The Science of Composting

When it’s trash night at your household, individuals perform the weekly ritual of disposing the garbage and compiling all the recyclables in an effort to keep the home clean while helping the planet prosper. Unfortunately, the related practice known as composting is a rather unfamiliar, under-utilized exercise that if employed properly, can reap protective and pleasantly appealing benefits that nurture the Earth.

Americans dispose of 210 million tons of garbage each year of which 57% ends up in public landfills. 27% is recycled and composted through the public’s effort to reuse glass, paper, plastic recyclables, and food and yard waste that is transferred into compost. As the world population continues to escalate, so does the quantity of waste disposed of every day by humans. According to the EPA, 28% of the trash that people throw away comprises food and yard waste that could otherwise be composted and given back to the environment.

Compost plays an integral part in helping plants grow. It is essentially an organic blend of food, yard, and other natural waste that has been decomposed and recycled to offer considerable health benefits across any and all landscapes. It plays a critical role in plant survival because it enriches soil by helping retain moisture, prevent pests, and limit plant disease.

Eco-friendly enthusiasts especially appreciate the science of composting since it’s a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers and pesticides that serve a similar purpose yet have some fatal flaws. These synthetic supplies contain toxins and factory-made products that can cause water and air pollution, deplete natural minerals in soil, and burn out crops.

Composting at home is an environmentally sound method of waste disposal that allows each individual to play a part in conserving the planet. However, the bigger picture depends on large organizations and infrastructures to support stringent composting procedures. These efforts have an instrumental impact on conserving waste and recycling it back into our treasured trees, plants, and flowers. For example, the North Carolina Zoo generates 2000 tons of compost annually most of which is derived from elephant and rhinoceros waste. What might not have been the most pleasant process to manage, the end result is a success story that impacts the world. Composting is growing year after year among individual households and across larger-scale facilities.

How long does it take for compost to be useful in soil?

Here's some ways to see how your compost is progressing.
Composting like many things gets better with time. Here’s some ways to see how it’s progressing.

The extent to when compost can be efficiently used in soil enrichment and plant growth directly depends on the type of materials, the elements abound, the size of the pile, and how often it is turned. Composting advantages can be procured in as quickly as two weeks or may take up to two years. One can assume the compost is ready when it becomes cool, rich brown in color, and forms small, dark crumbly particles called humus. This is the nutrient-rich, moist part of the soil that provides all the benefits of the Earth’s ecosystem.

The Compostest with the Mostest

For years, the EPA and environmental advocates have emphasized a host of benefits associated with composting:

  • Recycles food scraps and yard waste. Research shows that composting can reduce up to 30% of waste that would otherwise be trashed for good.
  • Produces valuable organisms such as fungi and bacteria that break down matter into humus, an organic material rich in nutrients that strengthens the soil and revamps the land.
  • Generates a nutrient-rich soil mix that fertilizes and conditions flower beds and gardens.
  • When compost is layered on top of soil, its nutrients foster plant growth, help retain water, and aid in photosynthesis.
  • Reduces landfill waste which helps control the atmosphere’s carbon footprint. The avoidance of bringing landfills to capacity helps limit the production of methane, a damaging gas for the environment, and leachate, which can be harmful to water sources. 
  • While biodegradable material will decompose naturally in landfills over time, the process is significantly slower and the nutrients are completely under-utilized.
  • Less reliance on landfills helps reduce costs, carbon emissions, and the manpower needed to haul and process waste materials.
  • Cost savings incurred with the repurposing of natural matter eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and additional store-bought soil.
  • Regenerates ingredients and ensures supplemental usage of materials while reducing waste and pollution.
  • Helps gardeners, farmers, and agriculture as a whole with its natural fertilizer qualities and the many materials that are conserved and reformed.
  • With less physical matter resulting from composting, the repurposed material can be transported with less machinery and more frequently to help restore agricultural soil and land lacking nutrients.
  • Increased job production and improved profitability for organizations providing a cost-effective, natural method to help restore the land.
  • With the right mix of materials, oxygen, and water, composting can be achieved by everyone and what was originally perceived as garbage can be re-used for indoor plants, outdoor gardens, and vastly shared among communities and industries.

How does Compost work? What is the science behind it?

Check out the many ways your compost is made to be most beneficial.
Many things contribute to the growth and benefit of your compost.

Composting is a natural, biodegradable process that reduces organic waste as it undergoes rotting and decaying of materials. In nature, it is a recurring process where materials are recycled into nutrients that enrich the soil and reinforce plant growth. When composting by the general public, it is a controlled process that depends on external elements. The process develops microorganisms that originate and effectively break down the solid organic waste. These small, living contributors, known as microbes, rely on carbon for energy, nitrogen to make protein, oxygen for ventilation to break down material, and water that contains nutrients for the organisms to thrive. The worthy end result is a soil-like substance that can be stored, managed, and productively re-introduced into the environment. 

While the microbes depend on air and water, they multiply and trigger heat and water vapor. The natural recycling process lessens overall waste volume and weight since much of the biodegradable material is converted to gas. The solid matter that results is the humus that provides the nutrients and fulfills the benefits of composting. 

Temperature plays an important role in the effects of composting. Not only does high heat support the rate of composting, but it also eliminates pathogens and unwanted weeds. As the metabolic rate of the microbes (which can include bacteria, fungi, algae, invertebrates, and protozoa) rises, the temperature increases. Consistent temperature of 130°F over a few days aids in destroying fly larvae, plant pathogens, and weeds. Furthermore, the higher the temperature, the faster the composting process can initiate.

In yard waste like grass clippings, twigs, and branches, the compost pile may be too dense and moist with reduced room for air; therefore, adding materials like straw, paper, and dead leaves can help aerate the compost pile. As the microbes use up the oxygen, it’s beneficial to turn the compost pile so the process continues with an adequate temperature and an aerated flow. As the temperature cools and moisture and oxygen are blended in, the compost pile reaches peak performance and the final product is stable. 

What constitutes a good compost pile?

Things to consider when adding to your pile.
Here are some of the things to consider when adding to your pile.

The most resourceful compost heap is achieved when materials are broken down in a timely manner and contain minimal odor, are free of pathogens, minimize greenhouse gas emissions, eliminate weed seeds, and maximize the waste’s re-usable nutrients. Key factors associated with achieving this include temperature, oxygen, level of moisture, size and shape of the waste pile, and how often it is tended to and turned. 

There should be a concentrated balance of organic material like food waste with natural components from trees, plants, and animals. It’s vital to have a good ratio of greens (vegetable and fruit scraps, grass clippings), browns (twigs, leaves, branches), and the right amount of water to moisten the material while ensuring there are enough gaps for air. The browns provide carbon, the greens nitrogen, and the water helps moisten the pile so it is broken down efficiently. As more materials are added, more moisture will help break down the organic matter. It’s also crucial to ensure all materials are chopped, shredded, and not too dense and bulky.

So What is and What is NOT Compost? The Good, The Bad, and the Odorly

Composting can be achieved almost anywhere in the world and from materials used both indoors and outside in nature. Natural waste can include leaves and yard scraps, food and restaurant waste, wood and paper products, sewage, and even animal manure and carcasses.

The compost must maintain an acceptable ratio of carbon to nitrogen. High-nitrogen materials are typically moist and green, such as lawn trimmings, vegetable scraps, and raw eggs. Food waste can be fresh, frozen, rotten, or cooked. Even tea bags and coffee grounds (with the filter) can be composted. 

While many ashes like wood and paper can be converted into usable compost, one should not use coal ashes because they contain iron and sulfur which can consequently damage and destroy plants. While food waste is an essential element of composting and preserving the planet, avoid bones, fatty and greasy foods, fish, meat, and dairy. These can overheat a compost pile, negatively affecting the final outcome while potentially attracting undesirable pests and rodents. Also avoid adding to your compost pile any lined, glossy, or foil packaging like paper cups, milk and juice cartons, metal containers, and pre-packaged snacks. Recycle these instead.

One minor drawback of repurposing waste like uneaten food scraps such as banana peels, apple cores, and rotted remnants can inflict a particularly potent and unpleasant odor. Fortunately, adding yard waste like freshly cut grass and decomposing leaves offsets the stench as materials are broken down.

Why all the waste when we can save the planet?

It's our hope that composting becomes part of our everyday lives.
It’s our hope that composting becomes a typical part of our life as consumers and growers.

In conclusion, composting comes with countless benefits and is an affordable, easy-to-follow procedure. The environment will thrive if everyone limits what they drop down their garbage disposal and minimizes their trash heap by creating a compost bin. Much like recycling has become second nature and widespread, capitalizing on composting can make the world a better place and help nature be nurtured for its breathtaking beauty.

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