Is your compost not working? You might be making one of these errors, despite your best intentions.

By Angelika Pokovba
October 22, 2020
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Composting is a sustainable (and free) practice that goes hand-in-hand with zero-waste living and giving back to planet Earth. Composting is the process of recycling organic materials so they break down to become a natural, nutrient-rich fertilizer for the soil (think: your garden and potted plants). Organic material becomes anaerobic in landfills, which means a lack of oxygen makes it difficult for them to break down, causing the release of harmful greenhouse gases instead.

“Everyone creates organic waste in their kitchen or from their yard, and funneling that waste to a landfill releases methane gas, carbon dioxide, and pollutes waterways,” explains Nate Salpeter, cofounder of Sweet Farm in Half Moon Bay, Calif. “Composting creates a renewable cycle with endless benefits for gardens, agriculture, and our entire food system.”

Many neighborhoods across the nation offer composting bins where you can drop off your organic materials without having to do any more than that. (For example, in New York City, the organization GROW NYC wants your scraps!). But if you're interested in doing your own composting, there are tons of affordable and approachable DIY versions to purchase online. “Most counties have an Office of Sustainability and likely offer a hotline to call for questions and troubleshooting,” Salpeter adds. (See? There's no reason not to start.)

The composting process can be a little frustrating to get it right, though, especially if you’re just getting started. Even in having the positive intent to compost your organic remains, certain mistakes can actually reverse your positive efforts. The good news is these can easily be remedied, eventually taking your compost from fruitless to flourishing. We spoke to agriculture specialists and farmers across the country, in both rural and metropolitan locations, to discuss common composting mistakes they see and how to right them. Avoid them all as best you can and your compost will be even more effective.

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Think of it this way: Whatever you recycle will transform its nutrients to be reused to feed soil. If you recycle food scraps that are not organic, or items that have been chemically treated, your compost will, in turn, be chemically treated and poison the soil. Gonzalo Samaranch Granados, founder of the Mestiza de Indias farm in Yucatan, teaches those who subscribe to his fruit and vegetable farmbox delivery about the importance of composting only organic materials. Otherwise, as he explains, the effect contrasts the motive because you end up creating more waste.

Even though it can be difficult, try to compost only organic produce. Fortunately, certified-organic, pesticide-free produce is often well-labeled and easy to find. But if you can only find one, look for “pesticide-free” signage even more so than “organic” labels. As long as the produce is free of chemicals, it’s good to include in compost. 

RELATED: How to Reduce Food Waste in Your Home, According to One of the World's Top Experts

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Everything you add to your compost must be able to break down in unison. Animal remains are technically natural materials, so may seem like logical compost additions. However, they actually have an entirely different composting process and timeline—they take much longer to decompose. In fact, these are the products that will cause odors, flies, rodents, and all the unwanted guests.

“A big mistake is adding materials that won’t break down in your compost. Exclude meat, shells [eggshells are OK], bones, anything with chemical treatments, pet waste, and oils,” confirms Leslie Bish, gardener and herbalist at Glen Falls House in Round Top, N.Y. Fish cannot be composted either.

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Composting isn’t rocket science—think of it as perfecting a particular recipe. Bish, who built her own compost system at Glen Falls House, breaks down composting into a simple formula.

“The basic principles when creating your own compost is a balance between ‘green material’ and ‘brown material,’” she explains. Bish says the general rule when composting is to have a two-to-one ratio of brown to green materials. “Green materials include organic matter that is still hydrated, such as grass clippings, food scraps, and weeds. The brown material includes dried organic matter, such as cardboard, cut leaves, paper bags, nut shells, eggs shells, and straw.”

People who compost tend to have more green remains than brown, but the compost actually needs more browns than greens. You might need to have two compost systems so that your extra green materials don't rot while they wait for the main compost to complete. 

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Some composts, depending on the kind, usually do host worms, and some at-home, indoor systems suggest including worms. However, in general, says Renée Crowley deputy director of the LES Ecology Center, this is actually not necessary. “Nature provides all that you need to compost—the worms will come on their own!” In order not to disturb the general functioning of the ecosystem, it’s better to let the compost work its magic naturally without forcing it (even though it does take longer).

Follow the rules for the kind of compost you’re creating. If it’s an outdoor, wet compost, don’t add worms because they’ll come on their own. If it’s an indoor compost system, heed the instructions on the ready-made bin—but avoid bringing in outside worms, if possible. 

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Compost is a living product and needs attention. In order to flourish, it definitely needs your care and attention. (Fact: our compost won’t smell if it’s done well!). Tend to your compost the same way you’d tend to your garden. Check in with your senses every once in a while. “If you notice your compost is smelly and wet, add more brown material and flip it,” Bish says. “Is your compost not doing anything? It might be too dry, or not have enough nitrogen, so add a little water with the hose and more green material.” 

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“What I notice more often than not is produce stickers and twist ties in the compost,” Bish says. “Make sure you remove these—picking them out after everything has broken down is not a fun task.”

If you’re making the effort to compost, take extra care that scraps (fruit and veggie peels, paper bags) are free of labels, twist ties, rubber bands, and other synthetic, non-biodegradable parts. Plastic, rubber, and metal do not belong.

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