What Can I Compost? The Scraps that Make the Cut

Dumping food waste and other organic matter into landfills just doesn’t make sense. Trapped under layers of garbage, these materials not only release massive amounts of pollutants such as methane, they also become unavailable where they’re needed most – back in the soil.

Composting instead of trashing food waste and other organics slashes environmental impacts and transforms otherwise squandered scraps into a useful resource. Dark, moist, nutrient-rich compost is a perfect fertilizer, free of pollutants, chemicals and costs. For green thumbs and local farmers, compost adds invaluable organic structure and nutrients to the soil, and for everyone else, healthy soils mean better food and a healthier planet.

If you already keep a compost pile, you’re probably aware that maintaining a clean, odorless heap takes little work when you know what you’re doing. Composting can easily become a habit once you have identified your compostables and chosen a compost method that suits your lifestyle. This first post in our composting series will teach you the basics of salvaging some of the most valuable materials on our planet: organics.

What Exactly Can You Compost?

Food scraps, yard trimmings and paper products are the most common ingredients used to feed compost heaps – but plenty of other organic waste can be added, too. As a general rule, any item that was once alive or was derived from living matter can be composted. It really is that easy. However, there are reasons to limit what you compost, particularly because the types of materials you use can optimize decomposition, deter pests and keep things from getting stinky. Avoiding toxic, diseased, chemical-contaminated wastes is also important. 

Good Scraps

Whether you’re composting in your backyard, or sending scraps to a municipal compost operation, some items are nearly always acceptable for compost. Here’s a list of common items you can toss in your compost pile without a second thought:

Food Scraps

  • Fruit and vegetable peels and scrap
  • Plate scrapings (excluding meat, bones, dairy products, oils and greasy foods - see below)
  • Egg shells
  • Tea bags (remove the staple!)
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Grains (breads, cereals, rice, pastas, etc.)
  • Nut Shells
  • Fruit pits
  • Pet food (grain/vegetable-based)
  • Bottle corks

Yard Trimmings

  • Leaves, straw, pine needles
  • Fresh or dried grass (as with all items on this list – chemical-free only)
  • Flower and plant clippings 
  • Weeds that have not gone to seed
  • Houseplants and potting soil
  • Wood ash

Paper Products

  • Paper items (napkins, towels, shredded brown bags, etc.)
  • Shredded cardboard boxes
  • Shredded black and white newspaper
  • Non-glossy junk mail
  • Bedding from hamster/gerbil/rabbit cages
  • Paper coffee filters

Perhaps Scraps

While most big, municipal composting programs can handle nearly any compostable, those managing smaller compost operations may wish to exclude some organics, such as meat, dairy and fish, since they’re slower to degrade, may smell and can attract animals. If you have your own compost pile, you can decide for yourself what to add – but community compost programs often have rules about what you can include. Check out this list for items you may want to limit or exclude from your compost pile:

  • Meat, fish or bones
  • Fats, oils or greasy foods
  • Dairy products
  • Biodegradable/compostable plastics (many of these fail to degrade in home composts)
  • Animal waste (only for compost used on ornamental plants!)
  • Coconut shells
  • Unused cat litter
  • Diseased plants (large municipal composting only)
  • Wood chips
  • Untreated non-synthetic fabrics
  • Hair and fur
  • Dryer Lint (non-synthetic fibers only)

Bad Scraps

Don’t put inorganic materials in your compost! While this may seem obvious, sometimes scraps can be contaminated with synthetics that can really mess up the composting process, so take extra care. Any garden bits that may have come in contact with pesticides, weed killers or other inorganic products should be avoided, for instance. Here’s a list of common items to avoid:

  • Pesticides, weed killers and other chemicals
  • Plastics 
  • Waxy, glossy or other coated paper products
  • Medicines
  • Cleaning chemicals
  • Coal or charcoal ash
  • Colored paper
  • Ceramics

For more guidance on what you can compost, take a look at this list of 100 compostables and visit the Can I Compost This? website. You can also contact your local composting center for donation regulations.

What to Do with Your Compostables

Once you’ve collected your compostables, you can compost them yourself, or add them to another compost operation, such as composts at local public gardens or at municipal facilities. 

Composting at Home

It’s easy to set up a compost heap at home if you have space outdoors, or room inside to keep a composting bin. Having compost at hand can be useful for anyone with a flower bed or vegetable garden, and we will explore ways to maintain your own compost in future posts in this series. 

Independent Programs

If you don’t have your own compost pile, don’t give up; local composters want your scraps! Farmers, community gardens and even organizations dedicated to profiting from or donating compost are plentiful in many regions; find a program near you through Biocycle’s FindAComposter.com. If you choose to donate your scraps, find out if the program has restrictions on what you can include (most small-scale composters request that meat, fish, oils and oily foods be omitted from donations).

Municipal Programs

There are now over 100 communities that offer or require composting in the US. Municipal composting services are often able to accept almost any type of compostable since industrial systems are able to break down tough materials. Check with your municipality to see whether large-scale public composting is offered in your area.

Stay tuned for more posts about how to turn all of this treasure into valuable compost, both at home and at your local composting facility. The next time you head to the trash or scrape your plate, take a moment to recognize how many of those scraps will end up trapped in a landfill instead of returned to the dirt. By following simple composting tips, you could save huge amounts of organic material with little effort. Check out our second post offering tips on building your own compost here!