Composting: How it works, choosing containers, and why you should do it

Composting was a very new, out of our comfort zone zero waste practice. Was it going to be stinky? What exactly can you compost? How would we get the correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen? Would we compost in our backyard or get a tumbler? So many questions!

Fortunately, we were able to attend a composting workshop hosted by Hennepin County. It helped shed some light on the basic science behind composting. We learned how to navigate some common issues, and listen to composting advice from other participants.

How composting works

First off, compost is simply decayed organic matter. As it is broken down, it becomes nutrient-dense fertilizer – perfect for gardening, farming and landscaping. But how does it actually go from waste to compost?

(don’t worry too much about the carbon to nitrogen ratio – it will work!)

Why compost?

Doesn’t everything that ends up in the landfill eventually decompose and become soil again? Not entirely. It can take hundreds of years for things like diapers, water bottles, and cans to decompose. But if you have food waste thrown in your trash, doesn’t that help the decomposition cycle? Not really either. Unlike trash, compost works because the matter is turned, which allows airflow, and airflow is needed for the organic material to decompose. Landfills don’t allow for airflow because your organics are in
in a plastic bag that is buried in the ground.

Decrease greenhouse gas emissions

Landfills are designed to store waste, not break it down. Trash is layered between layers of clay, plastic liners, gravel, and dirt, so very little oxygen is introduced. As a result, landfills emit methane. Although compost releases carbon dioxide, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas. So, if we can divert our waste from ending up in the landfill, we can help cut down on methane production.

Give back to Mother Nature

Compost is full of nutrients that enrich the soil. This helps promotes healthy plant growth. It also improves the structure and texture of soil, since the high organic makeup allows soil to better retain moisture, nutrients, and air. Make your own compost instead of spending money to purchase it. Let’s put back into Mother Nature what we’re taking out of it.

Increase your awareness of waste

Composting sort of forces you to come to terms with all the waste you produce. It changes your shopping habits. Can you purchase something with minimal end waste? How about apples packed into your reusable mesh bag, versus a pre-bagged one made of plastic? What about dishing up only the amount of food you’ll eat, and not dumping the rest into the compost or trash? What swaps can you make?

Types of Composters

There are a few basic types of compost containers that you use. We actually use a combination of all these, because it makes it easier for us to adhere to composting. Anything that takes obstacles out of the way helps with success, right?

Tumbler or Rotating Composter

We decided on a dual-batch tumbler composter for several reasons. We were a little iffy about leaving our food scraps ‘out in the open’. We have some wooded land and a pond behind our yard, which attracts critters big and small. We settled on the EJWOX Large Composting Tumbler 43 gallon we found on Amazon for $129.99. It is a dual chamber, meaning it has two separate sides for adding your waste. You can manually tumble, or spin it, helping turn over the organic matter. So, no pitch forks required. It sits off the ground at a decent height, although you can’t really put a wheelbarrow underneath it like it claims. When we’ve had to empty it out, we’ve dumped the compost into a bucket, and then transferred to a wheelbarrow. It’s black, so it helps absorb the heat that assists in the decomposition phase. For a family of five, we had it full within a couple of months.

Our tumbler composter
Stationary Compost Bin

We didn’t think we would need another compost bin, but because we started composting in the fall when the weather was cooling down, not much was happening to our pile. (The amount of waste volume decreases quite a bit as it is turned to compost.) As participants of the Zero Waste Challenge, we were able to get one of these compost bins for free. You can purchase one of these compost bin kits for $50 (plus $15 for a lid). Assembly is pretty easy, just don’t try to overthink it like we did. The bins are made by Productive Day Program crews, an on-the-job carpenter training program for low-risk offenders.

We emptied both sides of our dual-chamber tumbler into the stationary compost bin in May. Most of the organic matter had turned to compost. Our plan is to move compost from our tumbler as it fills up, into to this bin.
Kitchen Compost Bin

Considering the majority of our compost stems from the kitchen, it made sense to find something that would make it easy to collect and store waste until we emptied it in the tumbler. We found this Joseph Joseph door mount version on Amazon for $19.99. It holds 1 gallon of kitchen scraps, so we find ourselves emptying it out at least once a week. We’ve been using it since October 2019, and haven’t had any issues with things like fruit flies (fingers crossed!). We don’t use a liner, and just wash it out with soap. We purchased it specifically for the door mount capability, and that it was wide enough to catch food waste from our dinner plates.

We’re learning that we need to crush our egg shells a lot more than we have been. They don’t decompose very well, so crushing them should help.
Worm Composting or Vermiculture

Yes, you read that correctly. Worms. For people with limited yard space (apartment dwellers), you can actually purchase worms to do the composting work! This method is fast – worms can convert kitchen scraps into compost in less than two weeks. Since these guys work indoors, you can keep composting all winter long.

Our compost workshop mentioned red wigglers as the worm of choice. You basically have a bin layered with food waste, bedding (to absorb moisture and control aeration), and some sort of drainage system like a screen.

How we make it work

Setting ourselves up for success and making it as easy as possible has helped our family transition to composting. It’s still a learning process for all of us, but we have come pretty far. Some things that have helped:

  • Trash bin + Compost bin partnership – In each area that has a garbage bin, we’ve added a compost bin. We can divert much of our bathroom waste to the compost pile. I created these stickers to help the family remember what we can compost. Do we mess up and accidentally throw months worth of what I though were ear cleaners with cotton swabs AND sticks into the compost bin? Yep. Those plastic white sticks were a delight to find (and pick out) in our finished compost!

  • Using compost bags – Over the winter when our tumbler was full, we started freezing our compost in bags (in the garage) and dropping them off for free at the Carver County Environmental Center in Chaska. We coordinated our drop off with Super Target shopping trips (they are 1.5 miles apart!). Only use BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) certified compostable bags.

Frozen bags of compost ready to take to a drop off site
Carver County Environmental Center

  • WHAT NOT TO DO – When COVID-19 caused the Environmental Center and other county drop off locations to temporarily close, we thought we’d be safe storing our compost in big plastic buckets. You know, the ones you can pick up at Menards or The Home Depot. We drilled some (way too tiny) holes in the lid for aeration, and the bottom for drainage, and called it a day. When we finally got around to transferring the contents into the tumbler, it was nasty! There is a reason why oxygen is an important ingredient to making compost work. Lesson learned.

Composting takes time and patience, and sometimes you have no idea if it’s working. It’s a learning process! You can’t compost every food item at home because home piles don’t generate enough heat compared to commercial facilities.

Anything that can help decrease greenhouse gas emissions while saving you money and replenishing Mother Earth can be a great thing. It doesn’t have to be expensive or a huge production. Make it manageable and attainable for your family, and you’ll be amazed at how second “nature” (ha, like that?) it can be.

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Carolyn Wieland

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