by Marena Gibson
What is it?
Compost is simply a nutrient-rich soil amendment that is naturally produced when organic matter decomposes.
Soil isn’t dirt. Dirt is dead; soil is full of microorganisms, organic matter, fungi, earthworms, insects, and more. In fact:
Healthy soil makes for healthy plants that require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides. The organisms living within the soil are what releases nutrients to plants, but they require organic material and nutrients to do this.
That’s where compost comes in. When added to soil, it enriches and improves the health of the soil by providing soil organisms with the nutrients they need to survive. Plus, making compost is so easy that it can be done in your own home.
Why should you compost?
Composting benefits both people and the environment in so many ways, both on a small and large scale:
How Does it Work?
Like a recipe, composting requires different ingredients that are combined in a certain order. The basic materials needed are either carbon- or nitrogen-rich, also known as browns (carbon) or greens (nitrogen). Browns and Greens are the organic materials used for composting. Some examples of browns are twigs, branches, or cardboard; greens can be food scraps, leaves, and weeds.
Once you’ve figured out where you’ll be making compost (more on that later), it’s time to start piling on the ingredients. The easiest way to make compost is to simply layer browns and greens in equal amounts (equal amounts of each are preferable, but you can still compost if you don’t have that). After that, you just need to keep your compost pile moist and aerated.
How is this all happening? Think back to the microorganisms in healthy soil. Species of naturally-occurring bacteria and other microorganisms in your waste start this process. When these microorganisms feed on the pile of nitrogen and carbon, they break the matter down during digestion, effectively decomposing your waste and producing compost! They even give off heat while they do this; it’s possible for the center of a hot compost pile to reach temperatures between 110 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit!
Where you choose to compost, and what container you choose to compost in, will have an effect on how your organic matter decomposes. Technically you could just throw your browns and greens in a pile in the backyard, but it will take up space, decompose slowly, and likely attract animals. For quick, effective, and easy compost, I recommend exploring your options at this sustainable worm farm. They have everything from worms, bins, finished compost and organic fertilizers. Their small indoor bin methods doesn’t even require browns, and will provide enough room to hold about a week’s worth of food waste. This is an especially good method if you have limited space and a separate area for your worms.
What You Can and Cannot Compost:
Though a wide variety of organic matter can be used for composting, there are certain materials that cannot be composted, and on top of that, some compostable items are only appropriate for industrial composting, not home composting. Industrial composting facilities use massive lots and heavy machinery, allowing them to compost certain items that the average homeowner cannot. Don’t be tempted to just throw any type of organic matter in!
Here’s some helpful, quick lists of everyday kitchen and household items* that can and cannot be composted at home:
Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list, and there are a bazillion other items you can and can’t compost. In addition, some compostable materials have special requirements for the composting process (for example, you can’t add a large amount of orange/citrus peel, and what you do add should be cut into little pieces). Don’t worry too much about every small detail, but when it doubt, Google is your friend.
So what’s the big deal if I compost things that I technically shouldn’t? Well, pick your poison. Attempting to compost inappropriate materials can lead to:
*Important sidenote: Be careful about the plastic items you compost. Even if an item is labeled “biobased” or “biodegradable” or “degradable”, does not mean it is compostable. Here are some important labels you should learn to recognize for your composting. If you have a plastic item that you want to compost, first check for a symbol indicating if the plastic material is recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable. If there are no symbols, check for a label. There are two types for composting: “Compostable”, and “Compostable in Industrial Facilities”. If it’s compostable, great. If not, make sure it goes to the proper place, which sometimes, unfortunately, can be the trash. Checking any plastic items before buying them will help you avoid this problem!
Safety Guidelines & Regulations
An important aspect of composting is the heating process during microorganism digestion. In the unlikely but unfortunate event that the food you composted contained harmful pathogens, these pathogens can transfer to and breed within your compost pile, especially if it is poorly-maintained. Certain types of contact with contaminated compost can cause illness, and the food grown from contaminated compost can cause foodborne illness. The good news is that not only are your microorganisms creating compost for you; the heat they create while they do it kills off harmful pathogens!
In addition to properly creating your compost (correct mixing of browns of greens, only using compostable items in your pile), there are simple safety precautions you can take to reduce the risk of pathogen-related illness. Keeping in mind the type of composting you are doing, consider using the following guidelines:
Composting is awesome in so many ways, but so is safety! Keeping yourself safe and healthy always comes first.
Spotlight: Composting Services & Programs
But what if you don’t garden, or have a need to actually use the compost? Almost everyone produces food scraps, but if it ends up the trash it becomes waste, and food waste is a huge problem. Composting also happens to be the safety net, and last option before organic matter becomes waste. And once created, the organic matter it contains can now be recycled back into the ecosystem, instead of being removed from it altogether when it ends up in a landfill. Regardless of how you will use compost, it is a responsible method to reduce your waste. Plus, there are many ways to get rid of your compost without letting it become waste.
You can simply give it away. Donate it to a school, local farm, urban farm, community garden, or a gardening friend. You can even feed it to worms and get vermicomposting!
Perhaps the easiest method is using a curbside compost pickup. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a private pickup company like Zoom Out would take your bin full of compost each week, and replace it with a clean bin. All you have to do is throw your compostables in a bin, and at the end of the week someone would pick it up the same. Unfortunately, it's currently not legal to do something like this on a non-industrial scale in New Jersey though. Uncle Jim's Worm Farm is a company we support that is an effective solution indoor to the dilemma. They sell bulk supplies of worms which play an important role in keeping your soil healthy by cycling organic matter and nutrients through the soil. Adding worms to poor soil, eliminating chemical use and giving them some food and water can quickly turn poor soil into the very best top soil.
Toxics Action Center
Cornell Waste Management Institute
Marin County Stormwater Pollution Prevention Programs (MCSTOPPP)
US Environmental Protection Agency
Home Advisor, Inc.
Natural Grocers Company
Pesticide Action Network North America
National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
Urban Farming(TM) Organization
US Composting Council(R)
The Good Food Project at Swarthmore College
International Association of Certified Home Inspectors
The Produce Mom, LLC
Zoom Out Mycology’s Environmental Awareness blog strives to explain and expose environmental topics and concerns to a wide audience. Our team consists of a diverse group of scientists, policy experts, and engineers that help describe the science behind environmental issues that you see in the news and experience in your daily life. We hope that this knowledge will help all of our readers embrace a healthy and sustainable lifestyle! If you are interested in being a guest contributor, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org