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Composting 101

According to the US EPA, 27% of the waste sent to landfills is made up of organic material; lawn clippings, leaves and food waste. This material contributes to methane emissions as it decomposes.  For this reason, yard waste is prohibited from most landfills.  Food waste, however, is not.

Organic materials can be composted and repurposed as high quality topsoil and fertilizer. Rather than dumping your food scraps in the trash, or putting your leaves and grass clippings in bags, consider starting a home composting program. It takes very little effort and has some big payoffs. The material can be used in vegetable gardens, flower beds, in house plants, and around trees and shrubs.

Benefits of composting

Compost enriches soils

The composting process results in a material called humus. Humus can help to rehabilitate poor or depleted soils by increasing the soil’s nutrient content and helping to retain moisture. Compost can also make plants more resistant to disease and pests, stimulate crop production levels, and eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers which can be transported into the food and water supply through a variety of mechanisms.  Better soil equals better plants.

Compost helps prevent pollution

Composting instead of landfilling avoids methane production and other pollutants which leach out of landfills into the groundwater supply.

Compost prevents soil erosion

Using compost on embankments by rivers, lakes and streams, as well as on hillsides, roadsides and athletic fields, prevents the soil erosion that naturally occurs in these areas.

Using compost offers economic benefits

In the home, composting your organics means less material in your trash. Less trash to dispose of means lower garbage disposal costs for those of us living in areas with pay-as-you-throw refuse systems (which is now most of us). Compost reduces the need for water, fertilizers, and pesticides. It is less expensive than other soil additives. It diverts material from landfills, thereby prolonging their useful lives, and provides a cost-effective method to clean up contaminated soils.

How do I start composting?

Composting is a simple process.  It can be done in a pile or windrow (as most leaf processing facilities do) or in an enclosure or container.  The process produces heat, so it should be kept away from vegetation which could be wilted. Regardless of the method, it must have adequate moisture, and it must be turned periodically to introduce oxygen and it must have a combination of ‘brown’ and ‘green’ material. ‘Browns’ include things like dead leaves and branches. ‘Greens’ include things like grass clippings and food waste. All materials should be chopped up into smaller pieces before being placed in the compost.  

Another tip for home composters is to make it convenient. Don’t place the bin so far from the house that it’s a burden to dump your materials in it. There are many pre-fabricated compost bins on the market which are aesthetically pleasing and will eliminate odor concerns. Keep a smaller container on the kitchen countertop that can be dumped once a day so that you don’t have to continually run outdoors to dispose of food scraps.

Because composting is an organic process, it takes time. Be patient. It may take as much as two years to get finished compost depending on the method you choose (although there are products on the market which may speed up this process). In the mean time you can feel good knowing that your organic waste will eventually be made into useable product and not be taking up space in the landfill.

What can I compost?

The obvious materials are fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, eggshells, grass clippings, yard trimmings, leaves and house plants.

Other less obvious materials include cardboard rolls, clean paper, cotton or wool rags, dryer and vacuum cleaner lint, fireplace ashes,  hair and fur, hay and straw, nut shells, sawdust and wood chips, shredded newspaper and animal manure. Note that this means you can put soiled newspaper, sawdust and wood chips that have been used to line animal enclusures right in the compost.

DO NOT put the following in your compost bin: Dog and cat feces or soiled cat litter (may contain parasites), fats, grease, dairy products, meat, bones, yard trimmings that have been treated with chemical pesticides, mature weeds (will introduce seeds into your compost that will then germinate where you use the material), diseased plants (diseases can survive and reinfect new plants when you use the compost) or charcoal or charcoal ash.  Also, do not put any leaves or nuts from black walnut trees in your compost as they contain substances which may harm other plants.

Some items in the list of things not to compost may be accepted by a professional composting facility in your area. Check local listings.

Where can I get a compost bin?

If you’re the handy type, you can build your own compost bin. Click here to visit the EPA website for instructions on how to do this.

But there are also many prefabricated options available:

The Earth Machine is my personal favorite and the one I use at home.  It has a large capacity, it’s easy to access, it’s unconspicuous, and it has a trap door at the bottom to scoop out small amounts of material or it can easily be lifted to access the whole pile. It’s also durable (I’ve had mine for several years).

Other popular bins include the Soilsaver Classic Composter, the Country Wood Composter, the Duratrel PVC Compost Bin and the Bluestone Master Composter.

If you’d like to skip the pitchfork you can opt for a tumbler like the Envirocycle Compost Tumbler or the Compost Wizard Jr.

If you’re going to be composting large volumes of yard waste like grass and leaves, you may want to opt for a large capacity tumbler like the Compos Tumbler.

There are many more options on line. Keep in mind that compost needs heat to break down, so dark color bins which absorb the sun’s heat will produce finished compost more quickly than lighter colors, and covered bins hold more heat than open ones.

For additional information on composting, visit the US EPA website, or consider one of the following books on the subject:
Home Composting Made Easy
Composting: An easy household guide
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting
The Rodale Book of Composting

Great Deals on Composters - Eartheasy.com

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    A pleasingly ratioanl answer. Good to hear from you.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] get the added benefit of high quality top soil to use in your gardens and house planters. Composting 101 or Composting Information for Kids.  The earth will thank you and so will your […]

  2. […] an earlier post, Composting 101, we learned about turning our egg shells, coffee grounds, vegetables, fruits, grains, leaves and […]

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