Whether you’re composting in your own personal bin or scrap heap, or participating in your municipal organic waste collection program, composting is a fantastic way to reduce your household’s greenhouse gas emissions and to regenerate our depleted soils.
Why bother you might ask. Well, one of the most important reasons to compost is an environmental one – when organic matter like food scraps breaks down in a landfill, where there is no oxygen, one of the byproducts is methane gas. Methane (CH4) is then released into the atmosphere and is considered up to 20 times more powerful in its greenhouse effects than the same amount of carbon dioxide (CO2). According to the David Suzuki Foundation, “cutting methane emissions is one of the cheapest, easiest and most effective things that governments can do right now to tackle climate change.” It’s also one of the easiest ways you and your family can cut down on emissions too.
The good news is that diverting organic waste from landfills is not only relatively easy, it saves you and your municipality money by delaying the creation of new landfill sites. It also produces rich, nutrient and mineral filled compost, which can nourish your plants and gardens, for free. More good news is that you may not need to be limited to composting just apple cores, fruit skins and carrot tops, there are other lesser known options. To be fair, however, my toddler always delights in walking over his “nana” peel to the kitchen composter under the sink. It makes this mom’s heart melt.
So without further ado, below you will find a handy list of 16 things you can compost that you might not have thought about. For the record, I am writing this primarily from the perspective of someone who uses the City of Ottawa’s municipal organic collection system and all of these have been validated through the City’s Waste Explorer database. Many of these are also applicable to home compost heaps (and even for the intrepid vermicomposters), but if you’re uncertain, you should always double-check.
1- Dryer Lint
Dryer lint is composed a small particles of fabric that have broken down, mainly cotton and other synthetic materials. While cotton is a composting no-brainer, so are the other components of lint. That’s because the synthetic (read plastic) particles that are mixed into the lint are so small, they are already well on their way to being broken down to their smallest form. While the health impacts are unclear, Ottawa gives residents the green light to compost all forms of dryer lint, not just from cotton or organic clothing.
2- Coffee Filters and Grounds
Cleaning up after your morning coffee (which you make at home because it’s fresher and more frugal, #amIright?) need not contribute to more waste if you compost the paper coffee filter and grounds of your drip coffee maker. The paper easily breaks down into natural fibres, and the grounds contain rich plant nutrients that will supercharge your compost heap.
Beware: Just remember, don’t try to compost your K-cups or Nespresso pods – to my knowledge, they haven’t developed compostable ones yet. Nespresso does provide postage paid envelopes to return their pods for recycling, so they’re not entirely terrible, but neither are they frugal, nor a better choice for the environment because of the single-use nature of their pods.
3- Tea Bags
Tea bags, particularly the kind you can buy in bulk are another easily compostable item in your kitchen. Like the coffee filters and grounds noted above, they will be great additions to your compost heap.
Beware: if you decide to get fancy, remember to remove tags and staples attached to higher end teabags (you wouldn’t want to stick your finger into a sharp piece of scrap metal while gardening). Unfortunately, the more “prestigious” teabags that come in pretty little tents are often made of plastic meshes instead of a paper blend. Not only are these not compostable (though you should cut them open and retrieve the tea leaves), new research shows that they leach micro plastic into your beverage and are absorbed by your body. No thanks. While the exact impacts of microplastics on the body are still under investigation, I’d rather pass.
4- Paper Cups
Wax-lined paper cups, such those funny little cone receptacles you get from your dentist’s water-cooler (who came up with those, anyway?) are similar to most paper products — so long as they don’t contain any plastic linings, they can be composted.
In certain instances, like in Ottawa, it would appear that even the plastic lined ones can be processed in their industrial composting systems. This is likely because Ottawa recently introduced equipment that would allow residents to gather their compost in plastic bags. However, home composters should avoid including your favourite cup of Starbucks, Tims or even McDonald’s cola in your compost bin.
5- Paper Towels and Tissue Paper
Going through excessive amounts of paper towels is a North American obsession. Indeed, it would seem that a large number of us are averse to using kitchen rags and cloths, and prefer the ease and convenience of snatching a sheet of pristine spongy paper, wiping a mess and then tossing it out, never having to think about it again.
I’ll admit that I too am battling a long-time addiction to paper towels. To make up for it, I am working on keeping a stash of clean towels available in the kitchen at all times and reducing the amount of paper towels that I do use (getting the rest of the family on board with this one is still a work in progress).
When I do end up using a paper towel, where possible, I try to use only one per mess, often rinsing it and reusing it to complete the job. When it’s time to dispose of it, at least I know I can put it in my kitchen composter. Because paper towels are organic and not very dense, they will eventually decompose.
Beware: do not compost the paper towels you used to wipe chemical spills or household cleaners and sprays; these can contaminate the compost and eventual new soil, and no on wants to eat that. Better to put it in the garbage bin for safety reasons and try to minimize their use for such purposes where possible.
By the same token, you can also compost Kleenex, aka tissue paper, runny nose contents and all.
6- Hard Shells and Seeds
It may not look as though that walnut shell is ever going to decompose, but don’t worry, in time, it will. So will that cherry pit and avocado seed, eggshells too, so don’t through them out, just add them to your composter and be glad you’re diverting waste.
Depending on your collection system you can even compost animal shells such as oyster, clam, crab, lobster and other hard shells.
7- Parchment and Wax Paper
I often line my baking sheets and pans with parchment paper when I make lovely roasted vegetables or chicken; it’s not nearly as toxic as aluminium and less resource intensive for the environment. Another benefit? It is also easily compostable, as are the oils and drippings that it catches too!
8- Cupcake and Muffin Liners
It may not be one of the first things that comes to mind, but these paper-based food liners are another area in which we can reduce landfill waste; while stained paper products cannot be recycled into new paper, they can at least be returned to the natural compost cycle.
9- Hair and Nail Clippings
Not exactly the best segue to cupcakes, but did you know that you can collect your nail and hair clippings and toss them into your compost bin? They are made of organic materials and do turn back into soil over time. The same applies to your petès fur balls and that clump that forms at the bottom of your shower drain (ladies and pony-tailed gentlemen, you know what I’m talking about).
Did you know that original brand Q-Tips (cotton swabs used to clean your ears) are made from raw cotton and cardboard? Both of these can be broken down over time in a compost heap!
Beware: Be sure to use the original brand Q-Tip, or other similar brands that use rolled cardboard handles instead of the cheaper ones that are made of plastic.
11- Broom and Vacuum Dust
If you’re anything like us, with a toddler, a crawling infant and a cat, we run the stick vacuum and broom several times a day to pick up all of the crud that ends up on the floor, be it crumbs, hair, earth, dust or litter. All of these things are also great candidates for the compost bin as they are primarily organic materials. Where possible, pick out any plastics or foils that are in your vacuum’s path and compost the rest.
12- Chewing Gum
Whether you chew natural tree resins or are partial to the minty petroleum-based freshness of Excel gum (hey, I don’t judge), the good news is that you don’t have to stick it under your office desk or under your bus seat if you want to avoid sending it to the dump; you can compost these things too! While the synthetic gum will take quite a bit longer to compost than its more natural counterparts, both can be compost bin candidates, just make sure that they are acceptable to the method that you choose.
13- Wine Corks
Ok, I admit, after a long day running after the kids, I unwind with some well-deserved mommy juice. Now I don’t have to worry about the corks adding volume to landfills as cork is a naturally derived product that can be broken down in the compost heap.
Beware, however, because natural cork is in shorter supply, many producer have switched to metal screw caps (recyclable) and synthetic, plastic-based cork imitations, which are not compostable. The artificial kind will be a little shinier in texture and won’t disintegrate as easily when rubbed between your fingers, so please be sure to know which kind you have before you toss it into your compost bin.
If you use a fireplace to warm your home and have been wondering what to do with the heaps of ashes that accumulate in your hearth, wonder no more. Ashes are heaps of broken down carbon and other minerals that are easily available to plants as nutrients and thus candidates for your compost heap.
Beware, however, to go easy on applying ashes directly to your plants as ashes tend to have a high pH (which makes them basic) and can mess with the soils chemistry if you put too much. With that said, when combined to a large compost heap and more organic matter, it can be a welcome addition to any soil.
Another word of caution: please make sure your ashes are cold, you wouldn’t want to start a fire in your bin or heap.
16- Yard and Garden Clippings
While even the idea of gardens, trees, vines, and lawns seems distant and impossible in this frigid and snowy month of January, I would be remiss not mention these obvious compost candidates. Although it would be preferable to leave your grass clippings on the lawn to keep the nutrients close to the ground, any kind of plants that you clip, or weed that you pull can be returned to the soil and become more plant food through compositing. While you may quickly overwhelm you tiny kitchen composter by filling it with outdoor plant clippings, many municipalities do collect yard clippings in large paper (i.e., compostable) bags, and they well do well in your own personal compost heap.
By the same token, you can compost any houseplants (soil and all) that may not have survived, in the event that you have a brown thumb like I do (I sadly tend to murder more plants than I can count, but I persist, I have a pothos and a African violent that have managed to survive my abuse so I’m not entirely hopeless).
Depending on where you live and what composting method you choose to use, you may have an even wider range of options available to you when it comes to composting. For instance, Ottawa collects nearly all household organic materials including popcorn bags, meat, dairy, grease and bones, cat litter, dog feces and animal bedding. Not every municipality will do so, and most home composters should avoid these products in their compost bins as they can attract parasites and spoil the soil if not processed very carefully.
Things like 100% cotton, linen, silk or wool fabrics are biodegradable, and if cut or shredded into small pieces are compostable, however they may not be accepted by municipal compost programs in their garment form (Ottawa does not accept these).
And, unfortunately for families of young children who may go through large amounts of wet wipes, these also tend not to be accepted as compostable items, even the Tencel ones, as they may taken an extraordinary amount of time to decompose and may not be broken down quickly enough for a municipal compost cycle.
When in doubt, then, do some research to adapt these tips to your won situation.
So there you have it: 15 things that you can compost in Ottawa and that are very good candidates for most home compost heaps as well. As always, when in doubt, be sure to double check the Waste Explorer site, or look up your own home composting technique’s dos and don’ts.
I’d love to hear about your experience as well. Are you in Ottawa and have comments about this list? Are there things that you compost that should be on here? what are some of the challenges you face when composting or thinking about composting. Let me know in the comments below.