How to compost

Decomposition is a natural process occurring around us all the time. Nature will create compost as long as you provide it with waste to break down. Ambitious composters can help this process along by monitoring the contents of their compost pile, keeping it moist, and turning it frequently. The less ambitious can simply create a pile, add plant waste to it, and let nature do the work.

Source: Ypsilanti District Library

Step One: Choose a location.

Look for a site for your composter or pile that is convenient to get to, but unobtrusive. If you want to add to your pile in the winter, don’t put your location too far from the house. Most backyard compost piles are between 3-6 feet wide and 3-6 feet tall.

Step Two: Purchase or build a bin.

A bin isn’t strictly necessary, if you have the space all that’s needed is a pile. The advantages of a bin are that it keeps your pile out of sight if you live in a residential area and can help keep unwanted animals out of your pile.

When choosing a bin, consider how quickly you want the compost. Turning will speed the process and a composter with multiple bins will allow you to turn the compost simply by moving it from one bin to another.

NWSWD offers composters for sale at cost. You can also purchase bins from local retailers, or build your own. Follow the links below for instructions on constructing a bin or pen. An overview of container options from the New Brunswick Composting Handbook. The University of Missouri has instructions on how to build several styles of composter from a turn-able barrel composter to a simple pen, as does Montana State University. If you have access to wooden pallets, follow these easy instructions on making a compost bin from pallets.

The Soil Saver is made from 100% recycled plastic and is available at-cost from most of our drop-off sites ($45.00)

Step Three: Gather your materials.

While anything organic can be composted, it is recommended that home composters do not add pet waste, human waste, or any meat or dairy products to their bins.  Meat and dairy will attract animals you may not want to your yard, while the pet and human waste can contain microbes that you don’t want in your pile.

What you do want in your pile are vegetable and fruit remains, along with leaves, pulled weeds and grass clippings.  Ideally, composters balance the amount of carbon rich and nitrogen rich materials in the pile.  But you can still be a lazy composter and simply add items when you have them.  It will all compost in the end.

A simple way to balance carbon and nitrogen is to mix food scraps and grass clippings with an equal amount of leaves.

The EPA has a list of items you should and shouldn’t add to your compost pile.

Step Four: Wait.

It is recommended that you turn your pile periodically and monitor moisture levels, making sure to keep the pile damp.  Some compost bins feature helpful designs that make this process easy.

Step Five: Use your compost.

Compost can be used wherever there is soil. Add it to your garden or houseplants, or an area of your lawn that needs additional nutrients. Compost is an excellent replacement for conventional fertilizers, since it reduces run-off and aids in water retention, along with attracting beneficial organisms such as worms to your garden or lawn. Simply mix compost in with the regular soil.

Compost can also be added to contaminated soil to reduce contamination.  It’s also useful for reducing erosion.

More on composting

Compostable Plastic Bags

While compostable plastic bags have been touted as a big part of the answer to our plastic problem, a combination of chemistry and dishonest marketing sheds light on their unviability. The “compostable” label found on the vast majority of so-called “eco-friendly” plastic bags typically refers to the bag’s ability to be processed and broken down in an industrial composting facility, not in soil. Compostable plastics are still plastics, regardless of their sourcing, and they break down into microplastics, which are harmful to both humans and the environment.
This is why compostable bags and containers are not accepted in our compost program. The little green compostable bags often found in totes and buckets around town end up in the soil at Hudak Farm, where they will sit for years, possibly even decades, before they ever break down. Instead of plastic bags, we ask that paper bags be used in food scrap buckets whenever possible. If plastic/compostable plastic bags must be used, please use them only for transporting your scraps.

PLU Stickers

Unfortunately, produce stickers (also known as PLU stickers) are NOT compostable or biodegradable. These stickers are typically composed of a thin layer of plastic (usually vinyl) and an adhesive. Vinyl and other thin plastic films do not break down in soil. Because of this, PLU stickers are a major source of contamination in our Close The Loop Program as well as in many backyard compost piles. By definition, they are microplastics. Please remove all PLU stickers before composting your produce!

Benefits of composting

Composting is something we can do to help nature recycle valuable nutrients back into the soil. But besides nutrient cycling, composting plays a vital role in addressing problems in our solid waste management systems. A landfill is a closed environment where decomposition happens slowly, if at all. This is what is referred to as an anaerobic condition – meaning no air or oxygen. When organic material is buried in this type of environment, anaerobic microbes decompose the materials and produce smelly gases and acidic liquids. One byproduct of this process is methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84x more potent than CO2 when measured over the course of 20 years. If we keep organic materials out of the landfill, we can curb these toxic outputs while also conserving vitally important landfill space!


Compost can be used as an alternative to conventional fertilizers! This allows you to maintain nutrient-rich soil without having to spend money on synthetic fertilizers. Not only are you diverting waste from the landfill, you’re providing yourself with an excellent soil amendment which can be used to grow your own food.

Troubleshooting your composting pile

Though composting is usually pretty easy, problems can occur. Call NWSWD at (802) 524-5986 and someone in our office would be happy to troubleshoot with you. Or, email us at

There’s lots of good information on the web, too. Here’s a great beginner’s guide to composting from Central Vermont Solid Waste District that includes troubleshooting tips. Also, here’s a pretty detailed table of troubleshooting information from Louisiana State University.

Vermicomposting (composting with worms):

This beginner’s guide to composting from Central Vermont Solid Waste District has an introduction to vermicomposting. Additionally, there is a plethora of more detailed information of the internet.

(Keep in mind that the aforementioned websites contain some information that is area-specific to other parts of the country. Please, contact us with any questions that you might have.)

Additional Resources

The best guide to home composting that we have found on the web is made by the province of New Brunswick. It’s an easy to read, comprehensive guide for those who would like more detailed information about composting.

The University of Illinois has a guide to Composting for the Homeowner.

Fascinated by the science of composting or intrigued by the potential applications? Visit the Cornell Waste Management Institute for some of the most up-to-date science on composting.

You can also become a Master Composter. Similar to the program for Master Gardeners, the Master Composter program will teach you all the ins and outs of composting, and it makes an excellent supplement to Master Gardener education. Find out more at the Vermont Master Composter website.

Vermont Composting Association has additional information about composting in Vermont.

Locations thru-out United States to bring compostable materials click on