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Composting Deep-Dive: How It Works, What You Can Compost, and More

Learn the ins and outs of composting. We have the scoop on what it is, how it works, what you can and can't compost, and more.

Written by
Kristine Nguyen

If you're familiar with the sustainability space, you've probably heard of composting at least once. Perhaps an image of worms crawling through a smelly pot of dirt is coming to mind. But what is composting, really—and how do you go about it successfully?

If you want to know the ins and outs of composting, you came to the right place. The guide dives into everything you should know before getting stated on your composting journey, from how compost can be used to the confusion behind compostable products.

What Is Composting?

Compost is decomposed organic material that can be used as a natural fertilizer for your garden. Think recycling, but for your plant and food scraps instead of plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

Composting is the natural process of recycling organic matter into a valuable fertilizer that's beneficial to our soil. When composting occurs, we're left with something called humus—an organic material that's sought after by farmers and gardeners.

Compost isn't just rich in nutrients that support the growth of your plant babies. It's also great for the environment. According to the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, composting boasts some eco-friendly benefits. It keeps organic matter out of landfills, conserves water by helping plants retain moisture, and more.

Whether you're a gardening enthusiast or want to live more sustainably, it's a great way to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions and do good for the planet.

What Conditions Are Required?

Unfortunately you can't just throw your scraps in the dirt and wait it out. Composting doesn't quite work that way. There are some conditions that need to be fulfilled to create the best environment.

Brown and Green Material

When first starting to compost, it's important to maintain a good balance of brown and green materials. Brown materials are more dry and rich in carbon and include things like dried leaves, twigs, and newspaper and napkin shreds.

Green materials are wet and rich in nitrogen. These include kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, fresh leaves and grass clippings, and weeds. At home, aim for a ratio of four parts brown material to one part green to meet optimal conditions.

Oxygen Flow

Did you know compost needs oxygen to thrive? Aerating the compost pile allows for decomposition to occur at a quicker pace.

This is done by adding rigid materials—like wood chips or newspaper shreds—and turning the compost every couple weeks. Just don't aerate it too much, or you might accidentally slow down the process rather than speed it up.


The amount of moisture can really make or break the compost. If you're composting at home and you feel that it's getting dry, spray a couple spritzes of water on the mixture to keep it moist.

The Right Temperature

The temperature of the compost is important for optimal activity. Factors such as moisture and oxygen flow play a role in reaching the right temperature.

If the compost doesn't seem to be hot enough, add more green material or dirt to allow for more bacteria growth.

What's Up with "Compostable" Products?

Though there's a lot that can be composted, there's also a lot that can't. Unfortunately, just because something is labeled as "compostable" or "biodegradable" doesn't mean it can immediately go into your compost bin.

Compostable Plastics

You might have some plastic packaging at home right now labeled "compostable." So it should be okay to just throw in your counter compost bin, right? Unless the plastic is made for home composting, it may actually need to be taken to an industrial composting facility.

Compostable plastics, while better for the environment than regular plastic, don't enrich the compost. This could cause some facilities to deem them as not good enough to be composted, ultimately sending them to a landfill.

"Biodegradable" Items

Products labeled as "biodegradable" probably aren't as biodegradable as you think. For many of these items, the timeframe to biodegrade is completely unknown.

These products may have the potential to biodegrade because of how they're produced, but they can only really biodegrade under very specific conditions that can't just be fulfilled by a home composting bin or even a large composting facility.

The Takeaway

All in all, if you want to get started composting at home, stick to organic items you know will compost, and take compostable plastics to a facility near you that is equipped to handle them.

Even though composting feels confusing at times, just continue doing the best you can. The planet will thank you for your efforts.

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