Debunking Composting

Banana Peel

Here at MSLK we’ve been feeling a little guilty about throwing our fruit and vegetable scraps in the trash, but haven’t quite felt ready to dive into the world of composting. From what we’ve heard, it can be a complicated, messy and (worst of all) stinky process… especially for us city dwellers. So this Wednesday, Marc and I headed over to the Queens Botanical Garden to get the real scoop. We found that city composting isn’t as difficult as it’s cracked up to be. And after hearing some alarming statistics about the trash we produce in this town, we’re more than ready to roll up our sleeves.

The recently renovated Queens Botanical Garden was the perfect setting for our talk. The visitor center holds claim to being the greenest building in all of New York City. Definitely worth a visit.

Queens Botanical Garden

There is an ongoing debate about the benefits of industrial composting versus home composting, but since it looks like New York City won’t be funding industrial composting anytime soon, this post focuses on what we can do individually.

Trash Facts

If you haven’t already heard, New York City has a huge trash problem. We produce far more trash than we can process and accommodate. Each person in this city of 8 million is responsible for producing approximately 5 pounds of trash per day. Half of that is organic waste andabout 1 pound can be composted at home. As I previously touched upon, organic waste doesn’t decompose in a landfill. The banana peel that you threw in the trash yesterday will remain underground in a landfill hundreds of years from now. For sanitary reasons, landfills are contructed as containers that hold trash in tact without degrading.

The life cycle of trash in New York City involves a lot of transportation. After the Department of Sanitation picks up the trash from the curb, it goes to processing plants where it gets sorted and compacted. From there, it gets trucked across the country to a landfill as far away as Georgia.  We can reduce up to 8 million pounds of that trash per day with home composting.

Composting Basics

The actual act of turning waste into compost is made possible by three things: fungus, bacteria and invertebrates (worms, millipedes, slugs, etc.), otherwise known as the FBI. The FBI, in turn, need four things to survive: water, air, shelter (your compost bin), and food (your organic scraps).

You’re going to want to separate your waste into two categories: greens and browns. You’ll need both to compost, and the key to sucess is the balance of the two. Here is an example of greens and browns.

Greens = vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, green yard waste

Browns = bread, rice, dried yard waste, shredded paper (newspaper is great), leaves, dryer lint

Things not to compost = meat (this is compostable, but in home composts it smells bad and attracts maggots), anything fried or oily (this includes salad dressing), colored or glossy paper,  any plastics marked “compostible” (these will likely only break down in an industrial compost)

Outdoor Composting

You have two choices when it comes to composting: indoor or outdoor. There are pros and cons to both, but ultimately if you live in the city it comes down to whether or not you have a backyard. If you do, read on. Otherwise skip below.

The main benefit of outdoor composting is not having to deal with the bin in your house. You can have a bigger bin and not have to worry about fruit flies outside. Plus (for the squeemish), it’s wormless. That’s not to say you won’t find worms and other creepy crawlers in your compost outside, but you don’t have to add worms, as you do to indoor bins.

Outdoor Compost Bin

The Clif Notes version of outdoor composting involves purchasing an outdoor bin  and finding a place to put it. The bin shown above is subsidized by the city, and costs $20. If you’re handy with a hammer and nail, you may want to consider building one to custom fit your space. Once you have your bin, the most important thing is to make sure to include an equal mix of greens and browns (in volume, not weight). Anytime you add new greens, make sure to cover them with browns. From there, it needs to be aerated every two weeks to maintain a consistent moisture. You can do this simply using a shovel or pitchfork to move the waste. The composition should always feel like a wrung out sponge.

Indoor Composting

If you don’t have access to a backyard, you’re relegated to indoor composting. The pros include not having to turn or airate the bins (worms do that naturally). The biggest con is having to find a place for it in your house. Of course, you will have to deal with worms, but they’re essentially harmless, and they’ll be contained within the bin.

Red Wiggler Worms

For this, you’ll need to purchase an indoor bin (making sure it has air holes) and send away for some red wiggler worms. The indoor bins look like large tupperware containers – finding a permanent spot for your bin might be the most challenging part of the process. Fill your bin with shredded paper to the top (not packed). Moisten paper using a spray bottle, again to the consistency of a wrung out sponge. Dump in your red wrigglers, and start adding your waste! It’s important to note, never bring outdoor waste into your indoor bin. There could be bugs or eggs attached that could reproduce and wreak havoc on your home. Instead, use torn paper or dryer lint as your brown base. You don’t need to abide by any brown/green ratio for indoor composting. Just be sure to always cover greens with browns.


The time it will take to convert your waste to compost will depend on a lot of variables. If you’re using an outdoor bin, the process will be expedited by sunshine and in the summer months. Your green to brown ratio and the amount of aerating you do will also factor in. The test to see if your compost is fully composted is to stick a handful in a ziplock bag. If it stinks after 5 days, it’s not fully composted. Compost and the process of composting should not smell if done properly (I relunctantly confirmed this statistic). The finished product smells like dirt.

Compost Doesn’t Smell Bad

For your indoor bin, you’ll need to separate the the compost from the worms. The best way to do this is to push the compost over to one side of the bin and start a new compost in the other half. Technically if you’re not adding new waste to the compost side, the worms will migrate over.


Compost is extremely high in nutrients. Once it’s ready, you can mix it with soil to use on your garden or indoor plants. The compost to soil ratio for indoor compost is 1:2; for outdoor compost, it’s 1:1. If you have more compost than you can use, you can donate it to community gardens or put it on street trees that lack nutrients (just be sure not to put the compost too close to the trunk of the tree, which is a common mistake).

If any of you have experience with city composting, we’re dying to hear! Check back for updates on MSLK’s foray into the world of composting.