Introduction to Composting

We touched on composting a few issues back in the article on “Living a Low-Waste Lifestyle.” (If you missed that article, you can find it here.) I’m going to go into composting in more detail here. I’m even hoping to learn as much as I can from writing this article, since I want to make our own compost pile this spring, using wooden pallets donated by a neighbor. 

First, a few facts.

The EPA estimates that in 2018, the United States generated about 63 million tons of wasted food.

Sixty-Three. Million. Tons.

That’s roughly one-third of all food intended for human consumption in the U.S.

Let that sink in for a moment. Then consider that most of that waste ends up in landfills, where it generates significant methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. When you do the math—as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency are doing—you see a clear connection between food waste and climate change.

Sadly, much of that wasted food was still fine, and could have been donated to help families in need; in 2019, more than 13 million households had difficulty providing adequate food for all their members due to lack of funds. But that’s a subject for another article.

One way to keep your household’s food and other organic waste out of the landfills is to compost it. If you have a yard, it’s a bit easier. (We’ll look at options for those without outdoor space to compost later in this article.)

The neatest and easiest way to compost is with a bin. There are several types:

  1. Stationary bins. These are multi-compartment containers (like this one with a door at the top where you add your food scraps, and another at the bottom where you remove the completed compost. Holds in heat so the scraps break down faster. No need to turn the pile. These units work best if they are placed directly on the soil so that the worms can get in and help the process along. Pros: Easy. Effective. Pest-resistant. Cons: Many are made from plastic (though it is usually recycled). Some are pricey. Break-down of the material can take months.
  2. Rotating Tumblers. These are units that sit off the ground on a stand (like this one), so that you can rotate the drum. Some units have multiple chambers so that you can let one process when it’s full, while still adding scraps to the other chamber(s). Pros: Speeds up the composting process, giving you finished compost in weeks, rather than months. Eliminates odors. Sealed units keep out rodents and other pests. Cons: Can be more expensive. Larger models can be hard to turn (heavy!).
  3. Worm Composters. Vermiculture units use a higher concentration of the worms best suited to digest your food scraps. Come in two types: tiered (like this one) or continuous flow (like this one)Pros: Worms will self-regulate their population growth based on space and food, so there’s no need to worry about overcrowding. Provides “worm tea,” which can also be used to feed your plants. Can be great in a garage or townhouse or apartment with a small/no yard. Cons: Worms must be cared for; temperature, moisture, and food quantities are all essential to the environmental balance they require. Worms can only be fed certain foods. Worm composting can take longer than rotating tumblers, and can be smelly. (More here.)
  4. Countertop Food Waste Processors. These units chop and dehydrate your food scraps, rather than composting them. Can be preferable to regular composters in cold climates where heating the compost is a challenge. Also great for apartment residents. Pros: Go from waste to usable fertilizing compound in less than a day. Can process all food scraps, including bones. Cons: Requires electricity. Takes up space indoors, which can be an issue in small apartments/homes. Some food materials may not be suitable for the unit, since it “cooks” the materials to dehydrate them.

There are also some DIY methods:

  1. Make a compost pile. That’s it. You don’t even need an enclosure. Pick a spot (be selective; once you start the pile, it will be difficult to move) and dump your food wastes there. Add your lawn trimmings and dry leaves/twigs/etc., and let Nature take its course. Pros: This is the easiest and least expensive method. There’s little work and zero cost involved. Cons: This is the slowest method of composting. (If you want to speed things up, you can turn the pile a couple of times per week.) Basic piles are unsightly. They may smell, and/or attract pests (flies, rodents, raccoons, etc.). 
  2. Wood pallet compost bins. This is a great way to upcycle useful items; you can sometimes even get wooden pallets for free! Put them together to form a back and two sides, and you’ve got a compost enclosure. Add two more for a second, and two more for a third enclosure. That way, you can have one pile that you add to, one pile that’s in active decomp, and one pile of maturing compost. Pros: Free! Sturdy and attractive. Keeps the piles neat. Cons: They take a little time to put them together. Unless you turn the piles, they will still take time to complete the process. They take up a bit more space. They aren’t pest-proof. (Can smell.)
  3. Wire enclosures. Same idea as the wood pallet bins, except using fencing wire. Pros: Low cost. Neat. Easy to relocate. Cons: Can still take a long time to complete the composting process. Harder to turn if the pile is enclosed on all four sides. Not pest-proof.
  4. Other possibilities. There are multiple ways to compost your own food and yard waste, some of which include compost trenches, compost pits, bokashi buckets, sheet composting, food waste digesters, and probably others I missed. One article even talked about a woman who planted her garden around a wire compost enclosure, then trained vining plants and vegetables up the outside of the enclosure! Clever, that! 

There are dozens of websites out there to give you guidance on making your own compost, each with their own idea on what method is best, but most agree with the ingredients that are allowable (green and brown materials, and quantities required of each) and the fact that a hotter compost pile will produce the end result at a faster pace. Interestingly, you can even compost shredded paper (not that glossy stuff, though!). In fact, the carbon in regular paper actually benefits the compost!

We plan to construct a wooden-pallet bin system sometime this spring/summer, and I’ll report on the progress of that. Meanwhile, here are a few articles to check out for more information. I’m sure they’ll lead you, as they did me, down the composting rabbit hole! 

Composting at home

Food Waste and its Links to Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change

How to Choose the Right Composter

Choose the Best Compost Bin

A Complete Guide to Paper Composting

Photo credits:

Landfill — Photo by Emmet

Worm Friends — Photo by Sippakorn Yamkasikorn

DIY Compost Bins — Composting

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