Plants and the planet rejoice when composting is the choice! Throwing away kitchen scraps is a boring way to go — but a composting kitchen bin is cool. Curious about composting basics, or composting for beginners?
Get hooked on how to compost with this complete at-home guide. It goes far beyond a bland composting definition. This guide breaks down composting for beginners who love the planet and want more plants, less junk.
Read on to discover all the details, do-it-yourself tips, and home composting how-to’s made easy.
Technical words make up most composting definitions. However, it’s a magical process that deserves much more! Here’s composting explained, since knowing what composting is and what composting isn’t as important to the process.
Composting takes materials usually considered kitchen scraps and turns them into something new. A simple kitchen bin or composting containers turn one man’s trash into another man’s treasure. Food waste, like scraps that normally get thrown away, can be repurposed into nutrient-saturated soil for new plants to grow.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food waste is estimated at 30-40% of the food supply. This means that billions of dollars worth of food are being wasted.
Composting is a great way to save excess or otherwise unusable food scraps. In 2018, 2.6 million tons of food (4.1% of wasted food) was composted. It’s so effective, it’s included in the Food Recovery Hierarchy as a method for preventing wasted food.
Composting is often used as a “soil amendment”. If the last time you heard the word “amendment” was your middle school history class — don’t worry, composting is easy once you understand the basics.
Soil amendments are simply materials that are added to the soil. These materials generally improve the soil composition in some way. In the case of composting, scraps can be used to stabilize the soil and also contribute nutrients to plants.
Composting soil can be used for most planting needs. It improves the soil’s structure and contributes to the soil’s ability to retain moisture. It can also be used for potted plants, lawns, and gardens.
Compost can also be used as a mulching material. Mix it with the top one-inch layer to prevent plant disease.
On farms, producers use compost material to help fertilize crops. It is also practiced at poultry operations.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Even when all actions have been taken to use your wasted food, certain inedible parts will still remain and can be turned into compost to feed and nourish the soil.”
Composting helps to turn wastes into a product that can be used for the following:
-Growing the next generation of crops
-Improving water quality
Let’s break down the science behind the composting process.
Compost works as an organic soil amendment. This means it uses a controlled method of aerobic, biological decomposition to turn biodegradable materials into plant food.
Enough with the fancy words, right? Here’s how home composting bins work in easy-to-understand terms:
1. First, you place food scraps in a composting bin, composting container, or composting jar.
2. Second, the composting food begins decomposition in a controlled environment (i.e. a composting kitchen bin).
3. During the decomposition process, the materials maintain a thriving microorganism environment. This is what the terms “organic”, “biological”, and “aerobic” describe composting is, quite literally, an active process. It occurs through the presence of oxygen and living matter.
4. As the matter and materials are broken down, essential nutrients are released. This is why composting is often used as a soil enhancer or amendment that enriches plants.
5. Finally, when used to enrich soil, composting creates more oxygen, a stable environment, and anchored roots for plants. We eat plants, and then can compost their scraps…and the process begins again!
Generally, composting occurs by either hot or cold methods.
Cold composting is a low maintenance but long-time method. It involves leaving grass clippings or dry leaves in a bin or on the ground. It may take months or even over a year to decompose. Shredding or chopping can speed up the process of cold composting.
Hot composting works best with a 1:1 ratio of high-carbon material and high-nitrogen material. The pile shrinks as it decomposes. The conditions created during the biologic activity of home composting create finished results within a few weeks, weather conditions allowing.
There are two types of composting, aerobic and anaerobic. As mentioned above, aerobic is likely the type you’ll use in home composting.
Aerobic composting uses an oxygen-rich environment to breed a robust microorganism environment.
Anaerobic composting is used for larger-scale waste management or renewable energy generation. It works slowly and without oxygen.
For anaerobic composting, an environment is created that deprives the organic matter (i.e. food scraps) of oxygen and uses some sort of enclosed space to mimic digestion or decomposition.
Most commercial composting bins work to prevent unpleasant smells. Aerobic composting systems generate enough heat during the decomposition process to squash smells and pathogens.
On the other hand, anaerobic composting systems may need a little more attention. A simple pile with a tarp or garbage bag may do the trick, but the smell can be unbearable. Eventually, the digester will become acidic enough to kill pathogens, but experts suggest using a bin with a tight lid and drainage holes.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “A well-managed compost pile smells earthy.” Having the right ratio of materials will help to create a healthy composting system.
Meat scraps should not be used in composting as they can attract animals. Kitchen wastes can attract flies and insects. However, an easy solution to this problem is to dig a hole in the center of your pile and then bury the fresh waste.
If you’re not yet convinced, let’s look at the benefits of composting.
Did you know that composting provides a cost savings over conventional soil options? It also can provide a cost-effective solution for water and air pollution. Composting helps the earth and the environment in many ways.
-Significantly reduces organic waste in landfills
-Reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers
-Enhances water retention in the soil
-Prevents soil erosion
-Promotes healthier plant growth
-Improves soil health
-Promotes higher yield of crops
-Aids reforestation, wetlands restoration and reclamation, and habitat -revitalization
-Assists in stormwater management
-Reduces project maintenance costs
-Reduces methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) significantly
-Improves contaminated, compacted, and marginal soils
-Provides a cost-effective way to recover soil contaminated by hazardous waste
-Combats climate change
Conventional fertilizers can contain harsh chemicals. Composting turns household waste and food waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer. Soil made from organic matter tends to have more benefits for the environment. Instead of exposing your home to synthetic or artificial chemicals, composting is a more natural process that works wonders while adding vital nutrients to plants.
Recycling and composting can both benefit the environment. In fact, compost is a way to recycle waste products. However, composting systems can be customized to yield desired results. For example, frequently turning compost piles means faster decomposition.
We know you’ve got composting questions — so here are the answers!
There isn’t one “right” place to do composting. The best place for you to compost is wherever the system works for you and reduces food waste.
Composting can be done indoors with minimal preparation.
When beginning to compost at home, there are a few key points to keep in mind.
-If repelling pests is a priority, opt for or purchase a tumbler system.
-Keep in mind that compost must be fully decomposed before you add it to soil or a garden.
-It’s common practice to keep two compost containers — one for scraps that are continually getting added to, and a second for scraps that are completing the decomposition process.
In small spaces, vermicomposting can be an easy solution. Vermicomposting is a type of composting that uses red wiggler worms to assist in the decomposition of the compost pile. Worms eat to produce a richer finished product, and they can eat half of their body weight each day.
Vermicomposting requires drilling holes for airflow and drainage. The worms also need bedding (i.e. paper scraps or leaves) and food scraps added a few times per week. The whole system is inexpensive and can fit in a small closet, bin under the sink, or the garage.
Certain states have rules regarding food waste disposal. Find out about your state’s regulations by clicking here. Some states and communities require rodent-proof bins.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, “Composting can be as simple or as involved as you would like, and depends on how much yard waste you have, how fast you want results, and the effort you are willing to invest.”
A compost pile or bin is easy to make at home. Many people opt for compost bins or store-bought tumblers, but they may be an expensive option.
Other do-it-yourself options include:
-Backyard compost piles
-Salvaged skids lined with chicken wire
In a home composting bin, the most important point to pay attention to is what not to put in the pile.
Avoid the following for at-home compost results:
-Animal products (i.e. dairy, bones, meat) – these items attract pests
-Oily foods (i.e. mayonnaise, peanut butter salad dressing, vegetable oils) – these are difficult to decompose
-Pet waste – these contain harmful pathogens
-Commercially treated plants (i.e. yard waste, cut flowers) – these may have chemicals or dyes that don’t break down
-Weeds (and their roots) or diseased plant material- these can spread and grow wherever the compost is placed, such as nearby plants
Searching for the right equipment can help your composting process. Equipment comes in a variety of size, material, and cost.
When setting up your equipment, place it in the low-traffic area of your lawn or house. It should be protected from the elements if outside.
Here is a basic list of equipment you may need:
-Food Composting Bin
-Home Compost Bin
-Home Compost Bags
-Home Compost Pile
A major tip for composting is to turn the pile regularly. This introduces oxygen flow and releases some of the heat. Keeping the right ratio of materials in the compost pile helps to create a successful soil.
You can compost more than you think! Shredding the pieces or making them smaller will be better for quicker composting.
Compostable items are divided into two main categories:
1.Greens include nitrogen-rich food scraps like apple cores, onion skins, and banana peels
2.Browns include carbon-rich items like nut shells, coffee filters, and empty cardboard tubes.
Greens and browns should be added in a ratio of 25:1 or 40:1. In addition to the decomposing greens and browns, a compost pile needs water to function properly.
A compost pile needs good drainage, similar to a house plant. The ideal balance of water for a compost pile makes it damp but not too wet.
The compost pile should be like a wrung-out sponge, but not too dry. Add water to moisten the pile, or sawdust to make it drier.
-Vegetable scraps (i.e. zucchini and zucchini leaves, -orange peels, onion skins)
-Coffee grounds & filters
-Tea & tea bags
-Grass clippings or yard trimmings
-Shredded newspaper and paper
-Straw and hay
-Woody brush or wood chips
-Cardboard (i.e. empty tubes)
-Cotton or wool rags
-Hair and fur
-Animal products (i.e. dairy, fish bones, or meat)
-Oily foods (i.e. mayo, peanut butter, salad dressing, grease, lard, oils)
-Animal waste (dog or cat waste like litter can carry disease)
-Cut flowers from the store (may contain dyes or chemicals)
-Yard waste treated with pesticides
-Weeds (can grow and spread in the pile)
-Bio-plastic products that are labeled biodegradable
-Black walnut tree leaves and twigs (release harmful substances)
-Coal or charcoal ash
Environmental Protection Agency. Composting At Home. Epa.gov. Published March 31, 2021.
Environmental Protection Agency. Reducing the Impact of Wasted Food by Feeding the Soil and Composting. Epa.gov. Published April 14, 2021.
Larson H. Home Composting: Putting Your Scraps to Use. Eatright.org. Published July 9, 2018.
Natural Resources Conservation Service. Backyard Conservation Tip Sheet. Nrcs.usda.gov. Accessed 2021.
Plant Natural Research Center. Anaerobic. Planetnatural.com. Accessed 2021.
Reilly K. Composting 101: How to Compost at Home. Eatingwell.com. Published April 20, 2020.
The Editors. Soil Preparation: How Do You Prepare Garden Soil For Planting? Almanac.com. Published March 5, 2021.
US Composting Council.Benefits of Compost. Compostingcouncil.org. Accessed 2021.
US Composting Council. Composting Definition. Compostingcouncil.org. Accessed 2021.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food Waste FAQs. Usda.gov. Accessed 2021.
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