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 in your ecowarrior journey is taking on 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: taking a controlled space and mixing together various organic materials in magical cocktails or recipes appropriate to the system.” The result, compost, is a soil additive so rich in plant nutrients that it’s nicknamed “black gold.” The “recipes” Louie mentions are combinations 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 with about 50 percent less trash. There are systems you can use to make this process happen at home, or if you prefer, you can just collect your food scraps and drop them off at a location listed at GrowNYC.
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 everyone can benefit from composting (most of all the planet) but not everyone knows where to start, we’re including 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. You don’t even have to compost them yourself: You can take them to a drop-off site. This bin 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.
For collecting food scraps to bring to a drop-off site, Nurse recommended doing so in 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 it up and bring it to a site, eliminating plastic bags,” she said.
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, ecofriendly bamboo versions on the market. “Bamboozle makes a very attractive one that comes in different colors and costs around $40,” she adds.
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, this composter could almost pass as of a piece of mid-century-modern décor.
If you’re looking for a less expensive worm composter, Miessler recommends the Vermihut five-tray bin, which she says gets consistently good reviews and is at the low end of the price range. 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.
If you have some outdoor space
All of our experts agree that the key to compost success lies in regular turning to increase aeration. That turning can happen in a number of ways, but if you’re looking for a low-maintenance outdoor compost solution that can be used in both urban and rural areas, a small enclosed bin that sits low to the ground is your best best. This option, which is easy to use and should keep out rodents, is sized for a patio or rooftop and can be rotated by hand to mix food waste and browns together and encourage decomposition.