Composting FAQs

About the Backyard Composting Program

Residents within the City of Tampa’s Solid Waste service area, as pictured below, who have an active solid waste account are eligible to take a free composting workshop. Upon completion of all the required steps outlined during the workshop, residents will then be able to receive a free backyard composting bin. Before registering please verify eligibility using MyTampaServices.

Map showing Tampa Solid Waste service area in green compared to Hillsborough County Service Area in pink
The green area represents the eligible areas for the backyard composting program as it falls under Tampa's Solid Waste Service Area. The pink areas fall under the County's jurisdiction and don't qualify for the program.

 

If residents have a blue trash cart and green recycling cart that has a City of Tampa logo they most likely have an active account with the City of Tampa’s Department of Solid Waste and Environmental Program Management. Residents can confirm their waste service provider using MyTampaServices.

Green recycling cart and blue trash cart curbside

Through the Backyard Composting Program the City provides eligible households with an 80-gallon Earth Machine compost bin. This bin requires a minimum 3-foot by 3-foot area over soil or grass for composting. Learn more about the specifications from the manufacturer.

Earth Machine compost bin with compostable food scraps in front

Upon completion of all the required steps outlined during the workshop, residents will receive a free backyard composting bin within 14 days after the date of the workshop.  The bin will be dropped off on the front curb of the resident’s household by a City vehicle.

Composting bin next to house

If a resident is moving or is no longer using the compost bin, please call the City of Tampa Utility Services Customer Care Center to schedule a pickup. Empty and rinse out the bin, making sure the top lid, harvest door, and ground screws are attached. The City will pick up the bin so it can be used by another resident.

Residents can compost by building or purchasing a bin or building a pile. There are a large variety of compost bins available, one for every space and management style. Types can include three-bin systems, tumblers, covered bins, concrete blocks, wood bins, and more. A good resource and some instructions on how to build the different types of composting enclosures are offered by the UF|IFAS Extension Office.

Person using a tumbler composting bin that is elevated above the ground.

The Basics

Managed, expedited natural breakdown (decomposition) process of select organic waste. Microorganisms break down select materials into compost with the presence of carbon, nitrogen, air, and water.

Man assessing a layered pile of composting of leaves and other organic matter
Photo was taken by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

 

Organic is commonly used to describe the production system and certification used for food items such as produce and meat products. However, the organic waste that is referred to in the composting process means something different.

Organic waste is something that was once a living thing or a byproduct of a living thing.  Examples can include paper that was made from a tree, vegetables, or hair from a mammal. Inorganic waste comes from a nonbiological source, meaning something that has never been living or was created from something that was alive millions of years ago. Examples include glass (which is made from sand) and plastic (made from fossil fuels).

Food scraps like orange peels, coffee filters, other veggies scraps over a white background
Different types of organic materials. Photo was taken by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

 

The type of composting that is done with the bins provided by the City of Tampa is backyard traditional composting.  Composting with worms is called vermicomposting and requires a different management style to be successful. Worms do not need to be added to traditional composting, but they may naturally find their way in and out of a pile.  Commercial or industrial composting is done on a larger scale with different management practices and tools, therefore expanding the list of accepted items to often include things like animal products and bioplastics.

Tractor in a commercial/industrial operation of composting next to a giant pile of steaming compost product
A commercial or industrial composting facility. Photo by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
Worms in fresh compost held by hands
Worms in a vermicomposter. Photo was taken by Amy Youngs

 

According to the US Composting Council, other benefits can include preventing soil erosion, assisting in stormwater management, promoting healthier plant growth, conserving water, reducing waste, combating climate change, reducing maintenance costs, improving soil health, and assisting in wetland reclamation.

Pie chart diagram depicting that 50% of our waste is potentially composting material, 20% is recyclable, and 30% is refuse.

  • Mulch around plants to help retain moisture.
  • Sprinkle as lawn feed.
  • Mix in with soil as an amendment for increased nutrient richness for new plants.
  • Create compost tea: steep burlap/filter bags of compost in a bucket with water overnight and water plants.
    Hands with gloves placing finished compost into garden and plants
    Adding compost to plants. Photo was taken by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

     

If managed properly, compost should not contribute to any foul smells. It should have a relatively neutral earthy smell.  If your pile smells sour or unpleasant, it most likely needs to be turned for aeration or has too much moisture. Please refer to the pile management section below to review best practices that can be applied as a solution to the odors.

The essential components of composting: air, water, nitrogen, carbon, and hot temperatures

Worms in soil
Worms in a compost pile. Photo was taken by "Loose Ends."

The type of organisms in compost can be broken down into two categories: microorganisms and macroorganisms.  Microorganisms are things that cannot be seen with the naked eye and include things such as bacteria and fungi.  Macroorganisms are things that can be seen with the naked eye and can include things such as worms and insects. These organisms are decomposers that have evolved to break down materials into smaller particles. These “bugs” are considered friends, not foes, to the composting process. Learn more about the decomposition process. Although most are beneficial, certain organisms can be indicators for problematic conditions in compost piles.

Pile Management

Browns are a source of carbon which acts as an energy source for the microbes. Common examples include paper, leaves, and cardboard. Greens are a source of nitrogen and contain the proteins the microbes use to build their bodies.  Common examples include fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and hair. For a recommended list of Browns and Greens visit our main Composting page.

Pile of sticks, dry leaves, and other brown items
Brown materials. Photo was taken by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
Banana peel and other food scraps
Green materials. Photo was taken by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

 

The City recommends adding items that have proven to have the greatest rates of success and the least amount of risks.  This list is not meant to be complete but includes some of the most common and effectively composted items in a backyard compost system. 

Browns (Sources of Carbon)
  • Branches & Twigs (chopped)
  • Brown Paper Bags (shredded)
  • Cork (natural only)
  • Egg Cartons (cardboard)
  • Eggshells (crushed & rinsed)
  • Hay, Leaves, & Straw (dry)
  • Pet Bedding (healthy gerbil, guinea pig, hamster, & rabbit)
  • Newspaper (shredded)
  • Paper & Cardboard (shredded, uncoated, sticker & tape free)
  • Paper Coffee Filters
  • Paper Towel & Toilet Paper Rolls
  • Sawdust (untreated wood)
  • Shrub Pruning
  • Wood Ash (untreated wood, add sparingly)
Greens (Sources of Nitrogen)
  • Citrus Peels & Rinds (add sparingly)
  • Coffee Grounds
  • Feathers & Fur
  • Fruits & Vegetables (remove stickers)
  • Grains & Hops
  • Hair (no dye or petroleum products)
  • House Plants
  • Manure (healthy herbivore waste)
  • Nail Clippings (no acrylics or polish)
  • Non-Woody Pruning
  • Nut Shells (no walnuts)
  • Spent Flowers
  • Tea Grounds & Leaves (no staples)
  • Weeds without mature seeds (only non-invasive)

Sustainability

The consensus on which is better is answered in the same way many sustainability issues are: it depends. Let’s use paper as an example. From a supply chain perspective, eliminating high-quality fiber from the recycling stream might mean more resources need to be used to create new paper products to meet the demand. However, some paper products that are not accepted for recycling could be composted such as shredded paper and used napkins. Composting also eliminates the resources that are required to collect, transport, and process the fibers to create new materials. Although it will depend on the situation, composting is typically a better alternative to recycling, but remember refusing, reducing, and reusing are stronger waste reduction tools. For example, using the same reusable bag at the grocery store has the potential to be a stronger waste reduction tool than getting paper bags and composting them.

Florida’s sandy soils only contain an average of 1-3% organic matter. Adding compost helps to increase that percentage, which will lead to a wide variety of benefits including reducing water and nutrient runoff, stabilizing pH, and providing food for microorganisms.

 

According to Project Drawdown, composting is a climate mitigation solution to reduce and sequester carbon. Although the City’s food waste goes to the McKay Bay Waste-to-Energy Facility instead of being landfilled, reducing the amount of waste to start would save resources and be even more sustainable.