What is compostable

What is Compostable?

Being compostable is the ability to be broken down into organic matter over time. With the help of inputs such as water, air, carbon, and nitrogen-rich materials the compostable material will turn into a beautiful fertilizer that can be used to improve the soil

Finished Compost with worms
Finished Compost

To make compost you will want to mix greens and browns. Greens are your nitrogen-containing material and browns are your carbon-containing materials.

Green Compost List

  • Vegetable scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Beverages
  • Food Leftovers*
  • Grass Clippings
  • Tea contents
  • Egg Shells
  • Livestock manure (no pet waste!)
Green Material for compost
Green Material for Compost

* Certain food leftovers are “Controversial”. Some recommend avoiding citrus peels and greasy items. Animal bones are often not recommended either since it may attract rodents. If you do not mind sifting through your finished compost at the end or seeing some rodents go into your compost at times then don’t worry too much about what leftovers or scraps you are adding.

Brown Compost List

  • Dry leaves
  • Cardboard (ripped up is best)
  • Toilet paper rolls
  • Plain paper
  • Napkins & paper towels
  • Pine needles
  • Straw
  • Branches
  • Weeds that have not gone to seed
  • Pizza boxes torn into pieces
  • Newspaper (not color)
  • Paper cups such as coffee cups (usually not the lids unless made out of a compostable material)
  • Certified compostable plastics such as PLA

Brown Material for Compost pine needles
Pine needles (brown material) for compost

Non-compostable materials like plastics, rubbers, metals, etc are not able to be broken down into organic material. This material may be able to be created into something else if recycled properly but not into organic material that helps to improve the soil.

Why Compost

Composting is SO important to our future. It really should be mandatory! The quantity of materials that go into our landfills is staggering. Landfill emits many toxins into our air and waters creating greenhouse gases, poor soil,  poor drinking water and poor air quality.

In contrast, composting helps to reduce greenhouse gases, improves soil fertility keeps materials out of the landfill. The EPA estimates that food waste is the largest percentage of solid waste contributing 24%.

Even though food waste is biodegradable and compostable, if it is buried in a landfill it will undergo anaerobic decomposition. Anaerobic decomposition produces biogas which is 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide. Both methane and carbon are greenhouse gases. Composting undergoes aerobic decomposition which is beneficial for the environment.

Biodegradable – vs- Compostable

Biodegradable is a term that is often used interchangeably with compostable, but they are not the same. Being biodegradable is when an item is broken down by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. It does not need any human intervention. 

However just because biodegradable does not need any human intervention, does not mean it having human intervention is not beneficial. The longer it takes to degrade, the larger the possibility of there being some toxins mixed in from other items. It is best when the process is done quickly in about 90 days.

This can be confusing because compostable and biodegradable do not have to always be separate. Many items are both compostable and biodegradable. Such as food scraps and dead plant matter like leaves, sticks old grass clippings, etc. 

Home Composting vs Commerical Facility

Some materials that degrade fast can be composted at home such as food scraps and brown items like leaves or small pieces of cardboard. Like all organic and biodegradable materials, they will break down on their own eventually (if not inserted into the landfill), but the process can be sped up when the right conditions are applied. 

Certain compostable items have to be composted in a professional facility and cannot be composted at home. This includes PLA products or other compostable packaging. This material is made out of vegetable starch and needs very high heat to break down.

Certified Compostable Cup
Image from Green Paper Products

Certified Compostable plastics may or may not say how it needs to be composted. General tip – if it looks like plastic, but is labeled as compostable return it to a professional facility, not your backyard compost heap. 

Many cities now offer home or local composting services. This is where you save all your compostable or biodegradable material and either have it picked up or drop it off to be professionally composted. Professional composting will keep the material at a high temperature (usually 140 F) for several weeks. 

Good Start Packaging has a great online tool to find a commercial composting facility near you. Other places that you may be able to bring your compost to are Farmer’s Markets and Community Gardens. Farmer’s Markets will usually have garbage bins for professional composting services where you can bring certified compostable plastics. Community Gardens are probably like your home compost if you do not want or not are able to compost at home.

Commercial Composting Facility
Commercial Composting Facility

How to Home Compost 

You can make composting at home as easy or as complicated as you want. The key is to mix greens with browns. As far as the ratio, it is recommended to do a 3:1 ratio, 3 parts brown to 1 part green.

But honestly who has time to get the ratio right? I just throw in whatever compost I have and always try to have a mixture of both. There is no need to overcomplicate your compost pile or make it more difficult. It will eventually break down.

You also do not need to mix or flip your compost, but it definitely does help to expedite the process. You can simply just combine them and let nature do the rest. If you live in a very dry area, it won’t hurt to water your pile since moisture does help with compost.

It is best to have at least two different piles/containers of compost. This way you can let one sit and decompose while you add to the other. If you just continuously add material, you will never get a complete product!

Several compost piles to
Importance of having several compost piles so you can let them decompose as you continue to add

Type of Compost Container

My compost bin is made of pallets and has chicken wire as ‘walls’. I also use a tin garbage can, but you will want to drill a bunch of holes to let air in. 

If you want to spend money, they make compost tumblers where you rotate your compost bin with a handle. It is pretty cool, but it does get very heavy!

Just like it is not worth it to make composting complicated, no need to make your container or where you put compost complicated. Many people living in rural areas just keep an open pile. This is super simple if you have the room.

Can you compost this? Common items people ask about

It is not always so back and white with certain items, unfortunately. Many items seem like they can be composted when they can’t and vice versa.

Are tea bags compostable

They can be! The contents of your tea (actual tea leaves, herbs, buds, flowers) are compostable since they are organic materials. 

Tea bags are made of either plastics, paper, or a combination of both. If the bag is shiny, then most likely plastic and unable to be composted. Filter paper is what is compostable.

Several tea bag brands use polypropylene, a sealing plastic. The glue that holds the bag together may contain microplastics.  Also, look out for staples (which are not compostable). 

Unfortunately, you are not able to always tell from the package if the teabag is compostable or biodegradable. Sometimes it will say that the tea bag itself is compostable, and sometimes (most often) it will not say anything. The Tasting Table lists some popular tea brands that do package their tea in compostable tea bags.

As the demand for more compostable items increases, hopefully, more companies will start to use compostable tea bags instead of plastics.

Are paper towels compostable

They are! They are made of paper (hence the name) so the material is compostable and biodegradable. 

If you are using them to clean up toxic materials you may want to reconsider putting them in your compost pile. This includes using them for things like chemical spills, paint, and toxic cleaners.  

Are coffee filters compostable

They are (including the coffee grounds too)! Both the white and the brown filters. While the white ones do contain bleach, sources indicate that the bleach most likely has dissolved by the time it reaches your coffee pot. 

Simply throw the entire filter plus ground coffee into your compost. The moisture from the coffee will also help with the composting process.

Composting Benefits 

I hope this article has inspired you to start composting at home or join a composting service! If not, here is a summary of the benefits of composting!

  • Improves soil structure
    • Adding compost to your soil helps to build soil particles making it easier to work with.
  • Helps the local economy
    • Commercial composting facilities create jobs!
  • Improves our food system
    • Healthier soil means more nutrient-dense food, less need for pesticides and chemicals, and more abundant crops!
  • Saves space from landfills
    • The EPA estimates that food waste takes up 24% of space in the landfill
  • Conserves water
    • Adding compost helps soil have the ability to retain water instead of it draining off
  • Reduces soil erosion
    • Compost helps to bind the soil together and increases its holding ability for water and other soil particles
  • Keeps our waterway healthy
    • Since compost reduces erosion, there will be less soil particles and nutrients in our waterways

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