What Is Compost? A Complete Guide to Composting and Its Benefits

What Is Compost? A Complete Guide to Composting and Its Benefits

What is Composting? Exploring the Process and Purpose

Composting is the natural process of breaking down organic matter, such as food scraps, yard trimmings, and paper products, into a dark, crumbly material called compost. Compost is rich in nutrients and can be used as a soil amendment or fertilizer for plants. Composting has many benefits for the environment, such as:

  • Reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators, which saves space, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions .
  • Improving soil health and structure, which helps retain moisture, prevent erosion, and suppress weeds and diseases .
  • Enhancing plant growth and productivity, which increases food security and biodiversity.
  • Recycling valuable resources and creating a closed-loop system of organic matter .

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What is Composting? Exploring the Process and Purpose

The Composting Definition in Environmental Science

Composting can be defined as a form of biological treatment of organic waste. Biological treatment is a process that uses microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, to decompose organic matter into simpler substances. Composting is different from other forms of biological treatment, such as anaerobic digestion or vermicomposting, in that it requires aerobic conditions, meaning the presence of oxygen. Aerobic conditions allow for faster decomposition and higher temperatures, which can kill pathogens and weed seeds.

How Does It Benefit the Environment?

Reducing the Waste Stream and Personal Food Waste

Food waste is a major source of organic waste that can be composted. Globally, one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, resulting in 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste every year. Reducing food waste can have huge benefits, saving water, land, energy, and emissions used to produce, transport, and dispose of food. To reduce food waste, different levels of the food system can adopt various approaches, such as better harvesting, storage, and transport technologies, improved packaging and marketing practices, and educating consumers about food safety, storage, and preparation. Other strategies include donating surplus food to food banks or charities, and composting food scraps or using them as animal feed to return nutrients to the soil.

Cutting Methane Emissions from Landfills

Cutting methane emissions from landfills can help mitigate climate change and improve air quality. Methane is not only a greenhouse gas, but also a precursor of ozone, a harmful air pollutant that affects human health and crop yields. Reducing methane emissions can also create economic opportunities for landfill operators and communities. This can generate revenue, create jobs, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. There are several methods to reduce or capture methane emissions from landfills, such as:

  • Reducing the amount of organic waste that goes to landfills, by using prevention, reduction, reuse, recycling, or composting strategies.
  • Installing gas collection systems that capture methane from landfill wells and pipes.
  • Flaring or burning methane gas to convert it into carbon dioxide and water vapor, which have lower global warming potential than methane.
  • Utilizing methane gas for fuel, electricity, or industrial applications.

Improving Soil Health, Lessening Erosion, and Conserving Water

Composting can improve soil health, benefiting the environment and agriculture. Soil health refers to how soil sustains plants, animals, and humans as a living system. It depends on physical, chemical, and biological properties. Compost improves soil properties in the following ways:

  • Improves soil structure, root growth and water infiltration by increasing aggregation and porosity, and reducing compaction, crusting, and erosion.
  • Increases soil fertility by adding nutrients that soil microbes use for nutrient cycling, and that plants need for growth and development.
  • Improves soil water retention by reducing runoff and evaporation losses, increasing water availability for plants during dry periods, and creating pores that allow excess water to drain away from the root zone.

Improving Soil Health, Lessening Erosion, and Conserving Water

How to Compost: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners

Compost Ingredients: What Can and Can’t Be Composted

  1. The first step to make the best compost is to collect and sort your compost materials.
  2. You will need a balance of carbon-rich materials (browns) and nitrogen-rich materials (greens) for your compost.
  3. Browns include dry leaves, straw, paper, cardboard, wood chips, etc.
  4. Greens include grass clippings, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells, etc.
  5. You should avoid adding meat, dairy, bones, fats, oils, cooked foods, citrus, spicy foods, onion, garlic, and anything salty or oily to your compost, as they may attract pests and cause odors.
  6. You should also chop or shred any large pieces of organic matter to increase surface area and speed up decomposition.

Temperature, Aeration, and Moisture: Maintaining Optimal Conditions

To compost, start by layering browns about 4 inches (10 cm) thick at the bottom of your pile or container. Then add green material about 2 inches (5 cm) thick on top of the browns. Moisten the layers but avoid soaking them. Repeat until you fill the container. A 1 cubic yard compost pile is ideal for proper decomposition.

To maintain your compost, turn your pile or rotate your bin at least once a week or when the temperature drops below 90°F (32°C) or rises above 140°F (60°C). Check the moisture level of your compost regularly and add water or dry materials as needed. Keep the moisture level between 40% and 60%. Monitor the ratio of browns and greens in your compost and aim for a 2:1 ratio by volume for the best balance of energy and nutrients.

How Long Does Composting Take? Understanding the Process

The time it takes for your compost to be ready depends on several factors, such as:

  • The size and type of organic materials you use. Smaller pieces decompose faster than larger pieces.
  • The balance of carbon and nitrogen in your compost. A good ratio ensures optimal microbial activity and decomposition.
  • The moisture level of your compost. Too dry or too wet conditions can slow down decomposition.
  • The oxygen supply of your compost. Aerobic decomposition is faster and more efficient than anaerobic decomposition.
  • The temperature of your compost. Higher temperatures speed up decomposition but also kill beneficial organisms.

Generally speaking, hot composting can produce finished compost in a few months if done properly. Cold composting can take up to a year or more.

How Long Does Composting Take? Understanding the Process

Types of Composting for Home Use

Exploring Different Methods of Composting at Home

There are different ways to compost at home, depending on your space, preferences, and materials. Some of the most common methods are:

  • Backyard composting: This is the traditional method of composting in an open pile or a bin in your backyard or garden, which can produce the best compost in a few months if done properly.
  • Worm composting (vermicomposting): This is a method of composting using worms, usually red wigglers, that eat and digest organic matter in a bin, which can produce compost in a few weeks or months, depending on the size of the bin and the number of worms.

Backyard Composting: Steps, Ingredients, and Rodent Avoidance

Backyard composting is a popular way to produce high-quality and one of the best compost for your garden. Follow these steps for success:

  • Get a bin or area that is approximately one cubic yard
  • Mix two parts “brown” materials with one part “green” materials for optimal decomposition
  • Chop up large pieces of organic matter and water your compost pile to keep it moist
  • Turn your compost pile every few days to every few weeks using a garden fork or shovel
  • Harvest your finished compost when it looks and smells like rich soil

To avoid unwanted visitors in your compost pile:

  • Use a bin with a tight-fitting lid and wire mesh bottom
  • Avoid adding meat, dairy, bones, fats, oils, and cooked foods
  • Bury your food scraps under at least 10 inches (25 cm) of browns or finished compost
  • Keep your pile moist but not wet
  • Turn your pile regularly

Backyard Composting: Steps, Ingredients, and Rodent Avoidance

Worm Composting (Vermicomposting): Steps and Benefits

Worm composting is a fun and efficient way to compost using worms in a shallow, dark bin with holes for drainage and ventilation. Worm castings, which are nutrient-rich and contain beneficial microbes for plants, are produced. It’s great for people with limited space or who compost indoors. Here are the steps for successful worm composting:

  • Get or make a shallow, dark worm bin with drainage and ventilation hole.
  • Fill the bin three-quarters full with moist bedding materials, such as shredded newspaper, cardboard, coconut coir, or peat moss
  • Add composting worms, such as red wigglers or European nightcrawlers, to the bin
  • Feed the worms fruit and vegetable scraps once or twice a week, burying them under the bedding
  • Keep the bin in a dark, cool place and check the moisture and pH levels regularly
  • Harvest the worm castings when they resemble coffee grounds and have little or no bedding left

Worm composting benefits include reducing waste and methane emissions, improving soil health, and producing worm tea as a liquid fertilizer.

Worm Composting (Vermicomposting): Steps and Benefits

Utilizing Compost in Your Yard and Garden

Using Finished Compost to Improve Soil Health

Compost improves soil health in various ways:

  • Improves soil structure by reducing compaction and crusting, which limits root growth and water infiltration. This helps bind soil particles together and makes them more resistant to erosion.
  • Enhances soil fertility by adding organic matter and nutrients that are essential for plant growth and development.
  • Increases soil water retention by acting like a sponge that absorbs and holds water in the soil. This reduces runoff and evaporation losses, and increases water availability for plants during dry periods.

To use finished compost to improve soil health, you can apply it in different ways:

  • Top dressing: Spread a thin layer about 1/4 inch (0.6 cm) of compost over the surface of your soil.
  • Side dressing: Place a handful of compost around the base or along the side of each plant or row.
  • Incorporating: Mix or till a generous amount about 2 to 4 inches (5-10 cm) of compost into the top 6 to 12 inches (15-30 cm) of your soil before planting or seeding.

Layering Method for Starting a Compost Pile

Here are the steps to follow for starting a compost pile using the layering method:

  • Start with a layer of browns about 4 inches (10 cm) thick at the bottom of your pile or container. This will help with drainage and aeration.
  • Add a layer of greens about 2 inches (5 cm) thick on top of the browns. Sprinkle some water over the layers to moisten them but not soak them.
  • Add some soil or finished compost over the layers to introduce beneficial microorganisms to your pile.
  • Repeat these steps until you have used up all your materials or filled up your container.

You can also add other ingredients to your pile to enhance its quality and performance, such as crushed eggshells, wood ash, coffee grounds, seaweed.

Where to Place Your Compost Bin or Pile

The location of your compost bin or pile is important for its success and convenience. You should choose a location that is:

  • Convenient: Place your bin or pile near your kitchen or garden and a water source. This makes it easy to add materials and water.
  • Well-drained: Put your bin or pile on a level surface with good drainage. This prevents waterlogging and nutrient loss. Use bricks, pallets, or gravel to improve drainage.
  • Partially shaded: Choose a spot with some sun and shade to maintain a moderate temperature and moisture level. Too much sun dries it out, while too much shade cools it down.

Where to Place Your Compost Bin or Pile

You should also consider the following factors when choosing a location for your compost bin or pile:

  • Aesthetics: Place your bin or pile in an area that is not too visible or close to neighbors to avoid complaints or conflicts.
  • Wildlife: Put your bin or pile in a spot that is not too accessible or attractive to wildlife. Use a bin with a tight-fitting lid and wire mesh bottom to deter pests.

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