A Beginner's Guide to Composting

carbon emissions reduction composting individual action kitchen

Isaac Yu, Editorial Contributor

Look—we get it. You’re busy with work, school, and everything in between, but you know you should be composting. After all, it’s one of the most efficient ways of reducing your carbon footprint as an individual. But important as they are, scientific articles and explanations on composting can be overwhelming and seemingly contradictory. So let's talk about the basics of composting in the simplest terms possible. 

If even reading this article is too much for you to bear, don’t worry! Feel free to skip to the end for the simplest step-by-step guide to composting ever. 

Composting, at the most basic level, is the breaking down of organic materials that can then be used to enrich and feed new plant growth. When gathering materials for compost, keep these two terms in mind:

Brown matter - These materials are typically “dry” and prevent compost piles from producing odors. Brown matter can include shredded newspaper/cardboard, eggshells, tea bags, soil, dead tree/leaf clippings, mulch, woodchips, paper, and cotton fabric. They don’t have to be brown. 

Green matter - These materials are typically “wet” and cause the compost to warm up and condense into usable material. Green matter can include fruit and vegetable scraps, bread, coffee grounds, fresh tree/leaf/grass clippings. They don’t have to be green. 

Generally speaking, you’re going to add more brown matter than green matter to your compost (online advice varies wildly, with ratios of brown to green material ranging from 3:1 to 25:1.) As a rule of thumb:

  • If you notice odors from your compost pile, add extra layers of brown material.
  • If your compost doesn’t seem to be breaking down or condensing, add extra layers of green material. 

Never introduce meat, grease, fish, or food with dairy in any form to your compost pile. They’ll stink!

Compost needs to be turned in order to condense. “Turning” your compost simply means shoveling and mixing the compost around, allowing oxygen to enter in. You can give your pile a quick turn every time you add materials.

Composting Indoors

  1. When collecting compost in your home, select an airtight box or container and place it under your sink. 
  2. Add additional brown material as possible to further prevent odors. 
  3. Keep a small tool (spade, tiny shovel from Target, hand in glove) handy to turn the compost. 



Composting Outdoors

  1. Collect food scraps in an airtight container such as this cute, biodegradable bamboo bin we offer from Bamboozle, or freeze them in a plastic bag for up to two weeks. 
  2. An outdoor bin like this can be nice to have, but many far cheaper alternatives, like this pallet design (ask for free pallets from Home Depot/Lowe’s) or a literal pile on the ground, work just as well. 
  3. Use a shovel to turn the compost as often as you can or feel like. 

Ready to begin? Here’s your action plan: 

The Easiest, Laziest Step-by-Step Guide to Composting Ever

Since composting is inherently a natural process, it really doesn’t need to be complicated. While scientific advice is definitely helpful, it’s far easier (and still efficient) to play things by ear and learn as you go.

  1. Gather brown (newspaper and cardboard) and green (food scraps) materials from your kitchen, house, or yard. Don’t use meat, grease, dairy, plastic, or metal. 
  2. Place said materials into a bin, box, or pile of some sort. Use a lot of brown materials and a little green material.
  3. If it stinks, add more brown. If it doesn’t seem to be doing anything, add more green. 
  4. Keep adding materials as you have them. Turn the compost every so often, but don’t sweat it if you forget. 
  5. Sit back and relax. Composting takes time - in about three to six months, you’ll be able to use your compost on your houseplants or donate it to a community garden. 
  6. (optional but highly recommended) Follow @back2earth on Instagram. This student-led group regularly produces content that makes composting easier for you. 
Tag us in your composting efforts on social media @sustainabilitylab.co. We can't wait for all of your composting adventures.

Older Post Newer Post

Back to the top