COMPOST/Practice the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Composting is a natural process of recycling decomposed organic materials into a rich soil known as compost. Composting has many benefits; its easy, it creates a useful soil enrichment, it’s an environmentally sound way to reduce waste, and it does not cost a dine. When you compost you are creating a nutrient rich humus that can be used for lawns and gardens. Composting can reduce your trash significantly and because most landfills are quickly filling up, you can help reduce landfill waste simply by composting your household waste and yard waste which typically makes up 30 to 35% of a households compostable materials. By composting you can add high quality compost that is full of  nutrients to you garden, enriches the health of your soil, builds soil structure, improves drainage and saturation (less watering), and compost provides a shield against harmful toxins and diseases. There are different composting methods to consider such as closed bins, pit composting, open bins, tumblers, piling, or worm composting and by taking a few things into consideration, you can decide on a method that fits your needs and the space you have available.


Ingredient Right Mixture

To make your composting project a success, you must have the right mixture of of what is referred to as “Browns” (Carbons) and “Green” (Nitrogen). Greens contain nitrogen and are what starts the decomposition process, they activate the heat process in your compost and keeps it going. Browns serve as the fiber. Add two or three parts carbon-heavy “browns” for every one part nitrogen “greens.“ Combine your wet, green items with your dry, brown items. Start building your compost pile, alternating (layering) brown and green items. If your compost pile looks too wet and smells, add more brown items. If you see it looks extremely brown and dry, add green items and water to make it slightly moist. Your pile should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge, not soggy. 

Choosing A Method of Composting

Closed Bins

Closed bins are sealed from the elements and they retain moisture, discourage pests, and keep the stink factor at a minimum. Closed bins are the most practical for outdoor small scale composting. The bins are enclosed on the sides, top, and bottom and they are relatively inexpensive and easy to make yourself with a heavy-duty garbage can. To use a garbage can, you simply drill aeration and drainage holes around the top, sides and bottom of the can. Place the garbage can on blocks or a pallet so it gets air circulation. Fill the can with a mixture of high-carbon, high nitrogen materials, and water. The biggest draw back to with this method is it is hard to stir your compost materials and you may end up with anaerobic pockets that slow the composting process. If your lid is secure you can lay the compost bin on its side and roll it around to help mix the contents. The following video will help you get started in making your own compost bin out of a garbage can.

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Pit/Trench Composting

If you have room in your yard where digging a hole is no big deal you can make a pit/trench compost. Depending on what you want to achieve, you can make your compost pit next to a future or existing garden, between rows in your garden, or in an area that you are not using. How deep and wide to dig your pit or trench depends on how much organic matter you have to compost and what kind of material it is such as landscape or kitchen waste. When digging the pit, keep the soil that you remove. Fill the bottom with brown matter and then alternate layers of brown and green materials making sure to moisten as you build. Cover with the soil you reserved if you plan to use the compost for gardening or later uses. To tench compost, dig and fill composting trenches between the rows in your garden. As the organic matter in the trenches decomposes, you have available nutrients for your plants. It is a good idea to dig trenches before you plant your garden, this will allow for appropriate spacing between rows and before your plants roots expand into the area. You can also dig trenches at the end of your growing season, so material is decomposed by the next planting season.

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Open Bin Composting

Open-bin containers are very cheap to make because composting can be done successfully without any type of container. It is important to structure your pile against a one sided surface to help with moisture retention and in building up the ideal pile volume. To construct open-bin containers, you can use recycled materials that can be made at home by using recycled untreated scrap lumber to form your square or wood pallets where you can stand them up to form a square and then nail them together. Wire mess can also be used to form walls around your lumber base. Open-bin containers are very simple to setup, not a complicated process, and great for those beginning to compost. Because open-bin composting containers are open at the top and bottom, earthworms can make there way into your bin and there is plenty of air circulation and moisture. One of the most important factor to keep in mind when using an open-bin is that it must be kept outside and away from the house because it may attract critters and pests.


Tumblers

There a a variety of compost tumblers on the market that are easy to use and produces finished compost in weeks. You just simply load your organic compost materials and tumble it every few days. These typically have large doors making for easy filling and emptying. A compost tumbler is a compost bin designed to be rotated, so that materials inside are remixed for aeration and faster composting. Typically they are supported off the ground by a frame for easy turning and they be place on sealed pavement or concrete. The same materials (all kitchen scraps, egg shells, weeds and prunings, grass clippings, leaves, newspapers and plain cardboard with a bit of soil and water if too dry) that you use with other compost methods can be used in a compost tumbler. Keep in mind that fruit and vegetable scraps have more than enough moisture in them to break down, as do fresh grass clippings and any other fresh plant material so you may not need to add water. It is best that your materials are too dry, so you can add a bit of water than too wet and stinky. The tumbler often is able to heat and break down the material faster and with far less water than a pile and it results in a more richer, uniform fertilizer for the plants in your garden. You will know your compost is ready when it is dark brown or black and crumbly, cool, and smells earthy with no sign of fungus. Composting using tumblers is far easier than traditional pile-building techniques, you can use a tumbler entirely as a sole composter, or to make large amounts of compost it can be used in conjunction with pile-building methods. If you live in an area with critters, tumblers are great because they are critter and pest proof.


Vermicomposting/Worm Composting

For millions of years, worms have been taking care of important natural functions by feeding on plant matter and breaking down organic materials and returning nutrients to the soil. Worm composting is being seen more and more as a way to help our environment and reduce waste. With the right composting equipment, kitchen and yard scraps worm composting can be done in a cinch. You do not need to go out and dig for night crawler because they can not survive on vegetable waste, instead you need to buy red worms or red wigglers. Worms eat food scraps which becomes nutrient-rich compost as the food scraps pass through the worms body. Setting up a worm bin is easy once you know what the worms need to survive. Worms need moisture, air, food, darkness, and warm (but not hot) temperatures. If you use newspaper strips or leaves for bedding, it will hold moisture and contain air spaces essential to worms. You can use plastic, wood, or glass bins, but keep in mind how much food scraps you will be composting to determine size, where the bin will be located, and loosely cover the bin to allow for air flow. It is recommended that you use two pounds of worms for every pound per day of food waste. If you are just starting out, you can use smaller amounts of worms if you reduce the amount of food scraps until your population increases. It is important to note that worms increase and double in population every 90 days if provided adequate food and a good home so figuring out how much food scrap waste you use before you build your bin is important before including worms.  Worms can live in a bin for approximately one year and as new worms are born, others will die and become part of the compost. Red worms generally prefer temperatures in the 55 to 77 degree range. If you live in an area that has harsh winters, you’ll need to move your bin inside during the winter months or compost on a seasonal basis. Also note that worms do not like a lot of noise or vibration, so keeping your bin in a quiet area is best. After 3-5 months, you will need to harvest the bin (removing the finished compost from the bin). Your compost can be used immediately indoors or outdoors or it can be stored until gardening season.

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Indoor Compost Bin

There are a lot of options for composting kitchen food waste whether you live in a house or an apartment. If you don’t have a garden, a small space, balcony, or under the kitchen sink will do. With little effort, your indoor compost bin should be tidy and stink free. The first thing you will need to do is decide on a location for your indoor compost bin, underneath the kitchen sink is a good location because that is where your waste comes from. Next think about the kind of container you want to house your compost in and what size your container will be. You can use plastic boxes, metal containers, garbage bins, or buckets, keeping in mind that it has to be covered. Once you decide on a container, you will need to punch or drill holes around the rim and at the bottom of your container. Place your bin on a tray that is covered with newspaper, this will help with spills. Add about four inches of dirt in your container and then add a layer of dry material (shredded newspaper, shredded cardboard, etc.). You are now ready to start adding your food scraps! When you add food scraps, add a small handful of shredded newspaper to keep the wet/dry balance going and you will need to mix the compost once a week and add a scoop of new soil. Be creative and customize your compost area to fit your taste and space, consider keeping your materials in one place such as a box of shredded newspaper, container of new soil, and a scoop because this will save you time and energy. Keeping a compost bin indoors should not be a stinky undertaking so if you are noticing a bad odor, add some newspaper or extra holes in your container to help balance your compost out.


Importance of Composting

There are many important reasons to compost and it can be an essential act for all individuals in preserving the environment. Landfills all around the country are filling up and other waste disposable options are becoming increasingly harder to find. Composting provides a way not only of reducing the amount of waste that needs to be disposed of, but also of converting it into a product that is useful for gardening, landscaping, house plants, or just giving back to the natural world. Lets take a closer look;

  1. Landfill Waste: It is estimated that 1/4 of landfill waste could have been composted.
  2. Nutrient-Rich Soil: Composting enhances overall soil quality, adding soil to gardens can boost the production of edible and ornamental plants significantly.
  3. Greenhouse Emission: Composting lowers the amount of warming gases created by organic material in our landfills. Landfills are the largest contributor for the emission of toxic methane gases and air pollution.
  4. Air Quality: Composting as opposed to burning leads to overall better air quality. Burning yard waste has been proven to release toxic chemical dioxins into the air which contributes to asthma symptoms, other breathing problems, and allergic reactions.
  5. Natural Fertilizers: Composting is a natural fertilizer and natural pesticide, and it prevents harmful toxic run-off into our water systems, lakes, streams, and ponds.
  6. Depletion: Composting prevents nutrient depletion of soil and increases the soils ability to harbor root systems that prevent this runoff.
  7. Biodiversity: Compost in our soils adds to the diversification and sustainability of many life forms including  birds, bacteria, fungi, insects and worms, and all other of natures creatures.

Green & Brown Ingredients

Your compost needs the proper balance of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) matter. Mixing certain types of materials or changing the proportions can make a difference in the rate of decomposition. Too much carbon will cause the pile to break down too slowly, while too much nitrogen can cause odor. Nitrogen is an important element in amino acids and proteins, and is a vital protein source for the compost microbes which helps to speed up the process of decomposition. Brown is the source of carbon and these materials help to add bulk and help allow air to better get into the compost. A good mix of browns and greens in your compost pile is about 4:1 browns (carbon) to greens (nitrogen). If can be adjusted if you notice your compost is not heating up you may need to add more green material and if your compost is starting to stink, you will need to add more brown materials. That being said lets look at what can be composted;

Warning: What you don’t want to compost is pet and animal manure especially droppings from dogs and cats. You also want to avoid animal products such as meat, bones, dairy products, butter, milk, and fish skins. Other things to avoid are coal ash (it contains sulfur), diseased plants, inorganic material such as aluminum foil, glass, plastics and metals, and treated lumber, and certain materials sprayed with synthetic chemicals (herbicides – pesticides) which can withstand the composting process and will remain in the finished compost.


How much waste do you and your family make and throw out a year? Are you looking for ways to live “green?” If you can reduce your trash output by recycling and composting, you can save waste expenses, return organic matter back to your soil, increase landfill space, reduce toxic runoff into our waterways, reduce global warming gases, and make a big difference in the future health of our planet. Composting can be done indoors, outdoors, and in any size space. Any household anywhere, can compost with just a small amount of planning and four fundamental ingredients carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and water and composting wastes at home and returning finished compost to the soil provides the benefits of Nature’s perfect recycling plan.

If you would like to include something, join the conversation and share your thoughts!

 

 

 

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5 comments

  1. I really appreciate your writing this article.

    The videos were very helpful in imagining the entire process described. The direct method was interesting as well. I didn’t know that it could be so easy. Now I have to decide which direction to go.

    It has been awhile so I may put one together from the directions you gave although tempted by the tumbler.

    What is your favorite?

    1. The tumbler is the far easiest because it is easy to turn and easy to process. I also live in the country so the tumbler keeps the pests away. I do have an open pile in my orchard and we use that strictly for grass clippings leaves, and other yard clippings (no kitchen waste in this one). I am amazed that this pile ends up being about four to five feet high by fall and by spring, there is only a few chunks of woody material and large branches left. 

  2. Hi Dana,

    I am glad to have found your article. I have been composting for quite some time now but you have certainly provided me with much more information that I should know about.
    My usual ingredients that go into the closed bin are mostly vegetables and fruits scraps. Coffee grounds and tea leaves too. Occasionally, stale bread, biscuits and others expired dried food. I layered them with shredded newspaper.
    The issue I have is the bin turned mouldy.
    Now, I know what causes it. I didn’t know about the brown and green ratio. Looks like I need more brown. Am I correct? Is it a must to drill holes on the bin? I am afraid that the stench will come out from it.

    Sharon

    1. Hi Sharon,

      Your bin needs to have air for the aerobic process which is vital to ensure effective decomposition. As long as the structure allows air flow, drilling holes may not be necessary. However; if you are finding that your compost is turning into an unusable sludge or muck and you do not want to drill holes, try using scrunched up paper and cardboard, or twigs and prunings which will help with more air flow. A properly balanced compost pile should smell like dirt and not stink, if you find that it is starting to stink check your balance of greens and browns, your compost may be too wet and needs more browns. Another thing is that your compost pile may be compacted, so you may need to turn your pile or take a broom handle and shove it down into your pile a number of times to create aeration holes. Good luck and let me know how your bin is doing.

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