushed or chopped)
- Stale protein or “energy” bars
- Pizza crusts
- Old oatmeal
- Peanut shells
- Cardboard egg cartons (cut them up)
- Stale pumpkin, sunflower or sesame seeds (chopped up so they can’t sprout)
- Avocado pits (chopped up so they don’t sprout)
- Wine corks (chop up so they decompose faster)
- Moldy cheese (in moderation)
- Melted ice cream (in moderation)
- Old jelly, jam, or preserves
- Stale beer and wine
- Bamboo skewers (break them into pieces)
- Paper cupcake or muffin cups
From the Bathroom
- Used facial tissues
- Hair from your hairbrush
- Trimmings from an electric razor
- Toilet paper rolls (shredded)
- Old loofahs (cut up, natural only)
- Nail clippings
- Latex condoms
- 100% cotton cotton balls
- Cotton swabs made from 100% cotton and cardboard (not plastic) sticks
- 100% cotton tampons and sanitary pads (including used)
- Cardboard tampon applicators
- Menstrual blood
From the Laundry Room
- Dryer lint (from natural fabrics only!)
- Old/stained cotton clothing and jeans (ripped or cut into small pieces)
- Cotton fabric scraps (shredded)
- Old wool clothing (ripped or cut into small pieces)
- Very old cotton towels and sheets (shredded)
From the Office
- Bills and other plain paper documents (shredded)
- Envelopes (shredded, minus the plastic window)
- Pencil shavings
- Sticky notes (shredded)
- Old business cards (shredded, as long as they’re not glossy)
Around the House
- “Dust bunnies”
- Contents of your vacuum cleaner bag or canister (pick out any inorganic stuff, like pennies or legos 🙂 )
- Contents of your dustpan (again, pick out any inorganic stuff)
- Newspapers (shredded or torn into smaller pieces)
- Junk mail (shredded, remove coated paper and plastic windows)
- Subscription cards from magazines (shredded)
- Burlap sacks (cut or torn into small pieces)
- Old rope and twine (chopped, natural, unwaxed only)
- Leaves trimmed from houseplants
- Dead houseplants and their soil
- Flowers from floral arrangements
- Natural potpourri
- Used matches
- Ashes from the fireplace, barbecue grill, or outdoor fire pits (in moderation)
- Grass clippings
- Dead autumn leaves
- Sawdust (from plain wood that has NOT been pressure-treated, stained or painted)
Party and Holiday Supplies
- Wrapping paper rolls (cut into smaller pieces)
- Paper table cloths (shredded or torn into smaller pieces)
- Crepe paper streamers (shredded)
- Latex balloons
- Jack O’lanterns (smashed)
- Those hay bales you used as part of your outdoor fall decor (broken apart)
- Natural holiday wreaths (chop up with pruners first)
- Christmas trees (chop up with pruners first, or use a wood chipper, if you have one…)
- Evergreen garlands (chop up with pruners first)
- Fur from the dog or cat brush
- Droppings and bedding from your rabbit, gerbil, hamster, etc.
- Newspaper/droppings from the bottom of the bird or snake cage
- Horse, cow or goat manure
- Alfalfa hay or pellets (usually fed to rabbits, gerbils, etc.)
- Dry dog or cat food, fish pellets
Just imagine if all of us kept so many things out of the landfills and returned their nutrients to the earth?
For a truly sustainable future that our great-grandchildren can thrive in, this is what we will need to do, or we will deplete our precious soils into dust. Good thing it is such an easy and frugal thing to do!
This article was excerpted from my book Sustainability Starts at Home – How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. For more money-saving, planet-friendly tips, check out the book by clicking below.
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50 Ways to Love Your Mother contains 50 simple, “entry-level” ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Not only will these baby steps go easy on the planet, but they will go easy on your wallet, too.