How to compost at home: The complete guide for indoor and outdoor composting

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Renata Balasco

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  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Renata joined The Zebra in 2020 as a Customer Experience Agent. Since 2021, she has worked as licensed insurance professional and content strategist.…

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Home composting made easy

America produces 254 million tons of garbage[1] each year, and nearly 25% of our solid waste is food scraps. As landfills across America overflow, finding ways to reduce our carbon footprint when it comes to waste is essential.

One great way to reduce food waste while also providing rich nutrients to your garden is to compost. As Americans are spending more time at home right now, it’s the perfect opportunity to start your first composting project. While starting a compost pile or bin at home can seem like a daunting and dirty task, the fertilizer that comes from your kitchen scraps is well worth the fuss.

Whether you live in a home with a large yard or a tiny apartment in a bustling city, composting is a totally customizable, self-guided project that you can scale to your liking. If the thought of red wiggler worms in your kitchen grosses you out, you can take your bin outside or try fermenting!

Our guide will show you how and what to compost, the importance of composting and different methods for both indoor and outdoor composting bins. Keep reading to learn more, jump to our infographic for a visual guide.


Why you should compost

Food waste is a huge problem as it contributes nearly 25% of the solid waste found in U.S. households. Once food is thrown away, it is taken to a landfill, where it then reenters the air as harmful greenhouse gas.[2]

Rather than throwing leftover scraps and other items such as newspaper and coffee filters away, you can convert these materials into organic waste through composting. Compost is the organic matter that results from breaking down from certain waste. The result is a dirt-like substance full of vitamins that help plants grow.

One of the best ways to use compost is to sprinkle it onto your plants and in your yard and garden. Fun fact: not only does composting reduce waste, it also reverses the effects of greenhouse gases by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.[3]

Using your waste as soil feeder also allows your leftover food to become feeder for new fruits and vegetables, making the circle of life complete.


What you should (and shouldn’t) compost

To create your compost, it’s important to add organic materials that can be broken down and won’t harm the other ingredients in your pile. You’ll also want to avoid any materials that bring in pests and foul odors.

Download our printable that details what materials to compost and which to avoid, or keep reading to learn more. 


What you can (and can't) compost
Download printable

Things you can compost

Successful compost is made up of three basic materials: greens, browns and water. “Browns” are materials such as dead leaves, branches and twigs, whereas “greens” are materials such as fruit waste, vegetable scraps and eggshells. There should be three parts brown to each part green in your compost pile.

In addition to adding approved “browns” and “greens” into your compost, you should also add water to provide moisture.

Here are some materials that can make up the browns and greens of your compost.


Brown ingredients are responsible for adding essential carbon to your compost. 

Ingredient Effect
Eggshells: Add calcium to your compost pile by tossing in used eggshells. 
Shredded newspaper: Newsprint paper is safe and free from the toxins of glossy or colored paper and a safe addition to your compost bin.
Dead leaves: One of the easiest brown additions to your compost pile is dead leaves, which you can pick up off the ground in your yard or neighborhood.
Branches and twigs: Break branches and twigs into tiny pieces to add some wood and bark to your compost pile.


Green compost materials provide nitrogen to your compost pile.

Ingredient Effect
Fruits: One great green addition to your compost is leftover fruit, although you’ll want to discard outer layers (like peels). Cut big pieces down to smaller sizes that will decompose faster.
Veggies: Give your spoiled vegetables new life by trimming them into smaller sizes and adding to your compost. Unlike fruits, most vegetable peels are easily compostable.
Tea and coffee: Compost piles love loose tea leaves, coffee grounds, tea bags, and coffee filters.
Old flowers: Flowers that have recently spoiled make great green additions to your compost (dried flowers are considered a brown material). Avoid flowers that died from a plant disease.

Looking for more things to compost? Check out this website dedicated to all things compostable[4] (and not).

Things you can’t compost

Composting may seem like just another way to get rid of your waste, but it turns out that even dirt has standards for what it can and can’t include. Adding the wrong materials into your compost can bring foul odors, diseases, and insects into your bin.

If you don’t want your DIY soil fertilizer project to turn into a gross nuisance, avoid these materials when composting: 

Materials you shouldn’t compost

Keep your compost healthy and thriving by avoiding these materials.

Ingredient Effect
Meat and dairy: You should avoid adding meat and dairy to your compost to keep pests away. For meat, this includes bones and fish scraps.
Cooking oils: Adding cooking oil to your compost can actually slow down decomposition, as it can restrict air flow by coating your compost in a water-resistant barrier.
Diseased plants and weeds: You don’t want your dirt to be dirty: avoid pesky weeds and plants that died of unnatural causes (as they could spread diseases in your soil!)
Coal or charcoal ash: Because coal and charcoal can contain metal bits, these ingredients should not be added to your compost.
Pet waste: For sanitary reasons, you should never include cat or dog mess if there’s a chance your compost will end up on food crops.
Citrus fruit peels: While fruit is healthy for compost, fruit peels (especially citrus!) can harm the worms in your compost pile.

How to compost at home

As more Americans are spending time at home, now is a great time to take on a composting project in your yard or inside your house.

Below, we’ll walk you through how to set up a traditional compost pile in your yard. If you live in an apartment or if you’d prefer to compost inside, we also provide indoor alternatives.

Composting in a backyard

Composting outdoors is easier and less messy, so if you live in a home with a yard, consider setting up your compost bin outside.


Here are some step-by-step instructions on how to set up a traditional compost bin outside:

  • Step 1: Select a spot to set up your compost bin. We recommend somewhere that gets natural shade and is located near a water source (if possible!)
  • Step 2: Add brown and green ingredients in alternate layers. Brown should always start as the bottom layer, and there should be three parts brown for every one part green, as your compost should have more carbon than nitrogen and moisture.
  • Step 3: Use water to keep your compost moist as the moisture helps break down the organic materials. If you overwater your compost pile, it may begin to smell rotten and the soggy compost may slow down the decomposition process.
  • Step 4: Aerate your compost pile every three to seven days by turning it with a shovel or stick. You’ll likely notice that your compost feels warm and possibly even steamy, which is a sign that it’s working.
  • Step 5: After two to four months have passed, your compost is ready to be used! The compost should look like topsoil and smell pleasant and earthy rather than rotten.

Composting inside

Not everyone has a yard where they can set up an outdoor compost bin, but that doesn’t mean you can’t compost at home. Check out these tips for indoor composting: 


1. Set up a worm bin for vermicomposting

Set up a worm bin indoors and feed food scraps to the worms, who will then convert it into fertilizer. Red wiggler worms consume food scraps the fastest, but earthworms also work.

2. Ferment your food waste

Also called “Bokashi”, this method uses inoculated bran to break down kitchen waste. Unlike traditional composting, you can use meat and dairy food scraps for fermentation.

3. Donate your scraps

Offer to save and donate your food scraps to a local restaurant or community garden. You can freeze your food scraps in a container each week to prevent pests from getting into your food waste before you donate it.

4. Establish a community compost bin

If you live in an apartment building and struggle with finding an at-home compost method that works for you, you’re probably not alone! Team up with other members in your community to start a communal compost. A nearby community garden is a perfect place to set up your compost bin. Plus, community gardens can increase the value of surrounding homes, so you could help out all your neighbors while helping out the environment.

You can also contact your apartment manager directly to see what other options are. Remember to practice safe social distancing while planning your community compost bin.


Where to use your compost

If your compost has been aerating for two to four months and feels hot to the touch, you’ve successfully converted your food waste into soil fertilizer. It’s time to decide where to use your compost so you can best reap its benefits.

Here are some popular options for where to use your compost:

1. Use your compost as mulch

Your compost is the perfect fertilizer to amend the soil in your yard, as fewer substances can add carbon to soil as compost. Sprinkle 1-2 inches of finished compost on top of the existing topsoil.

2. Grow heavy-feeder fruits and veggies

Some fruits and vegetables, such as squash and tomatoes, require a lot of fertilizer to grow big and strong. Using compost helps improve your chances of harvesting these heavy feeders.

3. Replenish the soil in your potted plants

If you have potted plants and flowers in your home or yard, you can replenish the soil with compost. This will help improve the potted plants lifespan and keep them looking full and healthy.

Don’t let the gross factor fool you: Reducing your food waste through composting is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and do something good for the planet. Yet your living situation can put restrictions on the type of composting you are able to do at home. Like composing, home insurance options are impacted by a number of factors, and you’ll want to find the option that works best for you.

Want to learn more about how to compost at home? Check out our infographic below!

  1. Landfills: The Truths About Trash Dumps by The Numbers. Save on Energy

  2. Basic Information about Landfill Gas. EPA

  3. Composting in America. Environment America

  4. Can I compost this? Compost This