Composting 101: How to Compost at Home
In a country where the average person produces nearly three kilograms of garbage per day, it is natural for people to wonder about alternatives. Excessive waste overstuffs the landfill and generates carbon emissions that are difficult to mitigate. The effect on the environment is evident. People can minimize the waste they produce by composting, a natural process of turning organic waste into valuable components for growing. Almost anyone can do it, even if they do not have a garden. With this guide, people will learn the different composting methods, how to decide which one is right for them, and a few tools to help them get started.
Table of Contents
- Why Compost?
- How to Start Composting
- What Are the Best Things to Compost?
- Best Home Composting Methods
- I Live in an Apartment in an Urban Area. Can I Still Compost?
- Turn Trash Into Treasure by Composting
- Additional Reading
Since starting the composting process can be somewhat of an ordeal for people, it is worth investigating the benefits of home composting. That way, people understand how an individual can make a positive difference in reducing waste and the increase of useful compost.
Environmental Benefits of Composting
There are many environmental benefits of composting, and the chief one is the ability to reduce waste. As a whole, Canada produces almost one tonne of waste per person per year. Besides overflowing the landfill, this waste produces about 56 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year. Although there are many different types of waste, food waste is a significant problem. Nearly half of all fruits and vegetables end up in the garbage when they could be composted instead.
More than simple waste reduction, the composting process returns a lot of beneficial nutrients as fertilizer that people can use for gardening. Adding compost to soil increases water retention, which allows people to use less water when gardening. Additionally, with all these beneficial nutrients, people can rely less on chemical fertilizers.
What Compost Is Used For
Most people use compost to balance out their existing soil so that it is beneficial for plants. As a general rule, people do not have the perfect soil environment for any given plant. For example, the soil might be too dry or too wet. Tilling compost into the soil changes its texture, making it more suitable for plants to thrive with proper moisture retention and drainage. Compost also balances the nutrients and the pH in the soil. That way, plants can draw exactly what they need from the soil as they grow. When the plants are done for the year, people can use the plant waste to create more compost.
How to Start Composting
Composting is a process that may take several months from start to finish. Throughout the process, people have to check on it and add to it regularly. By understanding the common terms and preparing tools and materials, people can determine how best to start composting.
How Composting Works: Things to Keep in Mind When Building Your Pile
There are a few different approaches to composting, but each one follows a similar pattern. Specifically, people combine a mixture of carbon matter and nitrogen matter with water to promote decomposition. As a general rule, aerobic bacteria do the work of decomposition, although people may also use worms or insects as well. The aerobic bacteria gradually consume the decaying matter, turning it into energy that is more readily consumed by plants. While they are actively consuming, the compost pile can become very hot. The temperature of a hot pile ranges from about 50 to 80 degrees Celsius.
The best approach depends on the space that people have and how quickly they want to produce compost. Without the right environment or with an improper balance of carbon, nitrogen, water, and oxygen, a hot pile may die and turn into a cold pile. Cold piles breed anaerobic bacteria and are not particularly beneficial for the garden. People who want to use small container-based composting equipment may need to use worms or other methods to break down the waste faster. Pile methods often require a large amount of matter to maintain the pile's heat and continue decomposition.
How to Build a Compost Pile
For many people, the simplest way to begin is to pick an out-of-the-way spot and build a loose heap. People may want to start by selecting a location on their property that is relatively dry and out of direct sunlight. A spot of open land will make it easier for worms or beneficial bacteria to reach the pile. On the bottom, people should start by laying loose items like twigs or straw. This approach promotes drainage. As a general rule, people should aim to put in much more carbon waste than nitrogen waste.
Building upward to the top of the pile, people can put in layers of moist and dry materials. This helps to keep the pile from becoming too wet in any one spot. Once the pile is complete, people should add some water and cover it with wood or a plastic sheet. The cover minimizes heat loss so that the decomposition process can continue.
Most of the time, people do not need a lot of specialty materials to start a compost pile. They may want to consider the following:
- Shovel for turning the pile
- Cover for the pile
- Compost thermometer
- Composting bin, if desired
Although there's a variety of composting bins and tumblers available for purchase, people can build their own as well. For example, people could create a box from old wood boards. They can also do the same using cinder blocks or wire. The goal is to make a space that is no larger than about one cubic metre.
How Do I Know My Compost Is Ready?
After at least a few months of turning and watering, people may wonder if the compost is complete. It is relatively easy to tell by sight, touch, and smell. Finished compost resembles soil in appearance, with very little sign of the original materials used to make it. When people pick up a handful of it, it should feel soft, springy, and fluffy. By scent, good compost is earthy, slightly sweet or sour in odour. By comparison, compost that requires fixing may smell foul or rotten.
Problems with the compost pile often start with an imbalance of ingredients. For example, if the compost pile has too many nitrogen-producing elements, it may become too wet or pick up an offensive odour. In most cases, adding a larger quantity of carbon-based materials like leaves or straw will help. In addition, people can consider topping the pile with grass clippings every time they contribute new materials. The grass clippings can protect the pile and minimize odours. Covering the pile will also keep fruit flies and other insects from searching out the decaying produce.
Otherwise, most issues with composting can be solved with regular upkeep. For example, layering dry and wet materials may result in clumping once people start to turn the pile. The easiest solution is to break up the clumps. If the pile is not decomposing, people may need to consider the balance of carbon and nitrogen and adjust it by adding a little more nitrogen. Once the core temperature rises high, people must turn the pile every week or two and add more water to keep the process going. If they fail to do this step, they risk problems like weed seeds sprouting in the garden because they did not sufficiently decompose.
What Are the Best Things to Compost?
People can create a compost pile using a wide variety of waste materials, like food scraps, paper products and yard debris. However, the right combination is essential. By composting waste in appropriate quantities, people can have a more successful experience.
The Best Composting Ratio
Typically, a compost pile will include different types of yard or kitchen waste. Each type of waste can be classified into one of two categories. The first category is carbon-rich waste, commonly referred to as browns. Browns include wood chips or shavings, leaves, paper products, straw, and coffee. The second category is nitrogen-rich waste, commonly referred to as greens. Greens include food scraps from the kitchen, grass clippings, flowers and green plant waste, and manure.
Finding the correct ratio of carbon waste to nitrogen waste can require some practice. As a general rule, experts say that a good compost pile should have significantly more carbon or brown waste than nitrogen or green waste. Beyond that, there are differing views on the amount that a pile needs in order to work. At maximum, the browns should outnumber the greens by 30:1. At the least, the browns should represent two-thirds of the pile. People may have to adjust the ratio as needed. A pile that is soaking and slimy probably needs more browns. By comparison, a pile that is dry and not decomposing may call for more greens.
Making Compost From Kitchen Waste
Kitchen waste is often too high in nitrogen to compost by itself, but it is an important component of a broader composting setup. To save kitchen waste for composting, people may want to purchase a small composting crock or similar bin to keep in the kitchen. These containers have a tight-fitting lid, air holes at the top, and a carbon filter to neutralize odours. People can add kitchen waste to the crock throughout the day. Once it approaches full, they can empty the crock's contents along with other paper waste into the compost pile or bin outside.
What Not to Compost
Although people have a significant variety of things that they can put into a compost pile, there are a few items that they should leave out. These include:
- Meat or bones
- Weeds with seeds
- Diseased plants
- Fruit scraps or peels with heavy pesticides, typically apples, oranges, or bananas
- Cooked or oily food, as it may attract pests
- Dairy or eggs
- Black walnut leaves, which can be damaging to new plant life
- Paper with coloured inks or special coating
- Inorganic waste, like plastic
- Pet waste
Some of these items may be composted in a larger commercial or industrial setup.
Best Home Composting Methods
People can choose from several different home composting methods. The right decision depends on the space available, their ability to maintain it, and how soon they want the compost.
Heap composting is one of the most popular types of composting because it is versatile and easy to set up. It is also called open-air composting because people can make it work with nothing more than a pile on the ground. As a general rule, a compost heap should be at least half of a one-metre cube. Otherwise, there will not be enough waste in the heap to promote hot decomposition. People can choose between bins, staged piles, and open piles. Bins and open piles require turning to ensure that the compost sinks to the bottom. Some people set it up in a series of staged piles or bins, which they can rotate to keep the decomposition process going.
The temperature of the pile affects the rate at which people can produce compost. A hot pile requires turning at least once a week. In exchange, people may have ready to use compost within a few months. Small compost heaps can be cold, which requires less upkeep but can take as much as 18 to 24 months to decompose.
Pit composting is convenient because people create the compost in the soil that they plan to use. It is also called trench, direct, or in situ composting and can take up to a year to complete. People dig into the ground, put specific types of waste in the trench, and cover it with soil. It is a type of cold composting, meaning it involves no turning and does not generate heat to encourage decomposition. As such, pit composting is not appropriate for cold winters because the waste will freeze. People also have strict limits on the types of waste they can use, especially those that commonly draw pests.
Composting tumblers are designed to make the process of turning the compost easier and more convenient. Tumblers also tend to come in a compact size, which means that people with limited space can take advantage of them. Tumblers can run hot or cold, but they will be more difficult to keep hot in the winter. Typically, people should add all of the components to the tumbler at once to start the decomposition process. Some tumblers have more than one container. With the right approach and turning a couple of times a week, people may be able to get compost from a tumbler within several weeks of creating a hot pile.
I Live in an Apartment in an Urban Area. Can I Still Compost?
Although many composting options presume that people have access to outdoor land, it is not a necessity. In fact, there are multiple ways that people can compost their waste in multifamily housing.
Composting Options for Small Spaces
There's a handful of composting options for small spaces, such as vermicomposting, bokashi, and food recyclers. Vermicomposting involves the use of worms to break down the waste and compost. As a general rule, people will combine primarily browns with a few greens, such as food scraps. They must include plenty of worms, usually hundreds depending on the size of the compost bin. Worms cannot handle certain types of waste, like pineapple. With a proper balance of nutrients and occasional oversight, people may have usable compost within a few months.
Bokashi is a unique approach to composting that comes from Japan. With this approach, people put their waste scraps into a tightly-sealed bin for a couple of weeks. They add a special product to hasten the fermentation of the waste, commonly referred to as inoculated bran. People have to extract the anaerobic by-product every couple of days. At the end of the process, the waste has essentially fermented into a stew-like product. It is highly acidic, so people should only put it in soil that is weeks away from planting.
Food recyclers are the most expensive and the fastest way to compost food waste. At an average price of several hundred dollars, a food recycler is an electric appliance that decomposes food waste in as little as 24 hours. Models range in size from small units meant to sit on a tabletop to those that resemble a small refrigerator. The appliance uses a controlled process to increase the heat and promote aeration at the right time to break down waste items. In some cases, people can compost things that would be difficult to manage in a small household bin, such as compostable diapers or paper products.
Canada has several community composting initiatives. People interested in composting but who need help or space to get started may want to look at community composting options in their area. Community composting is often more effective than individual composting because large-scale composting can maintain compost ratios more readily. With funding and oversight from the community, it is also possible to increase the rate of recycling to include products like meat or bones.
Composting projects that simplify the process of collection and use are more likely to succeed. For example, the organization Community Composting provides participants with a bin that they can use to collect food scraps and yard waste. Once a month, the organization empties the bin and leaves a bag of compost made from an earlier collection.
Turn Trash Into Treasure by Composting
Reducing waste is not just about buying and using less. Rather, a waste-reduction plan often requires attention to what happens once the waste is produced. Organic waste might not have to go to the landfill, going instead to a compost pile. Whether people decide to compost at home or participate in a community composting initiative, the commitment creates benefits. Saving the right items for composting can keep them out of the landfill and turn them into beneficial nutrients for growing. By getting involved with composting, people can reduce their carbon footprint and help protect their region's environment.