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Composting 101: How to compost with or without a yard

Your trash might actually be treasure — in an environmental sense, that is.

According to the EPA, food and yard waste makes up to 20 to 30 percent of what we throw away, and all of that can actually be composted into a rich organic material that can help your garden grow. It’s not only good for the environment (taking this material out of landfills can help reduce the amount of methane released in the air), but it’s also a fun project for your home.

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“When you see it done first-hand, it’s addicting,” said Justin Young, nutrition education director for High Plains Food Bank in Amarillo, Texas. He and his wife have been composting for years both at home and for work where they run the garden for the food bank. Seeing as though a huge chunk of America’s waste is food product, composting is something that Young encourages people to try.

Interested in doing it? Here’s what you need to know about the process:

If you're composting in your yard

Talk to your neighbors

“If you’re going to be composting outside, talk to your neighbors if you think they’ll have problem with it,” Young said. Sometimes there is a smell, although if you’re tending to it properly, there shouldn’t an odor.

“You can also see if they’d be interested in doing it with you,” he said. “You can benefit more by working with the people around you.” For example, if you have a lot of carbon-rich yard waste and not enough nitrogen-rich food waste, it could mess up the ratio (which we’ll get to in a second), making it harder for it to compost.

Choose your bin

Stephania Stanley / TODAY

You can buy a composting bin, or Young says there are some cool ideas for DIY'ing your own online.

“Just make sure you have proper ventilation,” he said. “Otherwise, you could kill off the bacteria that’s needed for the process.” He also advises not to put the bin anywhere near pests, such as next to a mouse-infested abandoned house.

Start layering

Stephania Stanley / TODAY

An easy way to remember this step is there are green and brown layers and you’re going to want to alternate between the two. Green refers to things that are high in nitrogen, so your plant-based kitchen scraps, grass, weeds, etc. Brown refers to things that are carbon-based, so dead leaves, wood chips, straw, etc.

“You’ll read about a million different ratios people suggest,” Young said. “But you can make this process as fast or slow as you want by using different ratios of materials. The more diversity of materials you use, the better.”

RELATED: How to start composting at home: A guide for beginners

He and his wife teach people to do a simple 50/50 ratio, putting a green layer, then a layer of brown, and keeping it moist with water (it should feel like a wrung-out sponge). Keep a small composting pale that sits on your kitchen counter and add scraps daily to the pile outside, making sure to cover them with a layer of brown to avoid attracting pests.

One note: Beginners should avoid adding meats and dairy to the pile as pests and odor could be a problem if it’s not the right temperature. Also bread takes too long to compost and can attract critters.

Stir it

Once you build the pile, with the right ratio of carbon, nitrogen, air and water it will start to heat up. “You can either just keep checking it or put a meat thermometer in there to watch the temperature climb,” Young said, adding that it should get up to 140 to 160 degrees. “When the temperature starts to fall, stir it and it’ll heat up again.” Keep repeating this process.

Harvest it

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When the pile stops heating up, it should be done, says Young. It should look like dirt — dark brown and crumbly with an earthy smell (so… not like food waste). Highly managed systems such as the Berkeley method can be complete as soon as 18 days, or if you just pile it up and wait, it can range from months to a year depending on how much rainfall you get and what the pile consists of.

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If you're composting without a yard

Check for city-sponsored programs

Many places, including New York, San Francisco and Boston, have a community compost program where the city will provide bins that you can drop off your scraps. If you’re doing this, get a small composting bin for your kitchen and use special compostable bags (such as BioBags) to line the container.

Make your own compost bin

Stephania Stanley / TODAY

There are many options for composting in your apartment — no yard required.

The Internet is filled with apartment-appropriate composting options, including this EcoCrock bin and this Bambeco pail. Here’s a DIY guide for creating your own using a container, some soil and newspaper. And if you’re feeling brave, you can create one with composting worms which Young and his wife do. Here’s a detailed guide to doing this.

RELATED: 5 indoor houseplants you can't kill (unless you try really, really hard)

“Start small and go slow,” Young said about this method. “It’s really easy to go online and see a special on 50 pounds of worms and get excited, but you want to figure out how your system is going to fit into your lifestyle. Collect the stuff you plan on putting in for a couple of days to figure out the average amount you would be adding daily. Composting worms will eat their body weight every day, so you should purchase the same amount of worms as waste you collect,” he said, adding that you can always increase the number of worms later on. One more note about the red wigglers, as they’re called: Young says they don’t like spicy things, so hold back from feeding them things like jalapenos, garlic, or onions.

Use bin contents for pots or take to your community compost center

When composting in your apartment, you have a few options as to how you use the contents.

Once a week, you can take your bin to your community compost center to empty it out. Compost created at the community bins often goes to parks, gardens and other areas where you and those around you can enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Stephania Stanley / TODAY

If you prefer to use the compost yourself, then you'll need to wait for the waste to turn into soil. At that point, feel free to add it to your plant pots. We'd even recommend trying out using your soil with any of these plants you can't kill (unless you try really, really hard).

Stephania Stanley / TODAY
Stephania Stanley / TODAY

The bottom line? There are so many different variations of composting, and you’ll find the best method for you once you jump in and start trying it. Not only is it a fun way of working together as a family, but you’re also helping out the environment and making some great compost that can be used as nutrients for your plants or donated to a local community garden.

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