By some estimates, 30 percent of materials going into U.S. landfills could be repurposed. I’m not talking about boxes and containers but living things. Or, more accurately, once living things. Food, plants, dried leaves, inedible produce and other organic materials can make your gardening and farming efforts, well, bloom.
Out of the Trash, Into the Bin!
- Fruits and vegetables
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Tea bags
- Nut shells
- Shredded newspaper
- Yard trimmings
- Grass clippings
- Hay and straw
- Wood chips
- Cotton and Wool Rags
- Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
- Hair and fur
- Fireplace ashes
AVOID: black walnut leaves or bark, pesticide-treated grass or plants, and diseased plants
SOURCE: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
As efforts to preserve and protect natural resources grow, consumers, businesses, and other entities are turning to composting. For businesses, composting is also a cost-savings measure. According to Recycling NJ, “The Hyatt Regency Hotel in Princeton started recycling organic waste from its restaurant and reduced their annual running costs by over $10,000.” Home gardeners can see savings from fewer purchases of fertilizer and top soil and perhaps even grocery bills since compost makes Mid-Atlantic red clay and sandy loam more receptive to growing a wider variety of plants.
The U.S. Composting Council (USCC) is a non-profit organization that provides standards, research, advocacy and public education. Its website provides links to composting programs and resources. Recently it introduced Consumer Compost Use Program, which ensures the right type of compost is used for the right purpose – trees or shrubs, flower or vegetable gardens, or lawns. The program is for compost producers and helps consumers make good purchasing decisions. USCC is also running ‘Strive for 5%’ to advocate the inclusion of organic material – compost – in gardens, just as the experts recommend.
But you’re reading this to learn to take waste into your own hands, right? OK, that doesn’t sound pretty but we are talking about things that usually go into the trash, perhaps with a generous sprinkling of borax or baking soda to cut the smell. So let’s start from the beginning.
All living matter comes undone down to the molecular level (decomposes) and can become food for other things to grow. Composting controls that process by using heat and oxygen to first sanitize matter and then allow it to slowly decompose. Microbes that use oxygen, moisture and food to grow and reproduce will then “generate heat, water vapor, and carbon dioxide as they transform raw materials into a stable soil conditioner.”
The USCC explains: “Compost has the unique ability to improve the properties of soils and growing media” in the following three ways:
Physically it changes the structure of clay/loam soil so that it holds water better and is more workable. Humus, a stable residue produced from the composting process, ‘glues’ soil particles together, making it more erosion- and drought-resistant. Having moisture-rich soil is a cost-saver, reducing or eliminating the need for irrigation techniques that can be pretty pricey.
Chemically it improves and can stabilize the acidity (pH) of the soil. It enables soil to hold onto nutrients longer, improving the nutrient-uptake by plants. Compost provides important micronutrients – including nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium – that plants need for strong growth. It can improve the effectiveness of fertilizer.
Biologically it provides important elements in healthy plant production:
Bacterias that fix nitrogen, synthesize compounds which facilitate nutrient uptake, and lessen or prevent diseases,
Protozoans, single-celled animals that grow up to 1/50 of an inch, provide nitrogen which serves as plant food,
Actinomycetes, a large bacteria group that produces antibodies and is the source of that rich dirt smell
Fungi, organisms that eat hard inorganic material, like rocks and iron, converting them into material that is more readily useful to the plant
These microorganisms encourage the presence of earthworms which help to aerate soil and improve the way that water saturates and is held by the soil. Compost suppresses plant diseases such as pythium, fusarium, and nematodes. Other uses:
- binds heavy metals and pesticides in soil, reducing their ability to contaminate soil and plants
- degrades petroleum (hydrocarbons) and other toxic organic compounds
- key in programs to restore wetlands and prevent soil erosion
- immature composts have proven effective in depressing weed growth
SOURCE: USCC Factsheet: Compost and Its Benefits. June 2015 [Free registration required for this PDF download]
Those are the highlights of the science of composting. The USCC has more information and you may even want to check out the Soil Biology page on the website of the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Services for a really in-depth look at this most basic of growing mediums.
The Look, The Tools
Composting may be considered a job for those with cast-iron stomachs because frankly, decomposing anything is never pretty to look at. But, oh, the end result – rich, black loam that delights a grower’s heart and colors dreams of a bountiful cornucopia. What’s needed to get started?
For many, composting may bring to mind large trenches or mounds managed with small earth movers or, as my dad had, a large drum in the backyard that required periodic rotation. But composting can be done on a smaller scale, even indoors. Search on indoor composters and you’ll find a plethora of purchasing options, from small plastic $8-40 bins to $360 high-tech electric models, all of which can fit in with your kitchen décor. Or sit out back of the house, on the balcony or porch.
One of the more important tools you’ll need: knowledge of state and local regulations if you’re going large and/or outdoors. The USCC offers a directory page of State regulations, codes, and permits.
Give the Garbage Disposal a Break
Composting is another facet of recycling and can probably go miles towards assuaging guilt feelings over letting something linger too long in the fridge, like the eggplant that got shoved to the back of the shelf and is now really – well. Into the composter, not the garbage disposal! For juicing devotees who remain unenthusiastic about those creative cracker recipes made from pulp, composting is a great option for disposal without waste.
Dryer lint, nut shells, and fur are all candidates for the compost bin. Long-hair pet families rejoice! Composting can make the trash can feel deprived and may make the recycling bin a bit jealous. For gardeners, composting is the natural solution for recycling plant matter. And nut shells…
Meats, fish, and dairy are on the NOT list when it comes to conventional composting because of harmful toxins that develop as they break down. But there is a method that enables the safe composting of protein and any cooked food. Developed in Japan, bokashi employs the use of Effective Microorganisms (EM), a blend of beneficial food grade microorganisms. The classic site Compost Guy contains a lot of useful information on bokashi which it helpfully describes as an “anabolic fermentation process.” In plain-speak that basically means composting that occurs in an oxygen-free environment. Once fermented, the waste matter can go into the compost bin for further decomposition. A beneficial by-product of bokashi is a ‘tea’ which contains the living microbes; it is used to improve plant growth and clean drains. Yes. Drains.
As every seasoned gardener knows, worms are excellent soil aerators. Using them as composters creates additional benefits to whatever is being grown. Eisenia fetida, known by several names including red worm or red wriggler, is the go-to worm for this type of composting. Basically, your waste is their food, their waste is good soil. This process requires more time and care because you’re dealing with living things that need nurturing – food, water, stirring (gently) – so they can do their job. Vermicompost yields happier plants that are protected from germs and parasites courtesy of beneficial microbes produced by EF‘s digestive tract. Time-to-compost is shorter than non-worm composting because worms are fast eaters and digesters; 1000 can consume a pound of waste a day.
At the end of the composting process is humus, the rich soil that is bought by the bagful at the local DIY retailer. Those in the know will obtain their composted soil from State and local composting centers. But if you want to be completely at home with composting, read on.
DIY – All or In Part
Organic waste hauling, or waste management, is a resource employed by an increasing number of restaurants and businesses to reduce the amount of waste that goes into the landfill. This can represent a tremendous cost savings. But what about consumers? As it turns out, you don’t have to have tons of waste to benefit and be benefited by composting.
Since 2010, CompostCab has served residential and commercial customers in Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD. This subscription-based service picks up material from residences and businesses on a weekly basis. It even provides bins and liners for storing material. In the Spring and Fall, if so desired, subscribers of six months or more receive a supply of humus, an average of 50 pounds a year. Drop-off points are also available in the Dupont area of Washington, DC throughout the year: Sundays at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market between April and November and alternate Sundays at the Dupont Market between December and March. Garbage out, compost in. Their pick-up zone is based on the zip code of subscribers. So if your area isn’t currently on their route, it could soon be if you make your interest known. Follow them at @CompostCab on Twitter.
There are several general articles on eHow on becoming a composter. And don’t forget the invaluable information that can be found at USCC, the EPA and your state and local environmental resources departments as well.
Go for It!
Help for DIY composting abounds. The basics:
- Mix browns and greens equally.
- The smaller the pieces going into the pile, the faster the process.
- Bury new waste 10 inches down into the compost pile.
- Regularly mix and turn. If outdoors, pitchforks, square-point shovels or machetes can be used to do this.
- Water with a spray hose regularly to keep everything moist. A tarp cover can also be used to hold in moisture.
- Optimal temperature: 131° – 155°F (55-68°C)
Indoor compost bins should yield useable soil in about 5 weeks. Large outdoor piles can take up to two years.
Composting bins and centers may at some point become as commonplace as recycling bins and centers. The rewards are pragmatic and personal, from cost cutting to cost-savings to truly embracing green living. It’s the sensible solution, one that has the attention of large businesses, government, communities, and individuals. Organic recycling is here to stay.
Composting at Home. United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Anaerobic Fermentation. Compost Fundamentals. Washington State University Whatcom County Extension.
Bokashi – Composting Cooked Food Waste. GrowVeg.
Benefits of Worm Composting. eHow.
Companies That Pick Up Waste for Composting
Veteran Compost (Maryland/DC)
Ag-Choice (New Jersey, commercial only)
Compost for Sale
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roxanne Corbin has lived most of her life in the mid-Atlantic. She is a latent artist and wistful-thinking gardener. An information hunter by trade, Roxanne is currently working to transition from the corporate world to managing a research and writing business of her own.