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What Can You Compost? What Can You NOT Compost? Composting Checklists

A wooden crate used as a composting bin.

Every hippy on the planet jumps for joy when another person decides to start composting their food scraps. There isn’t one single negative attribute to composting. It helps the planet by making people less reliant on industrial waste management, lessens the load of landfill waste, and ends up being the best possible food to give your plants.

Not to mention it is pretty cool to be directly involved with the life cycle of the products you personally grow or purchase from the grocery store.

We’ve created a list of Do’s, Maybe’s, and Don’ts of composting for newer compost-ers. Welcome to the club!! Some of these items you may be familiar with, and others may be completely new and surprising to you.

Related: Types of Composting Bins | Imperfect Zero Waste practices | Questions Homesteaders Should Ask Themselves | What is Composting For | Principles of Permaculture 

What can you compost? 

Many of these you’re going to be familiar with, but there are a couple (with stars next to them) that I found to be personally surprising, and would have never thought to put in my compost bin!

A look at organic garbage material perfect for composting.

  • fruit & veggie scraps – this includes cores, peels, pits, leaves, roots, rinds, seeds, stems, onions etc
  • rotting fruit & veggie scraps – these are already decomposing, and no sense in letting them go to waste!
  • stale bread, crackers, cookies, cereals, etc
  • herbivore poop (from your pets, don’t go scavenging for deer scat like a weirdo) this introduces plenty of nice nitrogen to your compost
  • coffee grounds & tea leaves + their filters & bags – just not too much or else it will add too much acidity to the mix
  • paper towels & napkins + tubes and boxes – a trick to get them to decompose faster is to either snip them up quite small or wet them!
  • paper bags, pizza boxes, other cardboard boxes – put all those covid-amazon purchase boxes to good use and turn them into goop!
  • cotton balls, cotton swabs, loofahs, dryer lint – be weary of cotton swabs with plastic stems
  • old clothes and linens (make sure they’re not too heavily dyed)
  • hair, nail clippings, and any other tasty stuff that humans or pets shed off their personal
  • animal bones – ensure this is picked quite clean, we don’t want to introduce a maggot infestation
  • seafood shells – if you’re lucky enough to have crab for dinner, chuck these right into the bin! Maybe crunch them up for quicker decomposition
  • eggshells – same deal, these are great for compost, but crunching them up will help them decompose faster
  • plant-based waxes – these are usually made from either beeswax or soybean wax, either way, crumble them up to make for easier decay
  • wine corks * – rather surprising! You would never have thought to put a cork in a compost bin, would ya? Snip these up into smaller pieces
  • flat beer, soda, or wine * – also rather surprising! The yeast in beer and wine is actually a compost activator and can really get things cooking
  • garden clippings – make sure they aren’t diseased! You don’t want that sickness spreading to the rest of your garden
  • natural grass clippings – make sure they’re untreated, as pesticides could really damage plants that are fed compost

What can be composted but needs extra effort?

Organic kitchen waste being dumped on soil.

The following items are suggested for people who are willing to pay a little bit more attention to what they’re putting into their compost. The rule of thumb for these is that small amounts will be fine, but overdoing it can really delay the decomposition process, or attract unwanted critters to the bin that will scatter compost all over the place.

  • spoiled dairy products – I don’t need to tell you that sour milk smells bad. This will transfer to your compost (which usually smells A-ok!) and attract pests to the bin. Small, spread out quantities are okay, but don’t dump an entire milk jug
  • spoiled meat products or leftover meat – same deal as the dairy, only we get the added bonus of a maggot infestation. Small portions will do, but try to bury it deep in the center of the compost pile
  • oils & fats – this includes, olive, coconut, canola, sunflower, and all the other crazy oils they make these days. Large quantities of oil interfere with the decomposition process by created a water-resistant barrier. Compost needs water and air to decompose properly, and the oil prevents that interaction. Again, small amounts are not a big deal.
  • latex * – this one was a little bit surprising. Turns out that latex itself is derived from flowering plants! This makes latex biodegradable, but much of the time synthetic additives are incorporated for stretchiness or lubrication. Just check the box of your latex gloves or condoms to see if they’re all-natural.

What can you not compost?

Incorporating the following items into your compost can be detrimental to its decompositional activity, to the health of the compost which you will then be fed to your plants, which in turn will feed you. They are easily avoidable if you’re paying attention.

A look at a wooden compost bin in the yard.

  • diapers – these are found in compost bins all the time! Only certain brands are marked as being biodegradable, and even then, that can only be done on an industrial level with precise temperatures and humidity levels
  • cat & dog poop – you may think that your pet’s poop will act as fertilizer just like cow manure would, but feces from carnivorous animals actually can introduce dangerous pathogens to your compost mix. These are things you wouldn’t want your plants to eat!
  • weeds – you won’t want these in your compost bin just as much as you wouldn’t want them in your garden. Weeds will just grow in the compost mix and end up seeding and spreading right back to your garden
  • diseased plants – this is the same concept as introducing weeds to your compost bin. Parasites and bacteria can only be destroyed with super high temperatures, and so they’ll just end up infecting your garden again
  • with treated wood – this includes varnished, painted, and stained wood too. Plywood, wood chips, and sawdust are treated with chemicals that bind them together, and these are products you do not want your plants ingesting
  • treated grass clippings – if you’re aware of pesticides or herbicides being used on your lawn, don’t put those clippings in the compost bin. If you wouldn’t swallow it as is, neither will your compost bin
  • wax – nonnatural waxes are actually made from fossil fuels. Coal or petroleum when refined produces a waxy substance, and this is what a lot of day-to-day wax is made from. We don’t want fossil fuels in our backyard!
  • bioplastics – it’s super awesome to see take out containers are starting to be made as biodegradable, but what they don’t tell you is that this can only actually happen on an industrial scale. They have specific processes in place with set temperatures and humidity levels to help them decompose, and even then it still takes years
A wooden compost bin with ready to use soil.

This is what your compost should look like when it’s ready!