Composting is one of the very best ways to reduce the amount of trash that winds up in our landfills or gets incinerated. We’ve covered lots about it here at The Eco Hub since it is an essential part of going zero waste, and a great step toward sustainable living. There is so much to know about it too like these 15 amazing composting facts or the best indoor, urban compost bins and kitchen systems. In this edition of our explorations on everything composting, we’ll be looking into the different types of composting.
What is composting?
Composting is a process that involves turning organic matter like food scraps from your kitchen, yard waste, and other compostable materials into a rich additive that can be used to enrich plants and soils.
There are two categories when it comes to what goes into the compost: green matter and brown matter. A good rule of thumb is to go for a 2:1 ratio of the green stuff to the brown stuff.
Green matter is nitrogen-rich stuff like veggie scraps, the skin from avocados or banana peels, freezer burnt veggies, spoiled canned foods like beans, moldy jam, leftover starches like cooked pasta or rice, spoiled nut milk, yeast, coffee grounds, loose tea leaves, and grass clippings.
Once you start looking out for this stuff you may start to notice just how much of this stuff you generate at home. And it feels great to be able to keep it out of the trash and to put them to good use instead.
Brown matter refers to carbon-rich matter like crushed up eggshells, broken down egg cartons, used brown paper bags and napkins, cardboard TP and paper towel rolls, stale herbs and spices, bread and muffins, newspaper, unwaxed cardboard cereal boxes, toothpicks, and unbleached coffee filters. This can all go into your compost heap as well. You can compost different types of paper too. Stale bread, cereal, oatmeal, seeds, granola, dry rice, pizza crust, tortillas, and nuts (except walnuts) count as brown matter. Not green.
Another great rule of thumb is to break down anything you add to a compost heap to at least 1 inch small but use your better judgment. Some people grind their green materials right down using a food processor or grinder. This helps the decomposition process quite a lot.
And the larger the materials, the longer it will take the organisms involved in the decomposition process like worms, fungi, and microorganisms to break down the materials and turn them into the rich humus or tea that can be fed to plants depending on the types of composting methods used.
In all the fun, you may start wanting to throw all sorts of organic matter into your compost and that’s not always the best idea. Some things can be turned into wonderful zero waste meals. Who knows? That may your entry into a zero waste kitchen, and the kitchen is basically one of the places where we generate the most trash in the home.
Other things like too many citrus fruits can throw off the decomposition process, and in large amounts, both meat and dairy can attract unwanted critters. So what is not compostable is equally as important as what is compostable.
You also want to avoid onions, garlic, fats, and oil, produce stickers, tea bags, plastics (unless otherwise indicated), diapers, dryer lint, leather, diseased plants, animal feces, and medications.
If you are wondering about the difference between biodegradable vs compostable, things that are compostable can safely be returned to the earth and fed to soils and plants that will hugely benefit from them.
What are the benefits of composting?
1. It’s a great way to help your plants grow
A natural fertilizer, the humus or tea that comes from composting is super rich and nutritious. It is highly prized by organic farmers and the secret and well-loved weapon of many a seasoned gardener. It also improves soil quality, adding beneficial microbes and nutrients — even helping plants to fight disease.
2. It’s good for the environment
Composting is a great way of reducing our carbon footprint in several ways. First, it helps to reduce the amount of garbage that goes to landfill, but it also helps to sequester carbon rather than releasing it into the atmosphere in landfill or incineration.
3. It saves money
Composting can help reduce, if not eliminate, the need for chemical and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It also helps to reduce any packaging associated with purchasing compost. It helps with water retention as well which reduces the need for watering and can save you money on your water bill.
4. It helps with sandy soils
If your soil is sandy, compost is a great way to help with drainage. The compost acts like a kind of sponge that helps to slow drainage and keeps more water around for plants to use.
5. Can help balance soil pH
If your soil is too alkaline or too acidic, compost can help to neutralize the pH in order to create conditions that are more suitable for plants to grow. This is considered quite difficult to figure out and yet, composting can help here too!
Types of composting
1. Compost Pile
A composting pile is a great way to start composting and basically consists of starting a heap or pile of organic matter that needs to be turned occasionally to aerate it. This is a form of aerobic composting which means it requires oxygen for the microorganism involved to do their best work. If you want to start your own pile, there are several ways to go about it. Here’s one way:
Simply choose a spot in your yard that is shady and dry but near a water source for when you need to moisten the pile.
Start the pile with a base layer of straw or twigs or any brown matter that you have around. This should be done over exposed soil if you can and if you are using something other than straw or twigs, make sure it is broken down. This first layer should be a couple of inches thick and will help with drainage.
You have the option of using a bin to control the heap from spreading and you can either make the bins or buy them.
Next, layer your green matter and brown matter to form your pile. Water each layer as you go but just so that they are moist — not wet. If the pile is too wet, decomposition will slow. If it is too dry, decomposition will also be affected.
Now that you are all done with that, you’ve officially started your compost pile! The best time to start turning your pile will depend on the temperatures it reaches and how quickly this happens. It seems like leaving it to “cook” for at least 2 weeks at a time is a good rule of thumb, but some recommend leaving 4-5 weeks in between turns.
Whatever you decide, don't worry too much. This will affect how quickly you get usable compost, not whether or not it will happen. If you are finding yourself perplexed with your pile, check out what different sources recommend around the web so you can get a good idea of what will work best for you. And don’t be afraid to ask questions!
2. Compost tumbler
Compost tumblers are bins that sit on a sorting wheel and can be easily turned for aeration. Place bins in a sunny spot for best results and just add green materials in with brown materials according to specifications of the manufacturer, and moisten with water if necessary. Then spin the bin as directed. Some bins need to be spun every two to five days.
3. Kitchen composting
If you don’t have a backyard, composting in your kitchen is possible using different types of indoor compost bins and kitchen systems. They consist of a container like this ceramic bin or the Net Zero Co. compost bin which both include a charcoal filter in the lid that helps with any potential odors.
This is perfect for smaller kitchens and spaces and can be paired with larger outdoor systems. They may be a little small for some, however, especially since the decomposition process may be slow and take time to deliver usable compost so you can get started with a fresh batch.
There are more high-tech options out there like the Envirocycle Mini Composter, Vitamin FoodCycler, or the Tero Bucket which turn food scraps into usable materials much faster while taking equally as little space as their more low-tech counterparts.
The source of the highly coveted worm tea, vermicomposting involves exactly what it sounds like. Lots of worms. Despite their creepy crawly public image, worms are actually really great friends of the earth, and of gardens everywhere. So if you spot some red wrigglers (Eisenia fetida) or redworms (Lumbricus rebellus) in a compost heap, garden, or soil, it is a really good sign, though it may be difficult to tell them apart.
In this form of composting, the perfect environment is created and filled with what worms like to eat. The worms then eat through the lovely stuff that comes out of your kitchen and generates ’castings’. The result is a rich blend of nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that can be used to feed plants and soils.
Similar to other forms of composting there are foods to avoid here too and the size of food scraps will definitely determine how quickly the decomposition process happens.
5. Bokashi Composting
Unlike all of the composting methods discussed above, Bokashi composting relies on anaerobic decomposition — meaning no oxygen is required. Originating in Japan, Bokashi composting uses the power of bacterial culture which ferments wastes.
Food scraps from meat and dairy products are fine here. To work, inoculated bran, rice, or wheat mill run, and kitchen scraps are pressed into a Bokashi bucket, covered with a handful of bran, and then tightly covered.
Once the bucket is full it is sealed for 10 to 12 days, during which it must be drained of the leachate generated — don’t worry, there are specially designed buckets with spigots for that. The final product can be buried away from plant roots in the garden or added to a compost heap.
6. Trench Composting
This one is probably best for the gardeners or farmers out there. It involves digging a long trench (or several depending on the size of the working area) and burying organic matter inside the trench where it will be left to decompose.
There are different ways to go about this but the organic matter does have to decompose before it is readily available to plants which do take some time.
One of the methods of applying this type of composting involves a three-year rotation and three trenches.
7. Sheet composting
This is another low-maintenance option, though like trench composting it does require a little attention at the beginning. It involves raking compostable materials over/into a few inches of topsoil which should be ready for planting season. So if done in the fall, this method can be used to nourish plants for the spring.
8. Drum Composting
Using a perforated barrel, garbage pail, or drum of wood, and a tight-fitting lid works here and makes this a great low-tech, potentially cheap solution for composting.
The container of your choice is simply filled with the correct ratio of green and brown matter along with a little bit of soil, manure, or finished compost, and then it is left for several weeks before it is rotated.
A final word on types of composting
These are some of our favorite types of composting and there are definitely more ways to compost all of the organic matter we generate in our homes and elsewhere. That is part of what makes composting so great.
We hope this list has inspired you to start a compost of your own, helped you pin down the best way to start composting, or just get you a little more informed on the whole thing. We are definitely fans of composting over here at The Eco Hub.
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