Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Creative Carbon Sources

Inevitably at some point during the year I run out of leaves to add to my compost bin. My heart sinks with regret when I think of the 8 full bags of precious leaves I willingly gave away to the yard trimmings drop off site last fall. Oh, what I would give for one of those bags now! (Well, not that much actually, but you understand the sentiment).

So now I have to get creative. Without a steady source of carbon, or “brown” material, to add to my bin, the nitrogen will take over creating anaerobic (a.k.a. stinky) conditions.

First, I scour my yard for leaves. Behind piles of rocks, in the messy storage area beneath the house, under shrubbery, and within dense flower beds. Word to the wise: wear gloves when digging out these piles of leaves, spiders and other creepy crawlies especially love making their homes in these hidden spaces.

When I’ve exhausted all these sources, there are a number of leaf alternatives that pack a high-carbon punch:

  • Dead plants in the yard
  • Shredded paper (shred to avoid matting)
  • Paper plates and napkins 
  • Egg cartons
  • Old hay or straw
  • Sawdust (use sparingly)
  • Wood chips (use sparingly)
  • Dryer lint (link)
  • Cardboard (torn into pieces)
  • Pine needles
  • Junk Mail
  • Prunings from woody shrubbery (cut into small pieces)
  • Tea bags
  • Expired spices
  • Corn cobs (cut up into pieces)
  • Peat moss
  • Wood ash

I try to use non-recyclable items first, like paper plates and napkins, but will use recyclable newspaper and cardboard as a last resort. Sawdust and wood chips take a long time to break down, so use these items sparingly.

Another idea: offer to “clean up” a neighbor's yard of leaves if they haven’t gotten around to yard work in a while. While not completely altruistic, it is a gesture some neighbors would appreciate. Who knows, along with free leaves you may get some complementary cookies or lemonade.
Where do you get “browns” in the middle of summer?


  1. I use all the shredded paper from our home office along with the napkins and paper towels we routinely throw in the bin with the food scraps.

  2. I have tons of leaf mulch, I'll trade you 1:1 for grass clippings! Daggon drought.

    1. If I had the grass clippings to trade, Lefty, I would seriously consider it!

  3. Uh oh! Now my husband will make me clean out the spice cabinet! Who knew? LOL Thanks for the great information!

  4. Do the egg cartons need to be the paper type? Seems like the eggs I typically get come in more of a styrofoam-type container.

    1. Yes, definitely the paper type, they are a very low grade paper so they are not that good for recycling. The Styrofoam ones will not break down in the millennium!

  5. I usually let my weeds dry out when I weed around my garden and shed and use them for browns. I also make sure to have some dried grass and leaves to use as well.

  6. when you say "junk mail" can you provide any specifics? -- avoid "shiny" paper or that's ok to use? including magazines? can be paper of/with any color? what about the envelopes, including those plastic-ish address windows?

    1. Great question! The shiny paper and magazines will break down so you can add them. If you want your bin to be completely organic, through you want to make sure that the ink is plant based (usually soy). The coating does repel water though so I wouldn't add too much at once and you definitely want to shred or tear it up to encourage faster decomposition.

      The plastic windows will not break down, so I would not put those in my bin unless you're okay with pulling them out later.

  7. I brought home a huge bag of shredded documents from the office earlier this summer when I ran out of leaves!

  8. I've read non creamy soups are OK. Do they have to be no meat as well? I also collect paper towel and toilet paper rolls from a few understanding neighbors, cut them up and throw them in.

    1. Non-creamy soups are great for the compost bin and yes, I would recommend no meat in the soup.

      You must have some great neighbors! Paper towel and toilet paper rolls make a super source of carbon (and they are always in ready supply!)

  9. I must admit, I don't quite understand the reluctance to use potentially recyclable materials.

    On the environmental spectrum, while recycling may be better than landfill, I'm sure that composting is far better than recycling, especially if done in-situ (rather than being taken to a municipal composting place involving motor transport).

    While theoretically recycling should be a good thing, it's not exactly energy-neutral, and without wanting to go on too much about it, let's say I have my reservations. Don't get me wrong: our recycling bin is always a lot fuller than our landfill bin (which is sometimes almost empty).

    But my emphasis is slightly different from yours I think: I recycle only what I can't compost.

    However, without knowing exactly what happens downstream in the recycling chain, and the quantity of the various energy & material inputs and outputs, it's probably hard to say exactly where the right balance lies (and the situation may well be different, depending on exactly where one is. There were stories about UK waste being shipped to places like China to be recycled, which seems insane! I don't know if that is still happening though.

    With best wishes,
    Mike (from the UK).

    1. You have a point, Mike. In a way, we are just recycling the paper in our back yard. I focus on the non-recyclable paper first, since it cannot go in my recycling bin. The recyclable paper here goes in a single-stream system, which means one truck comes and picks up all of our recyclables. So the truck is coming for all the other recyclables anyway and keeping the paper out will do little to reduce transportation cost.