The Six Questions You Need to Know to Start Composting at Home

All you need to know to get started with your own kitchen compost


7 min read

Composting your kitchen waste is a great way to cut down on your garbage while helping reduce methane (a type of greenhouse gas) emissions from landfills, and it’s easy to get started at home. In this article we’ll talk about why composting is important to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from waste, basic compost science, what can and can’t be composted in industrial versus home composts, composting methods that you can do at home, and some tips for storing compost material in your kitchen.

  1. Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Waste: How does plant material break down in landfills?

In the United States, food waste is such a big issue that the U.S. government is getting involved; it’s estimated that between thirty to forty percent of the food supply is wasted. In 2010, 31% of food was wasted at the consumer and retail levels, which was the equivalent of approximately 133 billion pounds of food and $161 billion. In 2023, that is the equivalent of $225,704,640,092.45. In 2018, the residential, institutional, and commercial sectors of the United States cumulatively produced more than 63 million tons of food waste. Only four percent of that food waste was composted, equivalent to 2.52 million tons (5.04 million pounds). 24% of municipal solid waste is made up of food waste.

In landfills, food waste, which is a type of organic waste, generates methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is twenty-five times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere and is a major contributor to global warming. Composting can help reduce methane emissions from food waste.

  1. How does composting work?

Composting is a aerobic process (meaning it requires oxygen) of decomposition that naturally turns organic materials (anything that contains carbon, or pretty much anything that was once alive) into soil commonly known as ‘black gold’ for the high level of nutrients it has and the benefit it has to plants as a soil amendment. Microorganisms feed on composted material and break down the organic waste in the process.

  1. What materials can be composted?

At home, composting yard waste and food scraps from the kitchen will help you create the “black gold” soil that gardeners love. Many industrial compost operations can break down animal based products like meat, eggs, and dairy, but avoid putting these items in your home compost. While it is possible to compost meat at home, it requires more management than if you leave it out and decomposing meat and dairy can attract pests and rodents, including rats. There’s also the possibility that composting meat spread bacteria in your compost and ultimately soil if not managed properly during composting. But you can compost your egg shells!

It’s important to have a balance between greens and browns. The colors refer to the ratio of carbon and nitrogen in organic material, rather than the actual color of the compost material. “Greens” are materials that are high in nitrogen (this would be things like kitchen waste, grass clippings, and manure). “Browns” have higher levels of carbon than nitrogen, and includes materials such as leaves, wood chips, sawdust, and straw. Materials higher in nitrogen (greens) decompose faster than organic waste that’s high in carbon (browns). The mix of carbon and nitrogen provides fuel (carbon) and protein (nitrogen).

  1. What types of compost options are there?

There are multiple options to choose from if you’re looking to start composting at home. Here are a few of the most population ways to compost.

Compost tumbler

Compost tumblers have a few benefits. They’re already off the ground, and can make turning (or tumbling) the compost easier since all you have to do is spin the tumbler every so often (spinning it a few times each time you add new material is a good rule to follow to be sure that it’s getting rotated regularly). They often have two compartments, so you can fill one up and then add waste material to the other side while you wait for the first side to break down into soil. These types of compost tumblers also help prevent any issues with rats or other rodents, since they are lifted off of the ground and are made of hard plastic that can’t be chewed through, although they are still easy to open and close.

Some of the drawbacks of compost tumblers are that they can be heavy and difficult to turn, as well as difficult to empty once you’re ready to use the black gold inside.

Compost pile

A compost pile is going to be the cheapest option on this list. You can designate one area of your yard the compost pile and just start adding yard waste and kitchen scraps, or build a low-cost three or four sided structure with scrap wood or old pallets. Grocery stores and department stores that frequently receive large deliveries can be great places to source free pallets.

While a compost pile is a simple option, it may be slightly more work than the tumbler to make sure that the organic waste is being turned semi-regularly (once every two weeks or so), and you’ll want to be sure that you’re not attracting rodents. However, it can be easier to access the soil once it’s broken down with this type of set-up.


Vermicomposting is also known as worm composting, since worms are the main decomposers of the organic waste. This type of composting is great for small space or apartment dwellers who may not have room outdoors for a compost, but still want to divert their waste from landfill, since you can keep a vermicompost right in your kitchen! This type of set-up uses worms to break down your compost material, and there is no smell to worry about if properly managed. You’ll want to be sure that you’re balancing the greens and browns to avoid any odor issues.

Red wigglers are the best type of worm to use in a vermicompost. You might be able to purchase red wigglers at a local garden center, but if not, there are worm farmers who sell worms online and will ship them to you for your compost. The worm population of a vermicompost can double in about two months if the conditions are right.

You can either purchase a vermicompost bin or build your own. There are a variety of materials you can use, including wood, but be sure to avoid cedar as it has antimicrobial properties. Use an opaque container, since worms don’t like the light and won’t thrive if your container is made of clear plastic.

Since microbes are key to helping break down organic material in compost, the cedar will slow this process down. If using a purchased or upcycled container, be sure to drill holes into the sides at various heights so that the organic waste and worms stay aerated. The top and bottom of the bin should also have a solid cover with holes in it. If fruit flies are a problem, wire mesh can be used to prevent them from infiltrating the compost to lay eggs. The bin should be elevated off of the ground so that air can also enter from holes in the bottom.

To get started with a vermicompost, you can add newspaper and garden soil to provide bedding for the worms, before adding worms and your kitchen waste.

Keep the vermicompost in a location where it has good air flow and won’t get too hot or too cold. Try to avoid disturbing the worms as much as possible, as this will stop them from feeding and breaking down the waste. You’ll feed them with kitchen waste, and if you need to add moisture to the bin, a spray bottle is a great way to do so. Adding moist newspaper pieces to the top of the bin will help balance the greens and browns, and control fruit flies.

  1. What's the best way to manage my compost?

While you can successfully compost without much of a strategy if your main goal is to reduce the waste you send to landfill, some degree of compost management will help ensure that your materials break down evenly and timely so that you can use the resulting soil in your garden. You’ll generally want to layer greens and browns in layers that are three to four inches thick. If that’s not feasible, make sure that you’re adding approximately equal amounts of kitchen waste and yard waste over time. If you live in an apartment and don’t have yard waste, you can add cardboard, newspaper, or brown paper to your compost, all of which are higher in carbon and can help balance the nutrients.

Water your compost as you add material to it, so that the organic waste is moist but not soaking wet. Turning your compost (whether in a compost tumbler or by hand using a shovel or pitchfork) can help break down the layers evenly.

Organic decomposition happens most quickly between 90 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 32 to 60 degrees Celsius. The process slows down when temperatures are lower than 90° F, and when temperatures are higher than 140° F most microorganisms who support decomposition can’t survive the heat. Aerating the compost can help control the meat, as can turning a compost pile, especially in persistently hot weather. A larger compost pile can retain more heat since there is less overall surface area exposed to the colder temperatures, and can help maintain rates of decomposition during the colder months.

While it’s not necessary to know the exact temperature of your compost, some gardeners and farmers find it helpful to be able to measure the temperature with a compost thermometer so that they can make sure the compost doesn’t overheat. Compost has been known to burst into flames if it gets too hot, although this is very rare.

  1. How should I store my compost inside so it doesn't smell?

I find that the best way to store my compost is in a brown paper shopping bag in my freezer. This allows me to collect compost in my kitchen without worrying about the materials starting to smell or rot while on my countertop. When the bag is full, you can bring it out to a home composting set-up or the commercial compost bin (if your city has commercial compost collection). This way, you don’t have to worry about any clean-up and are also ensuring that you’re adding at least some browns (high carbon material) to your compost to balance the nutrients each time you take your compost outside.

If keeping your compost in the freezer isn’t an option, there are some great kitchen compost collectors that you can keep inside that help reduce odor and make sure you won’t be bothered by fruit flies.

Happy composting!