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Composting for Beginners

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

By Robyn

I used to think I was a good friend of the environment before I joined the Ann Arbor Zero Waste Initiative. I recycle faithfully, put leaves and branches out for yard waste collection, and always ask for paper bags at the supermarket. To my surprise I learned much of what we put in recycling ends up in landfill anyway, because it costs too much to recycle it. After collecting all my non-wet trash for a week in a box, I was astounded how much single use plastic I accumulated during that time.

What could I do better? Well, it’s good to know your limitations. I balk at switching from paper tissues to cloth handkerchiefs for example. I also can’t imagine washing my hair with a bar of shampoo, like a bar of soap. But I can give up liquid hand soap in favor of bar soap, bring my own bags to the supermarket, wash and reuse foil paper and plastic containers, buy things with less packaging, and stop ordering so many things from Amazon. I’ve also switched to drying with a cloth in my kitchen which saves paper towels.

But according to our Zero Waste Initiative leaders the most important thing we can do to combat climate change and help the environment is to start composting. All our food waste can end up in landfill, rotting and releasing carbons that contribute to the “greenhouse effect” and global warming. By composting we can return our food waste in a productive way to the soil. Growing plants absorb the nutrients from the earth and carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen.

How to start composting? It’s easy if you live in a single-family house in the City of Ann Arbor. You can order a 96-gallon composting bin from the city and they will pick up your compost once a month. I live in Ann Arbor Township, however, and had to figure out how to do it myself. At first, I recoiled from the idea, thinking composting involved rotting garbage and handling live worms. That turned out to be totally untrue. Master Composter Nancy Stone gave us a simple recipe:

Robyn and her compost bucket

Home Composting Recipe

Brown: 2/3 brown high carbon materials. Dry leaves are ideal. Also, straw, wood chips, and shredded paper.

Green: 1/3 green high nitrogen materials. Fruit and vegetable scraps, peels, plant cuttings, and coffee grounds.

Water: Add water to keep compost as wet as a wrung-out wash cloth.

Air: Turn compost once a week to aerate. Oxygen is needed to make compost. Use a garden fork.

Earth: Add a shovel full of garden soil to get your compost started

At the end of 3-12 months your compost will emerge as a brown, crumbly material, smelling like the woods after a rainfall. You can add compost as a layer around your plants, or as a nutritious addition to your garden soil for planting.

This recipe does not include fish, meat, bones, oil, or dairy products. Nancy does not recommend doing that in home composting because it can attract rats and raccoons. Compost for the City of Ann Arbor pick up can include these materials because their large-scale production grinds up all materials to the texture of coffee grounds and heats all materials to 160 degrees for a week, neutralizing harmful bacteria and food materials.

Always put poison ivy and invasive weeds like loosestrife in the trash, not your compost. Also, kitty litter and dog droppings.

It was February, so an outside compost was out of the question. Microorganisms go dormant in the cold and won’t make compost. However, I had an empty five-gallon bucket with a lid that once contained road salt.

I’m now two months into my first compost bucket in my laundry room and I’m on my way! An incredible number of orange peels, banana skins, vegetable stems, pineapple husks, and chopped onions have made it into my bucket. I live in the woods so have plenty of dried leaves to add to the pile.

So far, so good, no unpleasant smell at all, and the materials seem to be breaking down steadily. If your compost begins to smell, add more brown materials like dead leaves.

I don’t grind up my fruit and vegetable scraps in the blender as some do, but do chop up large pieces for faster decomposition. For more information how to compost, check out or call 734-994-7336.

In the Spring, I look forward to using my new compost to enrich my garden, revitalize my lawn, and grow beautiful flowers and herbs. Maybe I’ll get a larger compost tumbler for my garden when the weather is warmer. Happy Spring everyone!

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