You’ve ditched plastic straws for metal ones, stocked up on reusable food containers, and swapped out your old cleaning products for organic alternatives. The next logical step is composting. According to Rebecca Louie, founder of the Compostess website and author of Compost City, “Composting is the human version of re-creating what mother nature does out in the wild: mixing together various organic materials” to create a soil additive so rich in plant nutrients that it’s nicknamed “black gold.” Those materials are a combination of carbon-based “browns” (cardboard, paper, sawdust, or wood chips), nitrogen-rich “greens” (food scraps like apple cores or banana peels), water, and air. Over time, bacteria breaks down the scraps to create compost — and you end up creating about 50 percent less trash.
As admirable as it is, composting can be intimidating for some — especially if you’re not a gardener who has use for the actual soil, or if you’re living in a small space. On the more intense end of the spectrum, there are systems you can use to make the whole process happen at home. But if you prefer, you can just collect your food scraps and drop them off at an appropriate location (many farmers’ markets offer this service) — or even, in some areas, have them picked up by the city or by local organizations.
For the best ways to compost at home, we spoke to Louie; Marisa DeDominicis, co-founder and executive director of environmental nonprofit Earth Matter NY; George Pisegna, deputy director and chief of horticulture at the New York Horticultural Society; Sandy Nurse, founder and co-director of BK Rot, a service that collects businesses’ food waste for composting; and a handful of other experts about their favorite bins and composting strategies for all levels of commitment. And because not everyone knows where to start, we included a few books on the subject to inspire and inform both adults and children.
If you want to do the bare minimum
The easiest way to start is to collect your food scraps in a composting bin. This one comes recommended by Pisegna, who says it will minimize odor and keep fruit flies and other critters away. Most countertop compost bins come with a lid that contains a charcoal filter to reduce odors. These can be restocked online or at most local hardware stores. If you’re willing to put in the extra effort (and have the freezer space), freezing your scraps before adding to a bin can also kill off any pest eggs that may be lurking.
If you don’t have a lot of counter space, consider getting a trash can that does it all. This two compartment bin also has an available compost caddy that can be easily attached to the side. “I’m trying to be more conscious of my waste,” says Taryn Williford, lifestyle director at Apartment Therapy. “ The fact that I can have my trash and recycling sorted behind one slim-lined, stainless-steel bin really soothes both the aesthetic and functional parts of my brain — and that’s not always easy to do. I also have the compost caddy, which hangs off the side of the trash can. It’s really a three-in-one ecofriendly solution for me.”
Nurse recommends compostable bags made from organic materials, like these from Florida-based company BioBag. “They’re great for using in a bin, and you can tie them up and bring them to a site, eliminating plastic bags,” she says. For even more biodegradable bag options, you can find a list here.
For an ultra-easy option, LaToya Tucciarone, owner of SustainAble Home Goods in Atlanta, recommends Compost Now, an organization that drops off a compost bin at your house when you need one, then picks it up and replaces it with a clean one. The service isn’t available everywhere, but you can check your address on the website and join an “interest list” to help get it there if it’s not.
If you want to compost in style
Though helping the environment is significantly more important than aesthetics, there are compost bins that can do the job without being a total eyesore. Tonne Goodman, sustainability editor at Vogue, regularly hauls scraps from her OXO Good Grips compost bin to New York’s Union Square compost center. “My son bought it for me because he felt my keeping scraps in the fridge in plastic bags (that I’d reuse, of course) was unsightly,” Goodman says. But she also has her eye on the even nicer-looking, eco-friendly bamboo versions on the market. “Bamboozle makes a very attractive one that comes in different colors and costs around $40,” she adds
A few years ago, Strategist editor Maxine Builder conducted a thorough investigation of the most stylish compost bins. There are many options out there, but she landed on this one as her favorite. It’s specifically made for the freezer, with a hook that secures it to the door. Plus, because it’s made of silicone, it’s super easy to clean.
If you’re okay with worms as roommates
If you don’t have a ton of space and want an indoor composting option, all of our experts recommend worm composters, a series of stacked trays that are, yes, filled with hundreds of worms. Feed your food scraps to those worms, Louie says, and the worms poop out your compost. “Once one tray gets full, you can add another as the worms climb vertically,” she says. “It’s really fun, especially if you have kids who love to play with the worms.” Yorzyk recommends the Hot Frog Living Composter for beginners because it’s made of recycled plastic and has a liquid capture level at the bottom, should you want to use the resulting moisture, also known as worm tea, as added fertilizer for your plants. Just dilute it with water and add to the soil. Plus, with its maple hardwood legs and lime-green rounded top, it’s not bad to look at.
For a less expensive option, Miessler recommends the Vermihut five-tray bin, which she says gets consistently good reviews. Although she warns that “worm bins require some simple maintenance to keep them thriving and odorless,” Miessler points out that it truly is simple maintenance: “adding shredded newspapers and kitchen waste.” Plus, she says, the final product — rich compost writhing with red worms — brings joy to most gardeners.”
Worm composting bins rarely come with worms, so you’re also going to need to get yourself some of those. Louie and Pisegna recommend stocking up on red wigglers, which you can buy from her preferred supplier, Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm. Pisegna suggests ordering them online but cautions that most retailers won’t ship during very cold parts of the year to avoid freezing the worms. If you run into that problem he says you can also use night crawlers from a local bait shop.
If you’re not okay with worms as roommates
If you’re not down with the worm thing, you can still compost indoors with a fermenting Bokashi system. This specific bin comes recommended by both DeDominicis and Pisegna. Unlike other forms of composting, DeDominicis says, “Bokashi only works in the absence of air,” and involves mixing microorganism-saturated oat bran, included in this kit, with your food waste in an airtight container. One advantage of Bokashi, Louie says, is that you can add “the crazy Frankenstein stuff in the back of your fridge — like condiments or oily things — that wouldn’t go in a normal compost system.” The fermented materials get buried in the ground to further decompose and nourish the soil.