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A beginner’s guide to composting in Boston

If Abby Edelstein — who was 5 when this picture was taken in 2015 — can compost, so can you.
If Abby Edelstein — who was 5 when this picture was taken in 2015 — can compost, so can you.(Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe/FILE)
If you’re schlepping more than one garbage bag to the Dumpster each week, you’re probably not composting. But you really should be, especially in Massachusetts.

“Food scraps are a huge percentage of the trash that gets thrown out everyday,” says Boston Building Resources’ director of communications, Deb Beatty Mel, who cut her weekly trash output in half when she began composting at home.

Food makes up one-quarter of our state’s trash, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. That means your biodegradable apple cores and coffee filters are needlessly stinking up landfills, driving up expenses for trash pickup, and yes, hurting the environment.

But for novices, composting can seem like a daunting endeavor. Common concerns are that it’s smelly (composting actually de-stinks and lightens your trash), expensive (you’ll actually save money on trash pickup and shrink your carbon footprint), and dirty (well . . . it is dirt).

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The truth is that composting is easy and mutually beneficial for the earth, your wallet, and your home — and there’s probably a cost-efficient option that fits your lifestyle, whether you live in a tiny apartment downtown or you simply never want to touch a compost bin (no judgment). Here’s everything you need to know about composting.

WHAT GOES INTO COMPOST?

“Composting is a way of managing nature’s recycling system of decomposition, which naturally converts organic material into humus,” says Ann McGovern, consumer waste reduction coordinator at MassDEP. Any natural material is compostable, from yard waste like leaves and grass, to food scraps like fruit cores, vegetable peels, and eggshells.

For efficient composting that will finish (i.e. fully break down) in about two months, the magic recipe is “three parts brown to one part green,” McGovern says. “Browns are anything high in carbon,” like leaves, paper bags, straw, hay, coffee filters, sawdust, or wood chips. “The green materials are the more moist, higher-nitrogen-type materials, Mel says, like grass clippings, weeds, and fruit and vegetable scraps. Avoid animal byproducts — they’re compostable, but stinky.

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The key is to strike the right balance: “If you have too much brown, then it won’t decompose,” Mel says. “If you have too much green, then you get the smell.” It’s also important to keep your compost moist, but not dripping, or it won’t decompose properly.

Don’t panic: “It’s really a forgiving process,” Mel says. No matter what you do, your pile will compost eventually. “It happens in nature all the time. All that we’re doing by balancing the greens and browns is optimizing the natural process.”

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO COMPOST?

There are countless ways to compost, but for an outdoor pile, you’ll traditionally need:

“A 3-foot square outside where the worms and the beetles can do what they do so well and break material down,” Mel says. A 3-foot-by-3-foot area is the optimum size because it heats up and composts faster than smaller areas. The space should be accessible and shady with good drainage.

A compost bin, which keeps out pests and helps expedite decomposition by retaining heat and moisture. McGovern suggests “containers that are rodent-resistant, which means they have a floor and a cover, and openings that are less than a half-inch.” These bins can be made with anything from chicken wire to garbage cans with drainage holes drilled in — but most cities and towns sell dedicated compost bins at a discount, too.

A collection bucket for your kitchen,” Mel says, “so as you’re cooking, the eggshells and carrot peels can go into your countertop collection bucket.” This bucket of food scraps is what will likely comprise the bulk of green material, keeping your trash lighter and fresher.

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A pitchfork or similar tool to stir your pile with — otherwise, you’ll end up with poor aeration, which can lead to anything from matted, clumped leaves to a pile of food scraps for critters to investigate.

Give your pile a stir each time you add to it to aerate, deter pests, and keep your compost nice and balanced so “you can have finished compost in two months,” Mel says, at which point she says, “it’s a great resource for plants and healthy soil.”

Cambridge is leading the way, becoming the first community in the state to enact universal composting, and has seen promising early results, cutting its trash levels by 10 percent.
Cambridge is leading the way, becoming the first community in the state to enact universal composting, and has seen promising early results, cutting its trash levels by 10 percent.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file)

ARE THERE ALTERNATIVES TO OUTDOOR COMPOSTING?

In urban areas around Boston, it can be difficult to find adequate square-footage in an apartment, let alone outdoors. Luckily, you don’t need that 3 square feet of yard to join the composting movement.

Vermicomposting is a fancy way to say “worm bucket,” an indoor bin with soil and earthworms into which you toss compostables, instead of heading outside to do the same.

Worms aerate the composted material to help speed up decomposition, and “it’s surprisingly unnoticeable,” says McGovern, who has a discreet vermicompost bin in her house. McGovern says many people keep their bins in a basement or garage — but if you just can’t stomach the idea of tucking away a bucket of worms in your house, there are more options.

Food scrap pickup services: There are currently 10 municipalities through Massachusetts that offer curbside food scraps pickup, but if your town isn’t one of them, there are private services that will retrieve your compostable materials and do the dirty work offsite. That means you can chip in without ever tending to a compost pile.

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“We provide our customers with a clean, 5-gallon bucket and a compostable liner with a tight-fitting lid,” says Andy Brooks of Bootstrap Compost, a pickup service based out of Jamaica Plain. It’s like an organic garbage day: Customers simply put out a full bucket of food scraps and receive a clean receptacle in return.

Bootstrap sorts through the scraps and compostables and doles them out to various local businesses, from organic farms to composting facilities. Since 2011, Bootstrap has diverted approximately 3,419,042 pounds of food scraps from landfills.

That kind of effect is palpable. “It can seem like a little drop in the bucket,” Mel says, “but if everyone composted, we would really cut our solid waste burden down substantially.”

For more information on how to compost in Massachusetts, visit the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s website.


Jessica Teich can be reached at jessicarteich@gmail.com.