Composting is a magic process where kitchen waste transforms into rich, black soil. Even those of you without one of these magical boxes in the backyard probably know that you can compost fruit and veggie peels, coffee grounds, and paper towels — but how about hair? Or clothing?
Read on for a list of the weirdest things you can pop in your backyard compost bin to become black gold.
1. 100% Cotton Balls and Q-tips
One of the strangest things I encountered when I recently took my zero-waste adventure was suddenly looking at everything in my life in a new light. I’d long ago switched out my cotton balls for washcloths, but I’d never thought about whether I could compost Q-tips — you can! One hundred percent cotton and cardboard Q-tips and cotton balls can be tossed into your compost bin and will get broken down by microorganisms and bacteria just like everything else.
Note: If your Q-tips have plastic stems, they don’t belong in the compost.
2. Dryer Lint From Natural Fiber Clothing
As soon as it’s even mildly warm outside, you’ll find me rushing outside with a basket full of wet laundry to hang on the clothesline. I like how meditative the process is, how fresh it makes my clothes smell, and I love the energy savings. I live in Canada, though, so there are many months where line-drying clothes would mean making T-shirt popsicles. Enter the dryer and its byproduct — dryer lint. To prevent fires, it’s always a good idea to clean out dryer lint after every load. But if your clothing is made up of 100% natural fibers (like organic cotton, linen, wool, and silk), you can collect it in a jar or a bowl and add it to your compost pile.
Note: Dryer lint is compostable only if all of the material you are drying is made of 100% natural fibers. Most clothing today contains synthetic fibers that are not compostable and actually pollute the environment. So before you start chucking dryer lint into the pile, make sure you’ve dried only items with natural fibers.
3. Coffee Grounds and Paper Filters
After brewing your morning cup, don’t throw out those grounds! Used coffee grounds and even paper coffee filters make a great addition to your compost pile; doing so is a great way to reduce waste. If you’re not a coffee drinker but you still want to be part of the movement to rescue coffee grounds from an untimely end, stop by your local coffee shop. Many coffee shops have started giving away used coffee grounds to avid composters just like you.
4. Fur and Hair
If you’re skilled (or broke) enough to do home haircuts, stop throwing the clippings into the trash! You can add hair, and fur, to compost piles instead. The material biodegrades quite quickly, and although pet hair and hair clippings probably don’t make up a huge portion of your weekly garbage bag, every little bit counts. Plus, any more incentive to get your hair done is a good one in my books!
5. Stale Food
When we think about composting, we typically think about fruit peels, veggie trimmings, and the limp lettuce at the back of the crisper. But your compost bin can also help you get rid of stale bread and crackers, expired spices, and plain rice or pasta. Next time you clean out your pantry, take a good look at what you’re throwing out! There’s a great chance that it could be composted, instead.
6. Paper and Cardboard
There’s really nothing weird about composting phone bills or cereal boxes. But I have always recycled paper and cardboard, rather than composting them. Call it a habit acquired from the many years of working in an office and not having a compost bin at home. But composting can also be a good choice for these items. Next time you need some additional brown materials to balance out the green materials in your bin, newspaper, plain paper, and cardboard can do the trick.
Bonus: For those concerned with identity theft, you know no one’s going to go digging through your compost bin.
Shopping secondhand means that my clothes are always a little worn when I get them and then I wear them out completely, so by the time I’m done with a pair of jeans or a shirt, there’s no chance of anyone else wanting them, either. I sometimes cut old sheets or T-shirts into rags, but I’ve always struggled with what to do with clothing that’s too old or stained to wear. Apparently, I could have been composting it! Clothing made from 100% natural fibers like cotton, wool, or silk can be put into your compost bin to biodegrade. (Remove buttons, zippers, snaps, and other non-compostables first.) Clothing can be quite bulky, so I’d use this option sparingly.
8. Natural Wine Corks
If you’d really like to hide the evidence of how much you love the vino, recycle (or reuse) the bottles and then throw the natural corks into the compost bin. The natural cork will biodegrade and no one will be the wiser.
Bonus: If you’re crafty, check out these wine cork crafts before sending the corks to rot.
9. Vacuum Debris
As long as there aren’t large pieces of non-compostable material in your vacuum debris (such as bits of plastic, twist ties, beads, and so forth), you can just add the contents of your vacuum cleaner bag or canister to your compost. Most household debris is made up of dust, dry skin, and hair — all readily biodegradable in your bin. If your vacuum cleaner bag is made from 100% paper, you can compost it, too. But beware, most of today’s HEPA vacuum cleaner bags are made from plastics like polypropylene, and you don’t want that in your compost.
10. White glue and masking tape
As the mom of a prolifically creative preschooler, it made me unreasonably happy to discover that white glue and masking tape didn’t mean that a piece of paper was necessarily destined for the trash. Arts and crafts are rarely recyclable, but when you use white glue and paper materials (or even 100% cotton balls), you can add a little culture to your compost pile by composting artwork.
Originally published on March 30, 2016, this article was updated in October 2022.