a guide on how to start a compost bin

The Ultimate Guide on How to Start a Compost Bin

Blog written by Better Life.

A lot of us are looking for ways to reduce waste in 2022. That can start with switching to refillable cleaning products, ditching fast fashion, and driving only when necessary. One of the best ways to start reducing your waste at home, though, is to start a compost bin! 

Composting is a great way to create nutrient-rich soil for both your indoor and outdoor plants. Plus, it's super easy to do, whether you are living on a 100-acre farm or a small apartment in the city. The key is starting with the right set-up and knowing what should (and shouldn't!) go into your compost bin. This guide will walk you through the process of starting a composting bin and give you some great ideas about how to put it to use in your garden. 

man holding compostable coffee cup that is also biodegradable

Understanding What's Biodegradable vs Compostable

While there are a lot of things that can go into a compost bin, it's not just a trash can alternative. You'll need to be mindful about what you are putting into your compost pile. That means choosing items that are compostable. These are things that will break down quickly and add nutrients back into the soil. This is usually organic material, like most food waste, garden waste, and paper products.

Beware though, that not everything that's biodegradable is also compostable. Biodegradable items are anything that will break down when left outdoors through a natural process that involves bacteria. For example, some plastics are biodegradable, but the process can take hundreds of years or more. You don't want these items in your compost pile. 

When in doubt, check with a reliable source about what can and can't go into your compost bin. 

woman smiling about the benefits of composting by her compost bin

The Benefits of Composting

When you start a compost bin, you'll get to enjoy all of its amazing benefits: 

  • It reduces food waste. Food waste is a big problem in the United States. The USDA estimates that around 30 to 40% of our food supply is wasted. That includes food that expires sitting on our shelves, leftovers we eventually have to toss, and that old jar of pickles you'll never finish. The USDA partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency and set a goal for reducing food waste by 50% by the year 2030. One of the most effective ways to battle food waste at home is by starting a compost bin. 
  • It improves your plant's soil. Gardeners actually call compost soil "black gold" because it's just that good. The soil that comes from your composting bin is very rich in nutrients. When added to your existing soil, whether indoors or outside, it feeds your plants and can help them become healthier and happier. It's a great alternative to chemical fertilizers. 
  • It's good for the environment. Compost soil can condition your existing soil to retain more moisture, so you'll need to use less water on your indoor and outdoor plants. A compost bin also cuts down on methane gas from food waste. That means you'll be doing your part to prevent the release of greenhouse gasses into the environment.
  • It makes your trash less smelly. It may seem like a small thing, but anyone who has emptied their trashcan recently knows this can be a big deal. When you are putting the bulk of your food waste into your compost pile, your trash can won't get as smelly as often. And don't worry; the natural composting process will eliminate odors from the final compost soil. So it won't smell when you put it into your gardens, planters, and pots. 

woman starting her own compost bin using a guide on how to start a compost bin

How to Start a Compost Bin

Ready to commit to composting? It's easy to get started, no matter where you live. 

How do you set up a compost bin?

  1. Pick your composting spot. All you need to start your compost bin is a spot to put it in. You don't even really need a dedicated bin or container. Compost piles can also work well, as long as you have a way for the compost to drain and prevent it from getting too wet in the elements (a good sturdy tarp over the top will do the job).
  2. Pick your container (if you are using one). Most people opt for a composting bin. This can be as simple as a trash can with the bottom cut out or a bin made specifically for the task. There are many options available, you'll just need to decide how big of a bin you'll want and where to put it. If you live in an apartment, a corner of the balcony is a good option, or you can even compost in a bucket you keep under the sink or in a utility closet. Just make sure that whatever you choose, there is drainage (more info on that below). 
  3. Start adding your materials. You'll want to layer nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich items in your composting pile to create the best compost mixture. Keep the materials damp, but not soaking wet, to help with the decomposition process. 

Once your compost bin is set up, it's just a matter of adding materials, turning the compost, and waiting. Your compost will be ready within a few weeks to a few months. 

What do I put at the bottom of my compost bin?

Compost bins will produce a liquid over time as the materials inside start to break down. You'll need to make sure there is a way for this liquid, sometimes called composting tea, to drain off. You can do this by: 

  • Collecting the liquid in the bottom of the bin. Some composting bins have a dedicated chamber for this liquid, which you can then use as a fertilizer for your plants before the composting soil is ready to use. 
  • Allowing it to drain away. An easier, more affordable method is to allow the liquid to drain away into the ground. Cut a hole in your composting container so it's exposed to the earth, then add a few inches of larger rocks and stones. This will create space for drainage and keep your composting materials contained.

What should I put in my compost bin? 

If you want to start a compost bin, you'll want to get very familiar with what can and can't go in it. There are two categories of compostable materials you'll want to layer in your bin: 

  • Green compostable. Green items are going to be items that are rich in nitrogen, and they are typically wet. These include your food scraps, such as coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peelings, and clean eggshells. Green scraps can also include grass clippings and fresh grass.
  • Brown compostable. Brown items are rich in carbon and are typically dry items. Brown compostable items include sawdust, shredded newspaper, sticks, dried leaves, egg cartons, and brown, non-plastic coated, cardboard. 

You'll want to alternate layers of green and brown compostable items, with larger layers of brown. Start with a dry brown later and add your green wet layer on top. This will help soak up the nutrients of the wet layer and help speed up the decomposition process. Keep alternating brown and green layers until your bin is full. 

What shouldn't go in my compost bin? 

Not everything should go into your compost bin. Avoid putting items like these into your compost pile: 

  • Animal products. Leftover meat, bones, dairy products, and fat shouldn't go into the bin. These can encourage pests to invade, and they might have bacteria or microorganisms that can harm your compost pile. 
  • Pet waste. It might seem like a convenient way to dispose of the dog's backyard waste but avoid the temptation to throw poo in the compost pile. The droppings can have organisms in them that might make your compost pile dangerous to use on plants. 
  • Diseased or chemically treated plants. Plants that have had chemical fertilizers applied to them or died from disease or pest issues should never go into your compost pile. The chemicals, disease, and pests can spread through the pile and create big problems. 
  • Colored paper. While plain paper can go into your brown layers, the colored paper should stay away. It's the dye in these brightly colored papers that can cause an issue with your compost, so it's best to recycle them. 
  • Metals, glass, and plastic. These items are inorganic, meaning they won't break down in your compost pile. They should be properly recycled instead. 

If you have an item that you aren't sure about composting, check first. You don't want to potentially ruin your hard work by adding material that shouldn't be there. 

How often should I turn my compost?

You'll want to "turn" your compost every so often. This means mixing up the pile, either with a pitchfork, trowel, or some other tool. Some composting bins offer a rotation feature that makes this job even easier - and honestly, a little fun!

By turning your compost, you are introducing more air into the mixture. This aeration will help speed up the composting process and give the microorganisms in your pile some fresh oxygen. It also moves the microorganisms into the center of the pile where they can work more efficiently. Frequent turning will make the compost more fluffy in the end. 

How often you turn your compost pile will really depend. New piles need turning more often, usually once a week at least. Older, more mature compost piles won't need to be turned as often, and you may only need to turn them a few times a month.

how to start a compost bin in an apartment

How to Compost in an Apartment 

Looking to start a compost bin in a smaller space? Here are some ideas: 

  • Put a small composting bin on a balcony or other outdoor space. There are smaller bins on the market that are ideal for smaller spaces but will still give you plenty of compost for your plants. 
  • Compost indoors. You can compost in a five-gallon bucket that you keep in your utility closet or even under the sink. Just make sure you have a way to drain the compost tea safely. Keep the outside of the bin clean with plant-based cleaners to reduce smells. 
  • Put some worms to work. Worms are a great way to speed up the composting process, so you can compost in a smaller space in less amount of time. This is a process called vermicomposting, and it's ideal for small spaces. 

Some apartment dwellers find that they end up with more compost than they need for their indoor plants. If that's the case, contact a local community garden and see if they'd like to share in the fruit of your labor. 

woman using compost to fertilize her garden from her compost bin

How to Use Compost Once It's Done

Your nose will tell you when your compost is ready. Mature compost loses that over-ripe trash can smell and starts to smell earthy, like fresh dirt. That's when you know it's ready to use. It can take weeks, months, or even years to reach this point, but compost in warmer climates will be ready much sooner than compost bins out in the cold.

The material at the bottom of your compost bin will likely be ready sooner than the material at the top, depending on how often and how well you turn your compost. Some bins allow you to access the mature compost at the bottom of the bin without disturbing the materials on top. 

Once it's ready, you can use compost in many different ways: 

  • Add a few tablespoons to your indoor potted plants. 
  • Sprinkle it on top of your vegetable or flower beds (a process called top dressing). 
  • Add it to the ground around your trees or large established plants. 
  • Spread it on top of your lawn and use it as fertilizer. 

Think of your compost as a nutrient-rich, all-natural fertilizer. Plants will love the boost of healthy nutrients, and using compost can transform your plants, indoors and out. 

man putting food into the compost bin he started

Final Thoughts About How to Start a Compost Bin

Composting is an easy-to-do project to help cut down on household waste in 2022. You'll end up with a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your plants with little effort. To further reduce your household waste, make the switch to natural plant-based cleaning products. You'll avoid adding unwanted chemicals to your environment and enjoy amazing fresh scents. They are even great to use on the outside of your compost bin to reduce smells and keep it tidy. Plus, the refillable bottles are great for cutting down on your household waste. You'll be keeping more single-use plastic out of the landfill. It's a great way to achieve your goal of reducing waste without compromising on cleaning power.

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