Compost pile

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 coffee?

Clearly compost

Read on for a list of the weirdest things you can pop in your backyard compost bin to become black gold.

1. 100% natural 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, instead, 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.

2. Dryer lint from clothing made from natural fibers

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 tee-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) instead of throwing it out, you collect it in a jar or a bowl and add it to your compost pile!

Important note: Dryer lint is only compostable if all of the material you are drying is 100% natural fiber like organic cotton. Most clothing is made from 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 only dried 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 “green” waste — peels, trimmings, the limp lettuce at the back of your 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

Stacked cardboard
Paper and cardboard can also be sent to the compost pile to be broken down. Image Credit: yaasa / Shutterstock

In some ways these are the most innocuous items on the list — there’s really nothing weird about phone bills or cereal boxes. But I have always recycled these, 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 when you really think about it, composting is also a fantastic choice for these items. Recycling is a great process, allowing us to reclaim material and process it for reuse, but it’s not impact-free. It still requires an immense amount of energy to process old paper and cardboard into their recycled selves, whereas allowing the material to break down in your compost bin takes no energy at all. (Bonus: For those concerned with identity theft, you know no one’s going to go digging through your compost bin.)

7. Clothing

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 tee shirts up 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. Clothing can be quite bulky, so I’d use this option sparingly, but it’s good to know nonetheless!

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! Then you can get back to drinking ;)

9. Vacuum bags and vacuum dust

As long as there aren’t large pieces of non-compostable material in your vacuum debris (bits of plastic, twist ties, beads, etc.), 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 (OK, ewww), and hair — all readily biodegradable in your bin.

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.

Feature image credit: Gabor Havasi / Shutterstock

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.