Food and Nutrition

7 Most Common Composting Mistakes, According to Sustainability Experts

Emily Laurence

Photo: Getty Images/Anchiy
Here's a sobering fact: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that a single American produces 4.51 pounds of waste daily, a pound of which is food. But it's also why composting—decomposing organic materials into simpler organic and inorganic compounds—can make such an impact.

As the director for the Institute for Self-Reliance's Composting for Community Project, Brenda Platt educates people about the benefits of composting on a regular basis. She loves when people get excited about cutting down on food waste. But she also sees more than a few common mistakes, both from beginner composters and from people who've been doing it a while.

Here, Platt, along with Tania Ragland-Castaneda, the municipal relationship manager at recycling and waste service provider Republic Services, share the most common composting mistakes they see on a regular basis—and how to correct them.

7 common composting mistakes

1. Not being prepared

If you aren't prepared, your good intentions to start composting remain just that—intentions. "A 2020 survey commissioned by Republic Services revealed that 58 percent of Americans reevaluated their eco-friendly habits because of the pandemic," Ragland-Castaneda says. "People want to be more sustainable and composting at home is a great way to be more sustainable on a daily basis. But people can make the mistake of not being prepared to start their composting journey."

Ragland-Castaneda says you don't need much to get started—just an indoor to collection bin and outdoor composting bin—but they are important to have. She also says you'll need an outdoor space that is dry and shaded to store the compost bin, too.

2. Making it too complicated

Some people love to geek out about composting, and there's nothing wrong with that, but Ragland-Castaneda says there's also no need to make it more complicated than it has to be. She says that composting is actually pretty simple, and that simplicity is key to actually sticking with it. "The best way to simplify [the process] is to really understand why you’re composting and what items you want to compost in your home," she says. "Make sure you understand which items and materials should be composted and how best to keep your compost balanced. And, to make it easier, create a list and keep it posted in your kitchen or near your outdoor compost bin."

Ragland-Castandeda says foods like fruits and vegetables, eggshells, tea bags, and nut shells can all be composted. But, typically, you can't compost fats, meat, or dairy. "You’ll want to make sure you have a good ratio of greens, like vegetable and fruit scraps and yard waste, and browns, like dead leaves and twigs," she adds.

3. Not adding enough water

Platt says one common composting mistake she sees is people not adding enough water to their bin. "The beneficial microorganisms that decompose yard trimmings, food scraps, and other organic materials and turn them into compost, a valuable soil enhancer, need water," she says. "If you squeeze a handful of your composting pile, you should get a few droplets of water but it shouldn't be dripping wet. Too much water, the microbes drown. Too little, they go dormant."

4. Not enough air

Similarly, Platt says having enough air is important, too; otherwise the beneficial fungi and bacteria will die. "Composting is an aerobic process," she says. "Make sure your pile is not too dense or compacted and that air flow through the pile is not blocked." Platt adds that when compost doesn't get enough air, it can cause it to smell, too—and no one wants that!

5. Using a compost bin that's too small

Platt explains that having a compost bin with enough space is important for the composting process because as the beneficial microbes decompose the organic materials, they generate energy in the form of heat. If a bin is too small, Platt says it won't retain temperatures levels needed to evaporate moisture and kill pathogens and weed seeds. "You generally need a volume of 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet to adequately compost," Platt says. This is definitely one case where size does matter.

6. Ignoring warning signs that your compost is out of balance

Ragland-Castandeda says it's important to check in on your compost. "Your compost shouldn’t attract bugs or rodents or produce a strong odor. If it is, then you’ll know that it’s time to adjust the mix of greens and browns you’re adding to your bin," she says. She reiterates that the compost should ideally be an equal mix of green and brown material. That will go a long way in keeping the process moving as it should be.

7. Using compost before it's finished

Composting takes patience; it isn't something that happens overnight. "Good compost usually takes six to 12 months to produce," says Platt. "While the active phase may only be 2 to 3 weeks, compost needs time to finish and mature. This is known as curing."

She adds that if you add immature compost to your garden beds, it will reduce the availability of oxygen to plant roots and can compete with plant roots for available nitrogen in the soil. When that happens, it can cause plants to stop growing or lead to their leaves turning yellow or withering. Either way, not great for your garden. "On the other hand, mature compost is an excellent soil amendment that when added to soil will improve organic matter level, soil structure, fertility, and water-holding capacity while suppressing soil-borne plant diseases, preventing soil erosion, and avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides," Platt says. There's payoff in the waiting.

Composting is a great way to cut down on food waste and live a more sustainable life. It's really pretty simple to put into practice, too. Keep these tips in mind and living the compost life will become part of your everyday routine. And it's one where you'll actually see the benefits first-hand.

Watch the video below to see how to make zero-waste lemon ice-pops:

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