Update: Mother nature has been composting for thousands of years. But in the two years since we first published this article, there have been some major technological advancements in the world of turning food scraps into nutrient-rich soil. And because everyone can benefit from composting (most of all the planet) but not everyone knows where to start, we’re updating our list with brand-new expert-recommended compost solutions. We’ve even added a few books on the subject to inspire and inform both adults and children.
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 eco-warrior 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, but 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; Diane Miessler, Author of Grow Your Soil; Sandy Nurse, founder and co-director of BK Rot, a service that collects businesses’ food waste for composting; and Jeffrey Yorzyk, Associate Director of Sustainability at the meal kit company, HelloFresh. Our panel of experts recommended a variety of composting strategies for all levels of commitment.
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’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.
Similar to the bin above, a tumbler like this one “spins around in various ways, rolling or churning your browns and greens in there and speeding things up in terms of decomposition,” Louie says. This double chamber tumbler is ideal according to DeDominicis, who recommends keeping two separate piles going at all times. One side for your fresh waste and another for the stuff that’s further along in the composting process. Because it sits up on legs, a tumbler takes up more space. If that’s a problem because you’re an apartment dweller, our experts said that some building residents have been known to share a rooftop tumbler (with their landlords’ permission). That might be worth looking into if you have other eco-conscious neighbors.
This larger traditional compost bin is best for those with lawns or gardens who plan on using the compost for their own plants. The bin collects water and air from its surroundings, and, when combined with the scraps you put inside, “compost happens,” DeDominicis says. Finished compost can be removed from a hatch at the bottom while the upper layers continue to decompose.
If we could name a status compost bin it would be the Aerobin 400. The fully sealed tower comes recommended by Pisegna, who calls it “the newest hottest thing in composting, completely airtight with zero odor.” What separates it from other bins is its insulated design and internal aeration core both of which accelerate the decomposition process without any turning. Simply add your lawn clippings, food scraps, old newspapers, and plain cardboard at the top and let it do the rest. You should start seeing rich usable compost in as little as a few months. The Aerobin also features a liquid reservoir at its base and a spigot so you can collect and use the concentrated leachate or compost tea as additional fertilizer — just remember to dilute it first. And though it’s more than twice the cost of any of the other bins on this list, Pisegna confirms that it’s worth the price, calling it “the Boeing 747 of compost bins.”
If you want to know more
You don’t need to be an expert to start composting at home. But if you’re interested in learning more about the process as well as the pros and cons of different composting methods, there are a ton of books dedicated to the subject. This one came enthusiastically recommended by Yorzyk and Pisegna, who agree that it’s a classic for adults that gives a good overview.