How to Compost Inside or Outside: A Guide to Getting Started

Pop quiz: what's something that only a quarter of Americans do that helps the environment, reduces waste, and creates a valuable by-product? Hopefully you guessed the answer: it’s compost! The process of composting food scraps quite literally turns everyone’s trash into treasure, and it’s something anyone can do—even those of you who live in an apartment.  

The US claims first place on a very undesirable list: first in the world for food waste—we clock in at 80 billion pounds per year, a third of annual food production. Food that can naturally decompose in the right conditions can’t break down in the anaerobic environment of a landfill, so instead it contributes to the production of greenhouse gases like methane, accounting for 6% of global emissions. Though the US has been slow to adopt composting programs (South Korea leads the way with a high-tech system that charges residents by weight of scraps), a recent study found that although 72% of Americans don’t compost, more than half of those who don’t would if there were convenient ways to do so. 

Here’s a handy guide to composting no matter where you live.

Step 1: Choose your bin, based on your space

If you have outdoor space, you can use one of two types of bins: those that allow the food to come into contact with the ground, or tumbling bins that make for easy turning. Both options take up less than 10 square feet of space, and can be lidded and locked to avoid attracting critters. Open-bottom bins work best on a lawn, while tumblers are best for balconies or roofs.

Those without outdoor space can still compost—you’ll just need somewhere to drop it off. Keep any kind of container (even a plastic bag!) in the freezer, which keeps food scraps from becoming smelly and attracting pests. You can also keep a lidded bucket with a compostable liner on the counter or in a cabinet. To make sure you drop off regularly, link the task to another weekly chore, such as grocery shopping, or use a pick-up service (we have a list below). Diehard composters can try vermicomposting, which you can do in an apartment; learn more about that here.

No matter where you’re composting, diverting food scraps will dramatically reduce the size and yuck-factor of your regular trash can. 

Step 2: Know what you can and can’t compost

For full-cycle at-home composters, the first thing to understand about compost is that it takes a LOT of scraps to make a little of the fully broken down “black gold”, so there won’t be a huge amount to spread out—it can take years to fill an outdoor bin. Most of the produce you’re adding has a high water content, and that’s the first thing to go.

Also important for home composters to know: the importance of adding a balance of “greens” (nitrogen containing, wet components) and browns (mostly carbon, dry components). This doesn’t have to be super precise, just make sure to add some browns if things seem to be slimy when you dump them in or occasionally if it’s looking too damp. You can also add water if things are dry, or if you add too many browns at once. (If you’re dropping off your compost, the facility will make sure to balance as needed.)

Greens Browns
  • Fruit and veggie scraps (both fresh like apple cores and avocado skins, and processed like jams or preserves)
  • Tea leaves and coffee grounds (make sure the tea bags aren’t synthetic)
  • Pasta, rice, or other cooked grains
  • Tofu or other soy products
  • Beer and wine
  • Non-dairy milks
  • Nuts, seeds
  • Herbs and spices
  • Mixed leftovers (as long as they aren’t too meat/dairy heavy)
  • Fresh grass cuttings
  • Stale bread, crackers, or cereal
  • Egg shells (crush for faster break down)
  • Paper products, including office and coffee filters (non-glossy, shredded)
  • Nut shells (except for walnut)
  • Wine corks
  • Skewers/toothpicks/small sticks
  • Dead leaves
  • 100% cotton swabs or clothing
  • Fur, hair (from humans and pets!), and feathers

There are
some things that you shouldn’t compost

  • Meat and dairy: bones don’t break down quickly enough, and both of these food groups can throw off the pH of your system and cause bad odors
  • Produce stickers or labels


Step 3: Dispose your compost at home, at a drop-off point, or using a service

Here’s where to dispose of your compost if you won’t be keeping it to turn into your own soil (excerpted from Litterless):

Litterless has resources for every state (quick links for DC, Maryland, and Virginia).


Step 4: Lead the charge

Composting is something you can do on an individual level, but it’s also important that we encourage the practice to trickle up to our places of work, schools, restaurants, churches, communities, and businesses. (Did you know V+B will take back used meal containers to compost if you can’t compost them yourself?) 

There are so many ways you can influence others to take part in this important, naturally beneficial cycle—the next time you’re at your favorite coffee shop or restaurant, ask how they deal with food waste and scraps, or see if other members of your neighborhood or complex would be interested in creating a communal composting area. There’s even a certificate course you can take in DC to learn more.


Sarah Waybright, MS, RD, CLT is the owner of WhyFoodWorks and was the first team dietitian for Vegetable and Butcher.


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