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FEATURE ARTICLE - MAY/JUNE 2008
Pick a Composter, Any Composter
We give you six popular options and help you determine which style is the right one for you.
Composting your organic waste at home is, as we at Green America like to say, a “win-win-win” situation. You win by turning your kitchen scraps and yard waste into a great fertilizer for your garden. Your pocketbook wins, because that fertilizer is free. And most importantly, the planet wins because your organic waste doesn’t get transported to a landfill, where it will decompose anaerobically and release methane, a flammable greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Composting allows your organic waste to decompose with the help of oxygen-breathing aerobic microbes. Though aerobic decomposition produces some CO2, it still releases fewer greenhouse gas emissions than landfilling, even when methane capture systems are in place, says composting consultant Brian Jerose, co-owner of Waste Not Resource Solutions.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why many people don’t start composting is that they actually don’t know how to start. It’s hard to tell which of the many available compost bins is best for your household. Here’s a rundown on the different types, so you can begin composting today.
How to Compost
Composting means managing the decomposition of your household organic waste into a rich humus that is a great garden fertilizer. All composting methods share a few basic characteristics:
• Unless using a specialized bin, keep a roughly 50/50 mixture of “brown” and “green” organic waste in your compost to yield ideal results. “Green” waste is moist, organic waste like fruit and vegetable peels. “Brown” waste is dry, papery waste like grass clippings or twigs. See “What to Compost” below for more details.
• Ensure that your pile remains moist—about the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Organic waste needs some water to decompose, which can generally come from adding more green waste.
• But don’t let the pile get too moist, because the aerobic bacteria that assist the composting process need air to survive. If your pile seems too wet, add more brown waste.
• Turn your compost to get air to the aerobic bacteria and speed up the process. Wear gloves and a dust mask to prevent exposure to allergens.
• Pay attention to your compost’s temperature. The decaying process actually generates heat, so your pile should feel warm. If it doesn’t, add more green waste. Decomposition occurs most efficiently when the temperature inside the pile is 104°F–131°F. You can use a compost thermometer to take your compost’s temperature.
• Keep a small container in your kitchen to easily collect green food scraps, so you don’t have to run outside to your larger bin every time you peel an orange or crack an egg. Storing it in the freezer will keep smells and flies at bay.
• The best time to start composting is in the spring or early summer. The process will be much slower in cold weather, though an insulated holding bin can keep things going somewhat. Jerose recommends the “lasagna method,” or alternating layers of green and brown waste, so the pile is ready to decompose as soon as the weather warms up. He recommends stockpiling summer yard waste, so you’ll always have some on hand.
• To keep pests away, use an enclosed bin with mesh underneath, if it doesn’t have a bottom; or bury kitchen scraps underneath at least eight inches of brown waste. And don’t compost meat or dairy products, which give off a strong odor as they decompose that attracts pests.
A Low-Maintenance Pile
Good for: People who want something simple, don’t need to use the fertilizer quickly, and have space in their yard; average to large households with yard waste.
A compost pile is as easy as its name—you simply throw your organic yard and kitchen waste into a pile in your yard and let it decompose, no turning required. It might take anywhere from six months to two years, but eventually, all of that waste will turn into compost. This method won’t work for households that don’t generate yard waste, as a pile of only green waste will attract pests. To make your pile more pleasing to the eye, you can enclose it on three sides (so you don’t have to pole vault into it to collect the compost) with fencing, chicken wire, or concrete blocks.
Compost piles are great for households of any size, because they can be as small or large as you need them to be. About once a year, you can dig out the finished compost from the bottom.
Good for: People who want something low-maintenance but more attractive than a pile; those who want to compost in cold weather; average to large households with yard waste.
Maybe the low-maintenance aspect of a compost pile appeals to you, but you don’t want an open heap of organic waste in your yard. A simple holding bin might be just the thing for you.
You can make your own holding bin out of wood, or you can purchase ready-made plastic compost bins. Holding bins come in all sizes, with the largest able to hold 75 gallons or more. Holding bins offer some flexibility in terms of how closely you manage your compost—you can turn your compost for quicker results, but waste will also decompose on its own inside. Since these bins tend to be large, you shouldn’t have overflow problems. Most holding bins have a small door at the bottom so you can access the finished compost.
If your bin has insulated sides, your compost may keep cooking even in winter, though the process will be slower. Stacking straw bales along the sides and putting it in the sun can help, too.
Tumbling Barrel Composters
Good for: People who want results quickly and don’t mind composting in batches with a careful mix of brown and green waste; small to average households with yard waste.
These are barrel-shaped containers that turn with a hand-crank, so you don’t have to aerate your compost with a fork or shovel. A couple good cranks a day will do the trick.
Because of their relatively small size, you have to pay a little more attention to getting the balance between brown and green waste right for optimal results. And since the barrels only hold so much waste, you’ll need to wait for one batch of compost to finish before you can start adding more organic waste. But this type of composter works relatively quickly. Some people even have two, to ensure they’ll always have space for organic waste.
Good for: People who want something low-maintenance, but faster than a pile or bin; average to large households with yard waste.
Multi-tiered composters have a series of stacked boxes with removable panels that allow the organic waste to progress toward the bottom of the unit throughout the decomposition cycle. Finished compost comes out of a door in the very bottom.
Since the boxes are smaller and more contained than a large pile or holding bin, your compost will “cook” faster in a multi-tiered bin. And since collectively, the stacked boxes are often comparable in size to a large holding bin, you can also compost a lot of waste.
Good for: People who want to compost indoors; apartment dwellers; small households that don’t generate yard waste.
For everyone who has wanted to compost but feels s/he can’t because of lack of yard space, a five- or ten-gallon bucket and a packet of red worms are the answer to your waste woes. Worm composting, or vermicomposting, is one of the fastest composting methods—each pound of worms will process half a pound of food scraps daily. And it’s so compact, you can put your bin under your kitchen sink. Since red worms are so efficient, you don’t need to aerate your compost, and your bin won’t smell or attract pests.
The worms won’t process brown waste, meat, dairy, or fattening foods. Find our how-to article on vermicomposting here.
The "Green Cone"
Good for: People who just want to dump their kitchen waste and be done with it; those who want to compost fish or meat; households that don’t generate yard waste.
Solarcone Inc.’s Green Cone system will handle up to two pounds of kitchen waste daily—and that includes meat, fish, and dairy products—without intervention from you. It will not compost brown waste.
The system looks like a green traffic cone sitting on top of a basket. You bury the basket in your yard, and the cone sticks up out of the ground. You put your green waste together with an “accelerator powder,” made up of cereal and helpful bacteria, into a hole in the top. The cone’s patented design circulates air throughout, keeping your compost aerated, and it uses solar heat to speed up the composting process.
According to Solarcone, most of the waste turns into water—and the CO2 that all decomposition produces. Every few years, you’ll need to dig a small amount of residue out of the bottom, which can be added to your garden.
Give it a Try
Yard and food waste make up 25 percent of the waste destined for municipal landfills, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Pick the right composter for you, and you can save money while doing your part for the Earth.
—Tracy Fernandez Rysavy
What to Compost
The following items are fair game for your compost bin:
• Unbleached coffee filters and paper
• Yard waste: Grass clippings, twigs, leaves, wood chips.
• Fruit and vegetable scraps
• Eggshells (broken into small pieces)
• Coffee grounds and tea bags
Do not compost at home:
• Pet waste: Can contain bacteria that’s harmful to humans.
• Meat or dairy: Will smell and attract pests, unless you use a special method like the Green Cone.
• Weeds: Low-maintenance composting will not kill weed seeds, so if you spread your compost on your garden, you’ll also be planting weeds. A highly managed compost pile will kill some weeds, through the heat generated by the process. Your best bet is to put weeds out for yard waste collection, where they’ll likely end up in a municipal composter that will kill the seeds.
Compost bins, worms, & tools:
• Gaiam: 800/869-3603.
• Gardener’s Supply: 800/ 955-3370.
• Harmony Farm Supply & Nursery: 707/ 823-9125.
• LoTech Products: 800/795-7316.
• Peddler’s Wagon: 626/ 795-8400.
• Progressive Gardens: 910/ 395-1156.
• Purple Mountain Organics: 877/ 538-9901.
• Solarcone, Inc.: 800/807-6527.
• Vermitechnology.com: 352/591-1111.
• Waste Not Resource Solutions: 802/ 933-8336.