BACKYARD COMPOSTING Tips for managing waste as a resource and bringing zero waste visions into reality. From your Friends at the MSU Surplus Store & Recycling Center.



  • Individuals waste nearly a pound of food each day.
  • Food is 14.6% of our waste stream.
  • Rotting food in landfills produce methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • (Source for above stats: MSU Food Waste Action Group, 2019)
  • One-third of all food produced worldwide is lost of wasted from farm to fork. (Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011)

Where does food loss and food waste happen?

  • Producers are responsible for 30% of food waste through selective harvesting, aesthetic standards and spoilage due to lack of storage.
  • Retailers are responsible for 10% of food waste due to overstocking, sell by versus use by dates, and oversized servings.
  • Consumers are responsible for 40% of food waste due to not using it in time, improperly storing it, or lack of accessible facilities.
  • (Source: MSU Food Waste Action Group)

Food Waste Hierarchy

Let's reduce food waste! Plan meals in advance, avoid overbuying, use proper storage methods, keep older foods at the front of the fridge or at eye level.If surplus food is produced, and you don't want to finish eating or can't save your leftovers, consider your options before scraping your plate.
  • REDUCE > "As the impact of food production on natural resources is enormous and increases while the food progresses on the food value chain, reducing food waste is by far the best way to reduce waste of natural resources." (FAO). If surplus food is produced, and you don't want to finish eating or can't save your leftovers, consider your options before scraping your plate.
  • REUSE > The best option is to find a way to get it to someone who needs it. If its not suitable for human consumption, the next best option is to feed livestock. In our day to day lives, the principle of reuse may be applied by donating surplus food to a food bank, feeding friends/family, or feeding animals when appropriate and safe to do so.
  • COMPOST > If feeding people or animals is not an option, the next best option is to compost food -- far better than dumping it in the landfill, where it will release methane gas.
Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story

View the trailer below. Watch the full movie on YouTube. Learn food waste reduction tips.


Composting: recycling organic waste into nutrient rich soil

  • Benefits:
  • Return nutrients to soil
  • Increase water retention
  • Minimize chemical fertilizer
  • Help balance soil pH
  • Reduce your landfill footprint!

Balance is necessary for successful composting. The key ingredients are:

  • Water
  • Air
  • Carbon rich material -- "the browns" -- Leaves, twigs, branches. Too much slows decomposition.
  • Nitrogen rich material -- "the greens" -- Grass clippings, food scraps. Too much causes odor.
Composting 101: What to put in your pile and what to leave out.

Living organisms help break down food

  • Bacteria do the bulk of the work, and are responsible for breaking down nearly 80-90% of the material.
  • Actinomycetes also help, and are what gives it the "earthy smell."
  • Fungi (mold and yeast) are important in breaking down woody material. They continue breaking down partially decomposed material.
  • Protozoa and Rotifers are found in water, and they eat bacteria and fungi.
"Decomposers in a compost pile are part of a complex compost ecosystem in which food, water, air, and shelter are provided by the material within the compost pile. If any of those essential ingredients are missing, the organisms either slow down or stop working altogether. This web of interdependence is the driving force behind the production of compost. Some organisms feed on decomposing plant materials, while others feed on other organisms. The two main categories of decomposers are chemical and physical decomposers." - NYC Compost Project
Decomposer Food Chain. Source: NYC Compost Project

Hot, cold, and "warm" composting: Choose your own adventure

No matter how much time you have (or the length of your attention span), there’s a composting style for everybody. World-renowned “hot” or “fast” compost pile, is exactly what it sounds like; core temperatures can range from 113 degrees to 160 degrees. “Warm” composting and the “hybrid” pile doesn’t get as hot, nor break down as quickly, but it’s respectable and requires very little attention. Then again, if you just want to toss it and fugheddaboutit, that works just as well, albeit it takes the longest amount of time to decompose. -- Chris McLaughlin, FineGardening

Cold composting is the set-it-and-forget-it method. It takes up to a year for the compost to be garden-ready, but it's easy! However, there is greater risk of odor because the decomposition isn't happening as quickly as in hot composting. So-called "warm" composting is a middle-of-the-road choice. This informal method involves periodic aeration (turning the pile with a shovel/pitchfork or turning the tumbler), maintaining s decent balance of "greens" vs. "browns," and keeping an eye on the moisture content. Hot composting is more of a science, as you're essentially working to create conditions suitable for bacteria. This method requires more TLC but gives you garden-ready compost far quicker than cold composting. (Read more about the Difference Between Hold, Cold, and Warm Compost Piles.)

What does it mean for compost to be cured? Why is that important when using the compost in the garden?

  • Curing is the maturation phase of the compost process. It prevents excess organic acids, unbalanced carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, and high salt contents, all of which can damage plants. The time it takes to cure depends on oxygen and moisture levels. It can be as short as a few months or take up to a year.
  • To create high quality and plant safe compost, the pile must undergo two main phases. The active phase consists of moderate-temperatures. Then the high-temperature phase sets in.
  • Phase 1: Soluble and readily degradable materials breakdown. This causes the temperature to rise.
  • Phase 2: The high temperature reduces harmful pathogens and accelerates the breakdown of proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates. Still, good compost is full of beneficial bacteria!
  • As the material is exhausted/depleted, the temperature drops back into the mid-range and curing begins.
  • Curing is important if you want to avoid transferring weeds from the composted material to your garden plot. (Tip: If you want to add weeds to your pile, try to pull the weeds before they have seed heads on them. And, when you pull them up, let their roots fry in the heat of the sun before tossing them in the pile.)


Waste Warrior Vicki Ballas, a Community Nutrition Instructor with MSU Extension, has been composting for 25 years. Below are her tips for keeping it simple while composting at home.

Photos by Vicki Ballas, Waste Warrior and MSU Extension Community Nutrition Instructor. 1 - countertop scrap collection bin. 2 - porch bucket to reduce trips to the pile in the yard. 3 - compost pile covered in snow.
  • Create a system that works for you (from kitchen to compost pile).
  • Find a kitchen container that fits on your countertop/under sink, can be opened with one hand, and has a good seal.
  • Place a bucket outside your door if pile is far from house.
  • When the kitchen container is full dump it in the bucket outside your door, when the bucket is full take it to the compost pile. This saves trips to the compost pile.
  • Consider putting some fresh food scraps in a container in your freezer to make veggie broth with (onion ends, carrot ends, potato peels, celery leaves & ends, herb stems, mushroom stems, peppers, etc..).
  • Select a space in your yard away from the house.
  • Some kind of containment is good, but not required.
  • If you are not going to turn the pile, three piles are needed. One for the current year’s food scraps, the second was last year's, and the third will be composted and ready to use the current year. Rotate through a three year cycle.
  • If you want to turn your pile throughout the year, then only one pile is needed.
ADD-TAKE-WAIT: The above photo is an example of a multi-year composting system. The pile on the right is the "add to" pile. The pile in the middle is the "take from" pile. The pile on the left is the "wait" pile. Without much intervention, a pile of compost will take about one year to become garden ready. The three bin system allows you to have a pile to take from to support plants and enrich gardens while still having a place to add material you want to compost and divert from the landfill. The "wait" pile ensures you will have a stock of garden-ready compost next year, too. The cycle continues over the years as you rotate through the three bin system.
Cut up your scraps into smaller pieces to assist with decomposition. (More surface area helps!)
Image: EPA


There are various ways to keep your pile contained. Here are a few SSRC staff use at home.

Chris H. made his compost bin from pallets and repurposed wood.


  1. Where should I put my pile/bin? Ideally, the site of your pile/bin will get some sun and some shade. Avoid standing water/find a spot with good drainage. As a general rule, the pile should be between 3 ft. square and 5 ft. square. If its too small, it may be a struggle to get it hot enough. So before you start dumping food scraps out back, get some yard waste together to begin building your pile and then add your scraps, and continue to maintain that balance of "browns" and "greens."
  2. How do I compost if I have mostly kitchen scraps? You will likely want to find a source of "browns," the carbon-rich material needed to balance the nitrogen-rich food scraps. Non-plant material options include shredded carboard or newspaper -- both are extremely high in carbon compared to their nitrogen levels. You could also talk with a neighbor about using some of their leaves to help balance your pile. Other material to seek out includes cornstalks, straw, woodchips, or sawdust.
  3. Do I need to add anything to the pile such as soil or fertilizer? Soil generally contains worm eggs and bacteria, so putting soil at the base of your compost pile can help it get started. Adding soil to an established pile can help keep pests under control. If you choose to add soil, don't overdo it. A general rule is to add 1 gallon of soil for every 10 gallons of compostable material you add (source: John Jeavons). If you do add it, make sure it is mostly dry.
  4. What do I do if the pile doesn’t heat up? A pile is considered "hot" when it is between 130 - 140° F. The temperature of the compost pile is driven by the bacteria working their magic, not the air temperature, so there are a few things you can do to increase heat. First -- Increase the volume. This naturally increases the temperature of the core. Second -- Increase nitrogen. Coffee ground are a common source of nitrogen. A blast of this material can help give your bacteria a boost. Third -- Try turning it more frequently -- this helps gives the bacteria air to thrive. Turn it about once a week. Too often will dry it out. Fourth -- Maintain moisture throughout. If it is summer, you might need to set up a tarp to create shade so the top doesn't get burned out (or keep a layer of "browns" on top).
  5. What do I do if the pile has an odor? Odor indicates that the pile isn't working as well as it should. It may be due to too much nitrogen or you might need to work on increasing the heat (see FAQ #2). Think back to what you have been putting in. Is it mostly food waste, and not much yard waste? If so, add more "browns" such as leaves to increase the carbon content.
  6. How can I compost in the winter? During the winter you'll likely keep producing food scraps ("greens") to add to the pile, but may not have much in the "browns" category. Keep a stockpile on hand be setting some aside during fall clean up. Otherwise, add in cardboard shreds or newspaper shreds to balance the input of nitrogen-rich table scraps. You might also consider placing a tarp over the pile to help insulate it and keep out excessive moisture, and/or move the bin (if possible) to a more sunny area of the yard. (Read more about winter composting).
  7. Should I be worried about bugs in my compost? The compost pile can be thought of as its own ecosystem. Bugs are normal and healthy for the pile. To avoid problem pests, make sure you're only adding allowable materials (no meat, dairy, heavy oils -- see above). Also be sure to turn your compost regularly to aerate for your bacteria and keep that balance of "browns" and "greens."


Once your compost has cured, you are the keeper of gold dirt! It's a rich material that feeds the plants and soil-dwelling organisms. Compost can be added to garden beds, combined with other material to make a potting mix, or tossed in the ground before planting trees or perennials.

To make a potting mix, combine one-part cured and screened compost, one-part vermiculite, one-part peat moss. Learn more about what each part does for plant production.

Give your plants (and our pollinators) some love by adding compost. Image Source: Best Plants, Gardening Know How, Pixabay.



Vermicomposting = composting with worms. Organic materials are converted into a nutrient-rich soil amendment suitable for farms and gardens

About a decade ago, Dr. John Biernbaum of the Horticulture Department created the Food Scrap Worm Composting (vermicomposting) Project to address excess food scraps generated at MSU dining facilities. In fall of 2020, as Biernbaum prepared to retire, he passed the torch the Surplus Store and Recycling Center, which is now the site of the campus vermicomposting operation. The Food Scrap Worm Composting Project compliments the Anaerobic Digester Project, a project designated to handle post-consumer food remains.

Peek Inside the Vermicompost Hoop House at SSRC

For years, MSU has been vermicomposting food scraps. Organic waste is collected from the back-of-house operations at residential dining facilities, Sparty's coffee shops, and select offices on campus.

Photos of food waste collection and the vermicompost operation, taken in spring of 2020, when it was operated by Dr. John Biernbaum.

In the summer of 2020, SSRC staff constructed a hoophouse for the vermicompost operation. It is "home, sweet home" for thousands of hard-working Spartan worms.

Construction of the hoophouse at SSRC in summer 2020.
Grow Green Vermicompost is a well-aged and stable soil amendment for plant growth for sale at the Surplus Store. It comes from pre-consumer food scraps (rinds, peelings, seeds, etc.) and coffee grounds from MSU dining facilities, mixed with leaves and other locally sourced dry organic material and briefly hot composted before being processed by red wiggler worms. Your plants will thank you for the boost!
Source: Dr. John Biernbaum



Are you a MSU staff/faculty? If so, it might be time to join the Waste Warriors! The Waste Warriors program of the MSU Surplus Store & Recycling Center cultivates waste reduction and the utilization of waste as a resource by training and empowering the MSU community to promote these practices among their peers. Designed to reduce the amount of waste disposed of on campus, the program builds knowledge and leadership by empowering individuals who are passionate about working with others and promoting action to champion goals outlined in the SSRC strategic plan.


Created with images by jag2020 - "seedling gardening greenhouse" • PublicDomainPictures - "garden flowers butterfly" • Pezibear - "green lettuce leaves garden"