7 FAQs About Composting

Lorin May


Earlier this year, we began a radical experiment at our San Jose campuses. We removed trash cans from employees’ desks and replaced them with recycling and compost bins.

Our facilities team conducted an in-depth study and realized that the vast majority of what we were throwing away each day was either recyclable or compostable. By offering employees more recycling and composting options and introducing compostable products in campus break rooms and cafes, they determined that our San Jose offices could divert more than 95 percent of our waste from landfill. The program has proved not only to be an effective way to reduce our impact on the local community, it’s also been good for the bottom line. Like most companies and households, we have to pay for every piece of paper, plastic utensil or food scrap we send to the local landfill.

Which isn’t to say that change is always easy. As we rolled out the new program, we received a lot of questions from employees, particularly around composting. Many people understand the basic concept — that organic material decomposes over time to create a nutrient-rich substance that can be used as soil amendment.

What’s often less intuitive is knowing what can and can’t be composted. Our facilities group received lots of interesting questions from our employees about which items should go in which bin. Since composting is still a relatively new idea for a lot of us, we wanted to share our answers to some of the most commonly asked questions. Many of the facts below were provided by our expertly informed facilities group, while others came courtesy of GaiamGrist and eHow.

Are wooden coffee stirrers compostable?

Yes, because they’re made of — you guessed it — wood, which is an organic material. Just be careful that the stirrer isn’t treated with dyes or colors. (You probably wouldn’t want to put something like that in steaming hot coffee, anyway!)

What do I do with chewing gum?

This is a tricky one. Some say that you can compost chewing gum, especially if it’s going into a commercial-grade composter, but many respected green publications say that you shouldn’t toss it in the compost bin. Our good friend Umbra over at Grist explains why, describing that the base of the gum — the part that makes it chewy — isn’t biodegradable.

Can I compost shells from peanuts and sunflower seeds?

Despite how tough their exteriors are, the shells of nuts and seeds are compostable. In fact, they’re nutrient rich and make a nice complement to a home composting setup.

What about disposable plates and silverware?

You can almost always compost disposable paper plates; it’s actually a preferable option to recycling if the plate is soiled with food scraps. Plastic plates, forks, spoons and knives, however, can’t be composted, regardless of whether they’re soiled with food or not. The chief component of plastic is petroleum, which is considered inorganic and won’t biodegrade.

Can I compost expired medication?

Though you can ingest medication, and it will dissolve in your body and do all the magical things it’s supposed to do to get or keep you healthy, you can’t compost medication. It’s often made in part — if not entirely — of synthetic materials.

Where should I throw used tissues?

Soiled or not, facial tissues are absolutely compostable. However, the jury is still out on the best way to dispose of them when you’re sick.

Can I compost hair?

Hair is compostable. In fact, it’s a surprisingly rich source of nitrogen, which is a vital ingredient for healthy soil. Likewise, fingernail and toenail clippings can also be composted, even if coated in nail polish. (We’re a bit confused ourselves why a coworker would want to be disposing stuff like this in the workplace, but hey, as long as they get the job done, right?)

The Impact

It’s still a little early to quantify the benefits of our internal program, but preliminary numbers from one of our two San Jose campuses show that more than 92 percent of waste is already being diverted from landfills. And for anyone out there who’s curious, we do realize that not everything can be composted or recycled. Communal trash cans are available in all conference and break rooms, though even those don’t seem as full these days.

Do you try to compost at home or work? Have you ever been stumped on what can and can’t be composted? Tell us about your experience. We want to hear from you!