Author: Alison B. Elliott
Compost is nature’s recycling system. Since the beginning of time, our earth has been composting. Did you know that fallen leaves in a forest, left to decompose thus restoring nutrients back into the soil, is a form of composting? Similarly, overgrown grass in a field left to turn brown and keep the soil covered and protected also is a form of composting. Finished compost, or humus, is a rich material that helps soil retain nutrients and moisture. It improves plant growth and soil health. Nutrients from compost can be released back into the soil for 2-3 years after it is laid down.
Life as we know it could not be sustained without compost. Nature does it naturally, so why can’t we?
Contributing to our environment through taking on the role of a composter will not only have a beneficial impact on your gardens but it will also divert a lot of waste that would inevitably end up as landfill. Food waste in landfills does not decompose in an aerobic manner. Instead, it decomposes in an anaerobic way. Decomposition without oxygen through anaerobic methods takes a longer time, releases methane into the atmosphere, creates harmful toxins, and takes up space in landfills; ultimately, creating the demand for more landfills.
In 2017, according to EPA statistics, the United States generated about 267.8 million tons of waste which equates to about 4.5 pounds of waste each day per person. More than half of the annual waste created (139.6 million tons) was placed in landfills of which about 22% was food waste. What can we do about it? As consumers, we can be more aware and sensitive about the amount of food we prepare and then dispose of (i.e., waste). Furthermore, we can collect our food waste and compost it ourselves. All we need to do is collect the material, put it in a pile or place it in a storage container, and wait.
What are the components of composting?
The process of controlled composting consists of the decomposition of organic matter like food scraps, cardboard, grass clippings, dried leaves, wood chips, and even newspaper into soil. The valuable nutrients in these items are used to regenerate soil.
When creating your own compost, it is important to add materials that consist of both carbon and nitrogen.
Examples of such materials are:
Carbon: dried leaves, hay, straw, wood chips, cardboard, newspaper, and paper towel rolls.
Nitrogen: food waste, cut grass, house plants, coffee grounds, shrub clippings.
The proper balance of carbon and nitrogen materials produces a rich compost. Your compost pile should consist of two parts carbon and one part nitrogen. The decomposition of these materials will create a healthy soil that is filled with well-balanced nutrients. You will know that you have succeeded in creating a usable compost if the finished product exhibits a rich deep black color.
There are some food waste items that you would not want to add to a backyard pile. Such items include: meat, poultry, fish, cheese, fats, oils, salad dressing, and bones. These items attract pests, release a foul odor, and make your compost pile more susceptible to diseases.
What type of storage container should I use?
The smallest possible compost pile you should make in your yard is 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, which equates to 1 cubic yard. However, a standard backyard composting container holds between 110 – 120 gallons. You can’t go wrong when choosing which type of pile you want to create. Purchasing containers online is easily accessible and requires less work. Building your own compost container with wood is another feasible option.
How long does it take for compost to decompose?
In addition to the size of the compost pile, there are two other main factors that impact the rate of decomposition: (1) the frequency at which you turn the pile, and (2) the seasonal weather conditions (the outdoor temperature).
The compost materials will generate heat as part of the decomposition process. For a standard backyard container it will take about two weeks for the center of the pile to heat up and kickstart the decomposition process. The rate at which the pile is turned will have an impact on the decomposition. In order to maintain the desired temperature range of 90 – 140 degrees it is important to turn your compost with a shovel about once every two weeks (depending on the season). There will be seasonal variations; in the summer months you might find yourself turning the compost pile once a week, but in the winter months perhaps only once each month.
Why is the temperature important?
If the temperature drops below 90 degrees the pile is at risk of retaining diseases. If the temperature is greater than 140 degrees the heat conducted in the pile will likely kill the beneficial microbes. Composting thermometers are available online, but are not necessary when composting on a small scale. Microbes are a key factor for decomposing organic materials. If you find that your pile is not experiencing decomposition you can increase the microbial activity by adding a small amount of soil or finished compost.
Turning compost also adds oxygen to the mixture. Creating compost with aeration has necessary beneficial qualities. Oxygen allows for the microbes to break down the organic matter. Without oxygen the process slows and is exposed to harmful health and environmental impacts. It should take around three months to successfully create your own usable backyard compost.
Diverting food waste is simple; consume the products you purchase and prepare, collect and compost leftover food waste, and spread awareness. Creating a backyard compost pile is a fun and easy activity you will feel good about.
Alison is an Education Manager on an organic farm in Millerton, NY. After studying sustainability in college, she wishes to share her passion for the environment and agriculture on her platforms The Farmer Foodie @thefarmerfoodie.