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What is Compostable? [Composting for Sustainable Living]

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What is Compostable? [Composting for Sustainable Living]

What is Compostable?

If you’ve ever asked yourself: “what is compostable?,” you’re not alone. A quick Google search of this question yields 10.7 million results in 0.70 seconds.

More companies than ever before are providing products and services that allow their loyal customers to live more sustainable lifestyles. And many consumers, especially in the Millennial and Gen-Z generations, are proactively looking for other ways to help the environment, too.

In 2019, Pinterest revealed that sustainable living searches surged. Searches for the term “sustainable living,” accounted for the highest number and increased by 69 percent from 2018.

But what’s even more impressive is this second trend: searches for “sustainable living for beginners,” shot up by 265 percent! Composting is a huge part of sustainable living, and it’s easy for beginners to get into, too.

So, what is compostable? Let’s start with what compostable means before we get to what can and can’t be composted:

What Compostable Means

 

Compostable simply means that a product can disintegrate into natural elements in certain environments, without leaving toxicity in the soil. Compostable is different from biodegradable, but we’ll get to that next.

Compostable items fall into two different categories. Typically, the two different types of compostable materials are thinly layered and alternated for the best results. The two different types of compostable materials are green and brown.

But what’s the difference between green compostable materials and brown compostable materials?

It’s simpler than it might seem.

Green compostable materials are nitrogen-rich. Examples of green compostable materials: live plant materials and waste from fruits and vegetables.

Brown compostable materials are carbon-rich. Examples of brown compostable materials: dead plant matter instead of live, and waste that is wood-based. Brown compostable materials give structure to the compost pile and help the air get where it needs to be. They tend to degrade more slowly than green materials, so it’s best to cut or chop them into little pieces.

Difference Between Compostable and Biodegradable

 

When you’re trying to determine what is compostable and what is biodegradable, this is where things tend to get a bit confusing. Many people use these words interchangeably, thinking that they mean the same thing.

But compostable and biodegradable items have some notable differences. Compostable materials are biodegradable, but they have the added benefit of also being good for their environment as they decompose. Some biodegradable materials can leave behind a type of metal residue or another potentially toxic substance as they naturally decompose.

Compostable materials are better for soil and plants because they help create an environment that is full of nutrients. They do not leak anything unwanted into the ground, as long as they are properly disposed of and you are choosing the right materials.

Can You Only Compost at Home?

 

While it’s easy and important to compost at home, there are other ways that you can work this important sustainable practice into your life.

Many different zero-waste companies are either producing items entirely out of compostable materials or packaging their products in compostable materials. Either way, choosing purchases with compostable properties is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and make a choice you can feel good about.

One example of this type of product is compostable plastics. Companies that use compostable plastics swap out the old plastics full of chemicals and fossil fuels and use renewable materials instead. These renewable materials might include things like different corns, potatoes, or tapioca starches as a base. They can then be mixed with things like cellulose, soy proteins, and lactic acids.

Unlike traditional plastics, these compostable plastics are non-toxic. They turn back into carbon dioxide, water, and other natural ingredients when you compost them.

Similarly, compostable packaging is made from ingredients that are kinder to the environment when they break down than traditional plastic packaging would be. This type of packaging is typically made from plant-based or recycled materials. This way, they can swiftly and safely return naturally to Mother Earth when you dispose of them in the right conditions.

What Can You Compost in the Kitchen?

 

Now, let’s look at what is compostable in terms of items instead of definitions. There are tons of green compostable materials hanging out right in your kitchen. Fruit and vegetable scraps, pits, and seeds are some of the most commonly composted items.

You can compost the skin from your potato if you don’t like to eat it, the rind from your melon, your broccoli’s stalk, or an apple core, to name a few.

You can compost your corn husk, corn cobs after you chop them up, and fruit peels that are non-acidic. These are typically limited to a banana peel, melon rind, or avocado skin.

Non-dairy milks that have gone bad, beans, wilted herbs and spices, loose leaf teas, coffee grounds, and expired jellies and jams are also okay. Bonus: coffee grounds can be great for your garden, too.

That leftover liquid from your canned fruit or vegetable snack? Compost! Moldy sauces and tomato pastes? Compost! Small amounts of old condiments or leftover tofu? Compost!

If you find items in your kitchen that you’re not sure about, just do a quick Google search to confirm if they’re compostable or not. Many kitchen items are. 

Brown Compostable Materials in the Kitchen

 

The list above contains some of the most well known and frequently composted kitchen items. But did you know that there’s a whole list of brown compostable items you can use, too?

You’ll want to bury some of these in the pile to avoid attracting any pests, but this is a great way to get rid of stale:

  • Breads, tortillas, or uneaten pizza crusts
  • Cereals and oatmeal
  • Crackers, cookies, and other snacks
  • Dry rice-based blends and pastas – cooked ones will also work, but because of the moisture they produce, it might get smelly or produce bacteria
  • Shells from nuts that are not walnuts
  • Unpopped or burnt popcorn
  • Crushed up eggshells
  • Unbleached coffee filters
  • Chopped up wine cork
  • Brown paper shopping bags and lunch sacks
  • Food boxes made of cardboard
  • Used paper napkins and pizza boxes
  • Paper plates and cups that aren’t finished with wax
  • Chopsticks and skewers strictly made of wood

Lawn and Garden Composting

 

While there are tons of items right in the kitchen you can start composting, there are plenty right outside your door, too. Live and dead leaves, spread out grass trimmings, bits of sod, weeds, and used bulbs are some of the most common.

Weak or dead plants (as long as the cause of death wasn’t an infestation or disease) are easy to locate. Trimmings from bushes and shrubs, hay, straw, and broken up sticks can all be used, too. And if you’re looking for something to do with that growing pile of pine cones and needles, throw them in!

Got burned wood ashes sitting in your firepit? Compost! Expired bags of potting soil? Compost! Some people even choose to compost abandoned bird nests that they’ve found on their property, but be sure that the nest is truly abandoned so you’re not taking away a home from a family of birds searching for worms.

Bathroom Composting

That’s right, even the bathroom contains composting materials. If you haven’t guessed by now, there are items that you can compost from just about every room in your home. In the bathroom, start by gathering up your empty rolls that used to hold toilet paper (shred these). Then, collect used up cotton balls or swabs (as long as there are no synthetic materials on them) and fingernail clippings.

You can also use your hair trimmings from your last shave, the cardboard packaging your skincare products came in, used tissues, and old, unwanted cotton sheets and towels.

Composting in Your Home Office

Junk mail got you down? Shred or tear up old bills, pieces of junk mail, non-glossy paperwork, and newspapers. Then, throw them on the compost pile. It’s good for the environment and this little bit of healthy destruction can be a good stress reliever, too.

If you have old envelopes, you can use these too – as long as there isn’t a little address window sealed with plastic. Plain and corrugated cardboard boxes and mailers can be added, as well as shavings from your pencil and that sticky note you don’t need anymore.

Sustainable Pets

In our second to last composting category, we’re getting your furry friends involved in your journey toward sustainable living. If you live on a farm, you can use the manure from your horse, chicken, rabbit, or goat. You can also use bird droppings from the yard.

Inside of the house, you can compost dry dog food and cat food, your pet’s fur or feathers, sawdust bedding from your gerbil, and newspapers used to line cages. If you have worn out dog toys or collars, you may be able to use these, too. Just confirm that they’re cotton, hemp, or bamboo first.

Ho Ho Holiday Composting Materials

Now we’re getting to the bottom of the list, but there are still some items that can be rescued and returned to the earth. Think about cut up flowers, wrapping paper that isn’t covered in plastic and that you can’t reuse, and streamers made of crepe.

Real Christmas trees can be composted once they’re chopped up or run through a chipper. And paper table clothes and non-synthetic wreaths can go into the pile, too.

Bonus item: the pumpkins and gourds you used to decorate throughout the fall. These are not only compostable but they may even give your garden a head start. Once you’re done with them, pull out the seeds and plant them in your garden.

If you’re new to gardening, there are plenty of videos on YouTube that will help you with the basics. By replanting the seeds you scooped out, you can create your very own pumpkin patch for next year. 

Other Items You Can Compost

While most compostable items fit neatly into one category or area of the house, there are some that are seemingly random. In addition to the many items listed above, you can also compost:

  • Stained clothes that you won’t wear anymore – as long as they’re completely natural (i.e. cottons, linens, wools, bamboos, hemps, or silks)
  • Natural potpourri that isn’t doing its job anymore
  • Broom-swept dust and dirt clumps
  • Used matches
  • Any packaging you come across that is labeled compostable; be careful not to confuse compostable and biodegradable now that you know the difference!
  • Strings and bits of thread that don’t contain any wax
  • Paper price tags that aren’t glossy or coated in plastic

What Should You Not Compost?

 

Once you know what is compostable, it’s important to also know what is not compostable so that we don’t inadvertently do more harm than good. The Environmental Protection Agency provides a pretty thorough list of things that should not be composted and why.

But we’ll give you a quick recap of some of the most important and common ones to avoid. In the kitchen, avoid composting acidic fruit peels like the ones that come from lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits.

Spoiled dairy products like regular milk, yogurt, butter, and eggs can create bad smells, bacteria, and attract unwanted pests. Fat from your fryer, grease from a pan, lard, and oil call all do the same. Bones and scraps from meat and fish, too.

Other items to avoid composting:

  • Leaves or twigs from Black walnut trees
  • Ashes containing coal or charcoal
  • Plants that are diseased or overrun with insects
  • Waste from your pets
  • Yard trimmings that contain chemical-based pesticides

If you come across an item that you’re unsure of, take a look at the EPA’s website. You can also do a quick Google search and choose a reputable source. Our homes contain thousands and thousands of items. It can be hard to find a complete list of composting dos and don’ts all in one place. We just want to help you get started and give you an excellent jumping-off point!

Why We Shouldn’t Compost These Items

There are many different reasons that an item may not be compostable. But most commonly, if an item shouldn’t be composted, that means that it’s bad for the environment or bad for you. For example, composting a diseased plant or one that is covered in insects might transfer these problems to other plants. The same is true for charcoal ash and twigs and leaves from Black walnut trees, as well as several others.

But your pet wastes and soiled kitty litters are a different story. The concern here is more about how they’ll affect you than it is about the plants. Pet wastes and products that contain pet wastes can contain pathogens, viruses, parasites, and bacteria that can all be harmful to humans.

And while some of the items listed above are downright dangerous to the environment or to you, some just create an unnecessary nuisance. For example, fats and meat scraps can stink up your home and attract bugs, rodents, and other pests. This problem can range from inconvenient to unhealthy.

How Composting is Good for the Environment

Composting is a fast, easy, fun, and frugal way to support the environment and work toward sustainable living.

Some of the benefits of composting include:

  • It enriches the soil in the area
  • It helps the soil retain moisture so that more can grow from it
  • It suppresses some of the most common plant diseases and unwanted visitors (pests)
  • It reduces the need for chemical-based fertilizers
  • It promotes the growth of good bacteria and fungi
  • It helps reduce methane emissions that come from landfills
  • It helps to lower your carbon footprint

How Composting is Good for You

 

So, we’ve established that composting is good for the environment. But what does this mean for you? First, just about anything that’s good for the environment is also good for you. But there are some additional benefits, too.

Composting is one of the most life-changing sustainable practices that can be performed right at home. If you live in an apartment, you can compost with a handy and convenient indoor compost bin. If you live in a house with a yard, you can start a compost pile or fill a bin in your backyard.

Best of all: if you have a garden or indoor plants, you can use some compostable materials to revitalize them and promote new growth. In your garden, this can save you money by promoting the growth of your fruits and vegetables. In your home, it can bring light, beauty, and new growth to the plants that make you smile when you enter the room.

If lowering your carbon footprint is important to you, composting is an easy and important way to accomplish this task. Sustainable living doesn’t get much easier than this.

Tools You May Need

If you have a garden or you’ve composted in the past, you might already own some useful composting tools. You might want to locate your pitchfork, a shovel or machete, and a water hose with a sprayer. If you regularly mix or turn the compost and add some water, you’ll help keep it well-maintained.

And if you don’t have a designated outside space to contain your compost pile, you can use a specialized bin inside instead. You can pick up one of these bins at your local hardware or gardening store. You can also make one yourself. Young House Love provides instructions for a DIY compost bin that costs less than $10 to make.

If you don’t have any of these tools, don’t panic. Work with what you have. Take inventory of the tools you have and get creative with them. Or search a used website (like Craigslist or Facebook marketplace) for gardening tools and give an old item new life! This will add an extra layer of sustainability to the process and encourage you to keep finding ways to live a sustainable life.

How to Compost

Pull out your notes, put together a pile of what is compostable, and get ready to practice sustainable living. It’s time to compost!

Now, there are a bunch of different ways to do this. So, keep that in mind moving forward. If you’re not sure where to start, just pick a method and test it for yourself. If you find that you don’t like doing it this way or that another way sounds easier or better for you, there’s no rule that says you can’t switch it up next time!

 

For backyard composting, here are all of the steps you’ll need to follow:

  • Find a dry and shady spot near a water source where you can store either your bin or pile
  • Toss in brown and green materials as you collect them (try to alternate when you can and chop up or shred the larger pieces before you throw them in)
  • As you add new materials, gently moisten the dry stuff
  • Once you have your compost pile, mix in some grass clippings and other green waste
  • If you add fruit and vegetable waste, bury it underneath the first 10 inches of the pile
  • If you have one, cover the top of the compost pile with a tarp so that it stays moist; if you don’t, don’t worry – this is an optional step

The steps for indoor composting are pretty much the same. Just be more cautious and keep track of what you’re throwing in. Since your compost pile is staying inside with you, you’ll want to make sure you’re not throwing in any materials that’ll bring in rodents and pests.

Here’s where the two different sets of instructions branch off: the time it takes for the piles to be ready. You’ll know your compost pile is ready when the materials at the bottom are a dark, rich color. Outside, it might take about two months. Inside, your compost should be ready in two to five weeks instead.

So, What is Compostable?

We’ve covered the why and how of composting. We’ve covered the most common items to compost and many of the ones you should avoid. We’ve covered the benefits to the environment, the bonus benefits for you, and easy ways to get started.

When organic waste gets tossed into a landfill, it breaks down differently. It releases methane, that extremely potent greenhouse gas we’ve heard so much about in recent years. This is not the case with composting.

 

Composting is a necessary means to reduce waste worldwide. It is easy and effective. And when we implement it on a large scale, it can reduce some of the factors that are contributing to climate change.

There are so many reasons to compost. It’s up to you to determine your “why,” and figure out what composting means to you.

Now, the next step is simple: get started! We take so much from this earth. It’s time to start giving something back.

Comments on this post (1)

  • Oct 29, 2020

    This was so good! Thank you for such a great article.

    — Robin

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