Living more sustainably has become a goal to many individuals who recognize that the earth’s natural resources are finite. There are numerous ways to lessen our impact invoking the three R’s of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. One relatively easy method of recycling is composting. And now would be the perfect time to start as May 1 – 7, 2016 is International Compost Awareness Week.

Up to one-third of a household’s waste could potentially be composted including food scraps, yard wastes and paper products. It has been estimated that about 70 billion pounds of food waste are discarded by Americans each year. That comes to about 20 pounds per person per month. So between 25 and 40 percent of food grown, processed and transported each year never gets eaten!

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Fruits and vegetables can be composted if not consumed. Photo by dmp.

According to www.feedingamerica.org, most of this is disposed of in landfills or by incineration. In fact, more food reaches landfills and incinerators than plastic, glass, paper or metal in municipal solid waste. When landfilled, the buried food breaks down in an anaerobic environment and methane is produced. Methane, as many of you are aware, is a potent greenhouse gas about 21 times more the global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

On top of the environmental cost and loss of resources that all our food waste is creating, we need to pay to have it removed from our property. Either we contract with private haulers or your city or town removes it paid for through your taxes. Many localities are beginning encouraging residents to compost their leaves and other organic wastes as both a cost saving tool and a way to amend lawn and garden soils.

While the optimal solution to this problem would be not to waste food and this should top everyone’s list, if food is going to be thrown away, as much of it should be composted and turned into a valuable soil amendment as possible.

Composting is simply the controlled process of decomposition of organic materials. Decomposition is a natural process. Any bit of plant or animal debris that falls upon the earth’s surface gets broken down and transformed by visible and microscopic creatures. Composting hastens this natural process by creating conditions that tend to accelerate natural decomposition the end result being a stable humus-like product that is great addition to most soils.

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3-bin compost unit at Middlesex County Extension Center, Haddam, CT. photo by dmp

Composting can be as simple or complex as one chooses to make it. The basic requirements for composting are a source of organic materials, air, water, microorganisms and a site for composting. The organic materials can be food scraps, leaves, grass clippings, spent plants, shredded newspaper or office paper, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells, manure, sawdust and spoiled hay. These organic materials may be layered proportionately according to how much carbon and nitrogen they contain. Decomposition is hastened when the amounts of carbonaceous material (brown) are balanced with high nitrogen containing organic matter (green). Many piles are started by using 2 parts green to 1 part brown. Technically this is referred to as the carbon nitrogen ratio and there are many online and written sources listing the ratios for a variety of organic materials. A carbon nitrogen ratio of 25 or 30 to 1 ensures faster decomposition.

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Easy turn compost bin. Photo by dmp.

Typically natural rainfall keeps the pile moist but you may need to water it occasionally during dry spells. Keep in mind that most of the decomposition is done by soil microbes and they need oxygen and water just like all living creatures. The compost pile should be as moist as a wrung out sponge. If it seems dry, give it some water. If it is too wet, turn it to aerate and dry out a bit. A general rule of thumb would be to turn the pile every week or two initially.

Whether you make or purchase a compost bin or simply create a compost pile is up to you. Wire fencing or cement blocks are an inexpensive way to contain a pile. Locate your bin or pile not too far away from either the garden or the kitchen so food waste and garden debris can be readily added to the compost pile and finished compost will be conveniently located next to the garden. Facts sheets at www.soiltest.uconn.edu give greater details on the composting procedure as well as on the various types of compost bins available.

Compost is finished after 3 to 9 months when it is loose and crumbly and the original organic materials that were put in the pile are no longer recognizable. Using compost in the garden or landscape has many benefits. It adds organic matter to the soil which in turn increases the water and nutrient holding capacities of the soil. Compost improves the soil’s structure which in turn results in better plant root growth. Since the pH of finished compost is usually around 7.0, using compost also often eliminates the need to add limestone or wood ash to the soil.

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Topdressing garden bed with compost. Photo by dmp.

Depending on what organic materials were added to the compost pile, the finished compost will contain varying amounts of the nutrients that plants need. Manure-based composts would generally have higher nutrient levels than leaf- or food waste-based composts. After adding an inch or so of compost to your garden soil and mixing it into the top 6 inches of soil, it is a good idea to test the soil before adding any more fertilizer or limestone. Many gardeners tend to add copious amounts of compost to their vegetable and flower beds resulting in excessive levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen which can pollute surface and ground waters. Conscientious gardeners want to supply their plants with enough nutrients to ensure productivity but not caused environmental or human health problems.

There is no time like International Compost Awareness Week to learn about composting and figure out how to incorporate it into your yard or garden. Apartment dwellers might want to consider indoor composting using worms. Yard-less residents may find that a nearby community garden would take their food scraps.

Dawn P