Composting vs. yard waste

The City of Lexington provides gray carts for residents to dispose of their yard waste (branches, plant clippings, leaves, and grass). This yard waste is diverted from landfills and turned into mulch at the Haley Pike Waste Management Facility. 

Find out more about city yard waste services.

Unfortunately, kitchen food scraps cannot go in the yard waste bin because the mulch piles do not reach internal temperatures high enough for the scraps to decompose completely. As a result, the city currently does not have a permit for compost pick-up and recommends that residents compost at their own homes.   

A backyard or indoor compost pile is a great way to divert food scraps from the landfill, contributing to a healthier environment, and create free, nutrient-rich soil for gardening. Yard waste can and should be added to your compost in order to create a healthy ratio of 3 parts brown material to 1 part green material. Brown material includes yard waste items such as leaves, dirt, wood chips, while green material includes grass clippings and plants. 

Before you jump into composting, remember that reducing waste is always the best approach. Learn more about reducing food waste

Compost basics

Healthy compost should be a ratio of 3 parts brown material to 1 part green material. The brown material provides most of the carbon for the mixture and the green material provides the nitrogen. 

Brown material: Leaves, dirt, cardboard, paper bags, wood chips, wood ash, newspaper, straw, eggshells.

Green material: Fruits, vegetables, grass clippings, tea bags, coffee grounds, plants. 

Maybes: Some food scraps are more likely to attract pests than others. Your decision about whether to compost them may depend on the type/security of your compost pile. These “maybe” items include grains, pasta, bread and cereals.

Keep out of compost: Meat, fish, eggs (eggshells are fine), poultry scraps, dairy products, fats, grease, lard or oils, coal or charcoal ash, diseased plants, pet wastes (dog or cat), yard waste treated with pesticide, black walnut tree leaves or twigs, plastic-including plastics labeled compostable – those items require a higher level of heat and more intense processing than home compost piles offer).

Getting started

Composting doesn’t have to be complicated. It can take many forms, so don’t be afraid to get a bit creative. It can be housed in a home-made structure, a store-bought compost bin, or even just as a pile on soil without a container. You can reuse materials if you are constructing your compost bin, such as untreated pallets or old chicken wire. If you are more interested in buying a composter, consider supporting a local garden center. 

Whatever approach you choose, you’ll need easy access to the compost pile to turn it periodically, which will introduce oxygen and aid in reducing methane during decomposition. 

What size is best for me?

Generally, smaller households can get by with 5-to-10 gallon containers, while households with two to four members do well with 18-gallon containers.

Types of composting

Even after reducing food waste as much as possible, some waste will still occur. Here are some compost strategies to fit your individual needs and budget.

The open backyard pile or bin: The simplest and cheapest composting method. Designate an area of your yard for compost and build the pile there, either in a container or directly on the soil. Ideal for residents with outdoor space.

Pros:

  • Low cost, low maintenance
  • DIY-optional 
  • It only needs to be turned every two – four weeks

Cons: 

  • Aesthetically less pleasing than other methods
  • More difficult to “turn” compost than vermicomposting or compost tumblers
  • No protection from animals
  • Slowed composting in winter
  • Outdoor only

Tumbling bin: An off-the-ground container with a handle that makes turning the batch easy. Ideal for residents with outdoor space, including gardeners who want finished compost fast and those who want to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible.

Pros:

  • Harder for animals to get in
  • Makes a batch of compost fast (four – eight weeks)
  • More environmentally friendly
  • Turning the pile is much easier than the on-the-ground piles
  • Can be moved fairly easily


Cons:

  • Limited space (You may need a second, on-the-ground “stockpile” while you wait for the batch to finish.)
  • Can be more complicated to build
  • Relatively expensive to buy ($100 – $200)
  • Outdoor-only

Worm composting: Composting with worms creates an even more nutrient-rich, low odor compost than other methods. Ideal for those with little or no outdoor space, but a great option for anyone.

Pros:

  • Makes very nutrient-rich compost
  • The compost is finished quickly
  • No turning; the worms aerate the soil for you
  • Reduced odor
  • Indoor-friendly/year-round composting


Cons: 

  • Longer initial set-up
  • Some start-up costs

The continuous composter: An enclosed bin that can handle a variety of material from yard waste to food scraps, and can be added to continuously. Usually, there is a door at the bottom so that the older compost can be removed easily for gardening. Ideal for residents with outdoor space.

Pros: 

  • Harder for animals to get in
  • Can be bought or DIY
  • Room for lots of yard waste
  • Low maintenance


Cons:

  • Compost generated more slowly (only a couple times a year)
  • Harder to turn/less turning means more methane produced

Compost drop-off 

Seedleaf, a Lexington non-profit, accepts food waste for compost at their gardens across the city. They also hold composting workshops periodically. Contact them for details.

Composting glossary

Brown material: Leaves, dirt, cardboard, paper bags, wood chips, wood ash, newspaper, straw, eggshells, and other carbon-rich materials.

Compost: The nutrient-rich finished product when green materials and brown materials are decomposed with oxygen, microbes, and (in vermicomposting) worms. Referred to as “black gold” by gardeners, it can be used in gardens and on houseplants to promote healthy plant growth.

Green material: Fruits, vegetables, grass clippings, tea bags, coffee grounds, plants, animal waste (from herbivores), tea bags, and other nitrogen-rich materials

Mulch: Predominantly brown material (such as decaying leaves, bark, or compost) spread around or over a plant to enrich or insulate the soil. Mulch differs from compost in that compost is broken down more completely and contains and releases more nutrients for plants. Mulch insulates plants better. Yard Waste collected by LFUCG is made into mulch.

Nutrients: A substance or ingredient that promotes growth, provides energy, and maintains life. Compost is a nutrient-rich substance for gardening; mulch is not.

Reduce: Reducing food waste should be the first step we take to help the environment.

Yard Waste: Sticks, branches, brush, plant clippings, leaves, grass clippings, decorative pumpkins and gourds are all yard waste and can be placed in the gray carts provided by LFUCG.

Environmental benefits of composting

Landfill diversion: 28% of municipal solid waste (MSW) in landfills is food and yard waste, according to the EPA. These organic materials in landfills decompose into methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In many cases, the methane produced by landfills is simply burned off though it can be converted into energy. Well-managed compost piles allow for more oxygen in the decomposition process, which reduces methane emissions.

Improving soil health: A well-managed compost pile produces nutrient-rich soil that can be used in your garden. The benefits of using compost for gardening include retaining soil moisture, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, suppressing pests, and increasing the beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles: Vehicles emit greenhouse gases. Though it’s better to use your gray waste carts than send yard waste to the landfill, it’s even better to compost yard waste along with food scraps in your backyard. This lightens the load for city trucks hauling yard waste – and can even reduce the number of trips the trucks need to make to collect and deposit yard waste.  

Contact