Composting 101

Stojo University is back in session! First, we covered design. Next up on the syllabus is composting! 

At its roots (pun not intended), composting is the natural process of decay for organic matter. All organic matter—that being, carbon-based substances—break down and return to the cycle of life. This process happens all day, everyday, all around us without us noticing or really having to do anything. If you go to a park and watch leaves be broken up on the ground, that’s decomposition at work. It’s part of Mother Nature’s design. 

How does decomposition happen? Well, a large part is thanks to our little critter friends! Bugs like worms and nematodes do their part, as well as different bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms. These things break down decaying matter by “eating” it and expelling nutrients. 

The act of composting speeds up the natural processes of the earth by providing the ideal environment for decomposition to happen. The right temperature, pH, bacteria balance, etc. While it may sound on the gross side, the reality is far less icky, and easier than you might expect.


The benefits are broad. Composting also plays an essential role in re-supplying the earth with nutrients and in keeping organic waste out of landfills where it’s not doing anything productive. It also cuts methane emissions from landfills, as methane gas is a major by-product of decomposition, and can have (literally) explosive results if too much is built up, and it’s also easily trapped in the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. Landfills are the third-largest human-generated source of methane in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

By cutting bio-matter out of landfills, you’re also reducing the amount of waste you personally contribute to those places. Composting is part of a circular cycle—food is grown, you buy and eat it, unused food is composted, turned back into fertilizer, and food is grown again.  

Composting can also cut down on your own personal feelings of guilt if you don’t finish food or if something gets moldy before you have a chance to use it. A family of four throws away an estimated $150 worth of food per month alone. Composting can benefit everyone, however, because even the most careful of planners still ends up with food scraps.

Plus, it’s not just kitchen scraps that can be composted. A whole host of non-food things can be composted, including: hair and nail bits (both animal and human!), natural wine corks, paper towels (as long as they haven’t been used with non-all natural cleaners), tissues, egg shells, yard waste, 100% cotton items, coffee grounds and filters, tea leaves and bags, wood chips, and more. 

There’s even a whole new category of compostables—plastic. Yup, you heard us right! These “next generation of plastics” are often made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is derived from the sugar dextrose. The sugar itself comes from plants; the most common source is corn, but it’s possible to get dextrose from other plants as well. This includes: potato and tapioca starches, cellulose, soy protein, and lactic acid. 

There’s another term you may hear in this space, and that’s biodegradable. Now, there is a subtle difference between biodegradable plastic and compostable plastic. Essentially, it comes down to this: all compostable plastic is biodegradable, but not all biodegradable plastic is compostable. 

Like little worms, let’s break it down even further. Biodegradables need specific conditions to break down, like a water treatment facility or industrial composting site. Compostable plastics are held to a higher standard like ecotoxicity (if broken down, is it toxic to the environment?). This resource from World Cleanup Day is a great place to learn more about the difference. 

If composting sounds cool to you, which hopefully it does, the next thing you’re probably wondering is how to get started doing it yourself. Glad you asked! For anyone out there, no matter your living situation, there are composting options. 

The first is probably the easiest—enroll in a curbside composting program. If you're lucky, this program may be run through your town or city (like in NYC). However, as public composting programs aren’t widespread, you’ll most likely be choosing a private organization. Let’s take Black Earth Compost, which operates in Massachusetts, as an example. Once you enroll, a container and composting bag is dropped off to your house. Once a week, they come by and pick up your compost for you. In the spring, as part of your membership, you can have bags of compost that you helped contribute to dropped off. These services are a great, beginner-friendly option. 

The next step up is a countertop composter, like Lomi, a new product from our friends at Pela Case. Lomi works by literally creating compost right on your kitchen counter in a few hours. Put your compostables in, and get back a small amount of soil that you can use indoors or outdoors. This one works great for people who may not have access to a curbside program. There’s also still a few weeks left on Lomi’s crowdfunding campaign if you want to be an early backer. 

The third option is to have your own bin, which is really only an option for those who have a good amount of outdoor space (and the right conditions). If you want to try your hand at mixing your own compost pile, then we recommend checking out a guide like this one from the NRDC. Compost piles need certain amounts of oxygen, agitation, and temperature regulation to be successful. It can be quite a project, but an extremely rewarding one that will make your home very self-sufficient.