Written By Grace Romer.
Posted on May 3rd, 2023.
Standing in front of my compost tumbler on my parent’s half acre of property, I balance a large pot of kitchen scraps: seeded cores from peppers, ends of carrots, wilted spinach picked out of a bag of greens, and spoiled counter tomatoes. Setting the pot on the supporting ground, I slide open the two doors on the tumbler’s chambers. Peeking down into the dark basin of the tumbler, I observe the compost’s natural aerobic (oxygen-required) processes as the earthworms and microorganisms break down the waste generated from our household.
I proceed to lift the pot from the ground, dumping the scraps evenly into both chambers, then adding an equal part of browns consisting of: fallen pine needles, dried leaves, and cardboard, I close the doors to the tumbler and spin it several times. With the force of gravity, the tumbler halts. I slide open the doors again, and I smile as I am greeted with the aroma of the forest floor: the balm of rich, organic matter, the creation of chemical-free, no-cost fertilizer.
Each year, the United States (U.S.) generates millions of tons of municipal solid waste (MSW). In 2018, in the most recent annual waste calculation conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency reported that 292.4 million tons of MSW were generated nation-wide. This equates to 4.9 pounds of MSW per person per day in the U.S. Out of the 292.4 million tons of MSW generated: 25 million tons were composted, with an additional 17.7 million tons of food waste being managed by other methods such as “animal feed, bio-based materials/biochemical processing, co-digestion/anaerobic digestion, donation, land application, and sewer/waste water treatment.”
To some citizens, this amount of food waste being diverted from landfills may be pleasantly surprising and foster some environmental optimism. According to the EPA, the total tons of MSW being composted or used in other management practices, is steadily increasing each year; however, 146 million tons of the total MSW (292.4 million tons) are still being brought to the landfill annually. The total MSW being landfilled, equates to 50% of the total MSW generated in the U.S., and in this 146 million tons, there are literally tons of food and yard waste with the potential to be composted.
Since 2019, my family and I have been composting in our backyard using a dual-chamber compost tumbler, a Mother’s Day gift my siblings and I purchased for our mother. We launched our composting system that spring, diverting our scraps to the tumbler, and within weeks, recognized a significant reduction in our home’s MSW. The amount of trash bags we were dumping into our municipal pick-up bin each week shrunk noticeably. In 2020, nearly a year later, both tumbler chambers were full and it was time to empty the basin. Upon emptying the chambers into a make-shift cinder block pit my father and I created, dark matter began to pour out, topped with specks of freshly dumped food waste. The release of dampened earth, generated from our efforts, allowed for us to have fresh, relatively cost-free fertilizer to utilize for a quality summer harvest.
The practice of human-beings reclaiming organic material for agricultural use, including for home gardening, has been applied since the Paleolithic Period (Old Stone Age - 2.6 million years ago). Presently, in the 21st century, we continue to compost for agricultural purposes, recognizing that it adds nutrients to the soil, is cost-effective, and utilizes waste. Additionally, composting has grown as a way for individuals, communities, and institutions to reduce their waste, lower their carbon footprint, generate relatively cost-free products, and use the whole process as an environmental education tool for all ages. Composting is a widely recognized sustainable practice; yet, it is not integrated into most municipality systems in the U.S., resulting in valuable organic waste being tossed into dumpsters and placed by the curbside, likely to be incinerated or to sit in a landfill.
Composting in a nutshell (those can be composted too!), is the process of combining decomposing food and plant waste that breaks down to create organic matter, used as fertilizer. The natural fertilizer provides quality nutrients to the soil and improves water retention contributing to healthy forests, harvests, and drinking water systems. This process reduces MSW, returning matter to the soil, an environmentally-beneficial practice that can be incorporated into modern, daily living. Composting can be achieved in a myriad of ways on a variety of budgets and time-limitations, for woodlot and for non-woodlot owners alike.
In Part 1 of this 2-part blog post, I will cover four different methods of composting that any environmental steward can implement (yes, you, the environmental steward). In Part 2, I will cover four more methods, for a total of 8 methods to choose from; but, before we discuss the different ways of composting, we need to briefly cover several important facts about the basics of composting:
To Make the Most of Your Compost - The Basics:
- DO COMPOST: Compost may only contain what is known as greens & browns. Greens are nitrogen-rich materials, such as: kitchen scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds (filter may be included), egg shells, hair/fur, nail clippings, horse/cow manure, and green yard waste (fallen fresh leaves/coniferous needles). Browns are carbon-rich materials, such as: cardboard, newspaper, sawdust, dried leaves/coniferous needles, hay/straw, branches/sticks/twigs, corn stalks, fire-place ashes (no coals), dried flowers, nut shells, and dryer lint. Add equal amounts of browns and greens to compost; however, it is okay if there are sometimes more of one than the other.
- DO NOT COMPOST: meat, dairy, breads, plants treated with chemicals, invasive species, glossy paper, stickers, or tape/staples.
- LIMIT COMPOSTING: citrus and onions.
- A compost heap has a great balance of greens (nitrogen) and browns (carbon) if it generates heat. Heat may take several weeks to generate in a compost pile. The heat is noticeable because it will feel and smell hot. If the temperature of the heap drops, add more greens (nitrogen) and turn the heap more often.
- For faster decomposition of materials, turn the compost several times once a week to maintain air flow. Also, keep compost damp (comparable to a wrung out sponge/dish rag) to avoid drying out (the microorganisms & earth worms love moist conditions!).
Now that the basics are covered, let’s plant the seed of composting with four composting methods.
4 Methods of Composting:
#1: A Traditional Composting Tumbler
Materials: A composting tumbler (1- or 2-chambered); Available for purchase online or at department/hardware stores
Price Range: $50 - 400; Standard is $50 - 250
Size: Standard is 28 x 30 x 36 inches & 40-50 gallons (the larger the tumbler, the harder it is to turn)
Space Required: 1 cubic yard of space (3 x 3 x 3ft) in the shade or in indirect sunlight; 10ft away from the home
How it Works: Place the composting tumbler in a shaded or indirect sunlight area that is at least 10ft away from the home. Greens may be discarded into 1 or 2 chambers, with an equal mix of browns. Turn the tumbler once a week several times and check compost dampness. If the compost is dry, add enough water to the chamber to moisten the pile. Compost should be ready in 4-8 weeks.
Pros: Protected/contained in a sealed container; faster composter (4-8 weeks); easy turning; time-saver; minimal-to-no odor; great for all property/woodlot owner.
Cons: Most expensive method on the list; some tumblers can be over $100; potential for leaking due to small air-flow holes; plastic tumbler can warp if placed in direct sunlight; requires a minimum of 3x3x3 foot space
#2: Open Pile
Materials: None (just browns/greens and the ground); If making a structure for the pile is desired, the purchase of lumber, blocks, etc. may be considered. Reclaimed wood pallets or bricks/cinder blocks can also be used to keep costs and need for materials low).
Price Range: $0-50
Size: 1 cubic yard of space (3 x 3 x 3ft)
Space Required: 1 cubic yard of space in the shade or indirect sunlight; 10ft away from the home
How it Works: Locate a spot for an open compost pile in the shade or indirect sunlight, 10ft away from the home. Open pit composting is done in layers for the best balance of nitrogen and carbon. On the bare ground, place a spread-out first layer of browns, then cover with a second layer of greens. Continue to alternate layers of browns and greens, spreading each on top of the other layer. Once the desired amount of layers is added, water the pile and cover with a sack or tarp. Turn the compost pile every couple of weeks and check dampness. If the pile is dry, add enough water to moisten the pile. Feel free to add more compost when turning the pile. Compost should be ready in 8 to 12 weeks.
Pros: Minimal-to-no cost; faster compost (8-12 weeks); time-saver; easy to access; great for most property/woodlot owners (may be difficult for those with small plots of land in dense areas)
Cons: Unprotected (small critters may be drawn to pile, especially if not covered); requires turning by hand (using a pitch fork or shovel is helpful); may produce odor, but if turned often and covered in an airy space, odor is decreased significantly; requires a minimum of 1 cubic yard of space.
#3: Cold Composting (A Passive Method)
Materials: None (just browns/greens and the ground); If a contained structure is desired, a bin may be used by purchasing one or designing one by using reclaimed wood pallets or bricks/cinder blocks
Price Range: $0-50
Size: 1 cubic yard of space (3 x 3 x 3ft)
Space Required: 1 cubic yard of space in the shade or in indirect sunlight; 10ft away from the home
How it Works: Designate a cold composting area on the ground or in a bin on your woodlot. Locate the cold composting area in the shade or indirect sunlight, 10ft away from the home. At the designated area, mix an equal amount of browns and greens together in a pile of at least 1 cubic yard (3 x 3 x 3ft). Leave the pile on the ground or in the bin. Compost should be ready in 16-24 months.
Pros: Minimal-to-no cost; requires no turning; no attention needed (only to add browns/greens, which mimics a ‘natural forest floor’ process); can be converted to hot compost; time-saver; easy to access; great for all property/woodlot owners
Cons: Unprotected from small critters and pests (especially if not covered); slow decomposition rate (covering & watering may help to speed up rate by generating heat); may produce odor, but if turned often and covered in an airy space, odor is decreased significantly; requires a minimum of 1 cubic yard of space
#4: 5-Gallon Bucket (Bokashi Method)
Materials: A 5-gallon bucket with a top; Available for purchase online or at department/hardware stores; A package of Lactobacillus Bacteria product; Available online or at department/gardening stores
Price Range: $5-30 for 5-gallon bucket; $12-70 for bacteria product
Size: 5-gallon bucket; General diameter: 11-12in; General width: 11-12in; General depth: 14-15in; General height: 14-15in
Space Required: 1-foot (or the size of your bucket)
How it Works: Place the 5-gallon bucket preferably in an outdoor area (e.g., a deck, backyard, terrace, balcony, on the side of a garage door, etc). If the bucket is placed indoors, put the bucket in a dry, dark place (e.g., a basement or bottom cabinet). Once placed, open the bucket and add one layer of greens, then one layer of bacteria product. Continue to alternate layers. Once the desired amount of layers is added, seal the bucket and let it sit for about 2-4 weeks to ferment. After 2-4 weeks, add the fermented product into a garden or potted plants by burying the fermented product into the soil and then covering it, to allow the product to break down; nutrients will become available to plants in the breakdown process. The fermented product can also be added to hot or cold compost to assist in the decomposition process.
Pros: Minimal cost; protected/contained in sealed container; requires no turning; requires no oxygen (anaerobic process); no attention needed (only to add greens and bacteria); time-saver; easy to access; may be added to hot/cold compost to assist in decomposition process; great for small property/woodlot owners and non-woodlot owners (e.g., apartment/condo/townhouse renters with a balcony, deck, or outdoor space)
Cons: Produces small amount of compost compared to piles or tumblers; requires purchasing materials and adding of bacteria product to the mix; may produce an odor, especially if the bucket is not airtight or is left to sit for longer than 2 weeks
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about four different methods of composting for a variety of spaces on all budget types.
If you decide to give one of these methods a try, the MyWoodlot team would love to see your composting system in action! Please send any photos and captions about your experience to our team members in our “Contact Us” section.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “A Compost Post” on MyWoodlot for more composting methods for woodlot and non-woodlot owners alike!