The intentional act of creating and utilizing compost has been around almost as long as humans have been cultivating plants. Composting is the managed process by which microorganisms decompose organic matter (such as food scraps and yard waste), turning it into a nutrient-rich, soil-like material called compost. Compost can then serve as a natural fertilizer for crops and other plants, making it a cornerstone of organic agriculture. If you care about organics, you should care about compost!
The rising concerns of climate change, resource conservation, and feeding our growing population have increased the attention paid to composting in recent decades. This is for good reason - composting offers a host of benefits. By composting, we:
- Divert valuable resources from our growing landfills, and avoid the considerable methane production caused by landfilling organic waste;
- Counteract the depletion of our soils by sending nutrients back to the Earth, where the carbon can be successfully sequestered and kept from our atmosphere;
- Boost farm and garden productivity without the use of polluting, energy-intensive chemical fertilizers.
If there was ever a panacea for our environmental woes, composting is it!
Industrial vs. “Backyard” Composting
There are two main camps when it comes to composting: composting on an industrial scale, and at-home (or “backyard”) composting. Large-scale, industrial composting facilities can process large amounts of organic matter very efficiently. Also, because they typically reach higher temperatures, industrial composting operations can breakdown a wider variety of materials than your home compost heap (including things like compostable cups, serviceware, utensils, bones, etc.). Unfortunately, such facilities aren’t available everywhere.
Even without access to large-scale composting facilities, composting is still an option for everyone. You don’t even need a yard to compost… you can do it in as little as 5-gallon bucket! To give you a place to start, we’ve provided a simple overview of how to build and manage a basic compost heap in your backyard. This is only one of many ways to compost, so if this approach doesn’t work for you, don’t hesitate to explore further!
How to Compost at Home
What Sort of Materials Can You Compost?
There are a wide range of household and yard wastes that you can easily compost in your backyard, and keep out of your local landfill! It’s a big list - here goes:
- Arbor Teas’ specially-designed backyard compostable packaging!
- Coffee grounds
- Corn cobs/stalks
- Fruit waste
- Grass clippings
- Hair (animal and human)
- Peanut shells
- Pine needles
- Stable bedding
- Tea leaves
- Vegetable waste
- Weeds (non-invasive)
- Wheat straw
- Wood ash
- Wood chips
What Shouldn’t You Compost?
When composting in your backyard, there are some things that you’ll want to avoid adding because they attract pests, are smelly, or can ruin or contaminate your compost. Here’s a rundown:
- Meat and dairy products
- Oils and oily foods
- Dog and cat feces
- Glossy/colored paper
- Coal or charcoal ashes
- Plants treated with pesticides
- Diseased plants
- Invasive weeds and seeds
There are also some things that can often be composted in large-scale, industrial settings that won’t break down sufficiently in your typical backyard compost pile, like compostable servingware, utensils, and cups. But don’t worry - Arbor Teas’ compostable packaging is designed especially for backyard composting, so don’t hesitate to toss it on your heap!
Keys to Successful Composting
A combination of factors and ingredients need to come together in order for composting to successfully take place. Here are the main ones:
- Lots and lots of organisms, including a wealth of microbes, fungi, and invertebrates (most importantly, worms!). These are the key players in breaking down the organic matter into compost. Everything else about successful composting revolves around making these guys happy! Putting your compost heap directly on the ground and adding compost or soil to the mix is all you need to do to get these guys to move in (see the recipe below).
- The right balance of carbon and nitrogen. In composting, we call these “browns” (leaves, sawdust, etc.) and “greens” (grass clippings, veggie trimmings, etc.). Too little nitrogen (proportionally speaking), and there won’t be enough “fuel” for the microorganisms, which slows down the composting process. Too much nitrogen, and you’ll have a compost pile smelling of ammonia (which is just the excess nitrogen escaping). The ideal balance is roughly 2:1 “browns” to “greens” by volume (think two wheelbarrows full of leaves for every one wheelbarrow full of grass clippings).
- Adequate airflow. Sufficient access to oxygen is needed by many of the vital microorganisms in order to achieve “aerobic” decomposition. Without oxygen, only “anaerobic” decomposition can occur, which will yield a great big mess smelling of swamps, sewers, and rotten eggs. You don’t want that, so make sure you turn your pile periodically.
- The right amount of moisture. Compost should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge, which is what the microbes need to do their job. A dry compost pile slows to a halt, while a wet one becomes a slimy, smelly mess!
A Basic Recipe for Composting
Making a compost pile in your backyard at home is really quite simple. Here’s what you need to do to get started:
- Start by layering 2 parts “browns” (fallen leaves, sawdust, etc.) and 1 part “greens” (grass clippings, veggie scraps, etc.).
- Top it off with several shovels full of soil or compost.
- Add water and stir to achieve a “wrung out sponge” moisture-level.
- Mix or turn periodically to make sure the pile gets enough oxygen.
Once your compost pile is underway, feel free to continue adding your organic waste to the pile, as long as you make sure to alternate between “browns” and “greens” at the desired 2:1 ratio. Make sure to keep it moist and turn it over periodically.
Where to Locate Your Compost Pile
Putting your compost pile in the right place can make all the difference. Here are some considerations:
- Make sure it's convenient to where you generate the most compostable waste, especially your kitchen.
- It's also important to make it convenient to where you'll use the compost, like your garden beds.
- Keep it near your water source.
- To keep your compost pile from drying out too quickly, avoid wind-exposed and/or full sun areas.
- At the same time, you want to keep your compost pile well drained. Avoid low, wet areas.
- Don’t put it up against wood buildings, which may be damaged by decomposition.
- Consider putting it in a discrete location - as amazing as composting is, not everyone wants to look at your pile.
- It helps to stockpile leaves and other “browns” when they’re plentiful (like in the fall), as we tend to generate “greens” at a pretty fast clip year-round, and it’s easy to outpace your supply of “browns” if you’re not careful.
- Consider covering your compost pile with a large sheet of cardboard - this helps hold in the right amount of moisture, while deflecting excess moisture from rainfall.
- Cut or chop up hard or large-sized items (corn cobs, melon rinds, etc.) to accelerate decomposition.
Biodegradable vs. Compostable vs. Backyard Compostable
In today's steadily expanding 'green' market, there is a lot of confusion among ethical consumers about what exactly some of the labeling means - and with good reason. There is an incredible amount of new terminology in the marketplace. A good portion of the terminology has to do with the packaging materials, which are a major concern now that the amount of waste being dumped in the world’s oceans and developing countries is better understood. To help clarify things, we'd like to explain the difference between 'compostable,' 'biodegradable,' 'degradable,' and the standard of our own packaging material, 'backyard compostable.'
Compostable, Biodegradable and Degradable
According to the American Society for Testing & Materials (ASTM), a compostable material has to be 'capable of undergoing biological decomposition (..) such that the material is not visually distinguishable and breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, (...) and leaves no toxic residue.' Additionally, it needs to break down at about the same rate as paper.
So, how is a compostable material different from a biodegradable material? For a material to be biodegradable, it needs to degrade due to the functioning of some living microorganism. But biodegradability standards do not address the amount of time the material takes to degrade, nor if it leaves a toxic residue. Unfortunately, most biodegradable waste (such as plastic cups made from corn starch), are buried in landfills too deep for the bacteria responsible for biodegrading to survive - there's just not enough oxygen. And when there isn't enough oxygen present, many of these biodegradable plastics release methane (a potent greenhouse gas) while degrading. Additionally, some of them can leave behind toxic residues such as heavy metals - which are harmful to plants, animals, and humans (Source: GreenLivingTips).
An even weaker environmental standard would be degradable materials. For a material to be 'degradable', it simply needs to be able to be broken down through chemical reactions in a man-made environment. Usually these materials are oil-based; a byproduct of gasoline production.
So What’s “Backyard Compostable”?
Arbor Teas' packaging rises above all three of these standards - the next-generation material we use is backyard compostable. In addition to all of the requirements for compostability set forth by the ASTM (as described above), backyard compostable materials need to degrade relatively quickly in a natural environment. Many products labeled as 'compostable' only break down under industrial conditions - usually large metal containers with computer-controlled aeration, humidity, and oxygen levels that provide optimal conditions for microorganisms to break down the material (Spellman 79). But backyard compostable materials, like those implemented by Arbor Teas, can break down in a natural environment - like a compost pile behind your house - turning into viable, usable soil that is free of any toxic residues.