Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I Never Thought of That

Today I had an experience that reaffirms my belief that no matter how long you've been learning about (or teaching) something, there's always something new for you to learn. I was browsing through articles on Crunchy Betty when I came across this one about using butter wrappers as an alternative to Pam or other cooking sprays. While this is a great idea for a basic kitchen trick, there were even more in the comments, primarily one relating to composting.

If you have problems with fruit flies or similar pests in your house, but don't want to make a trip out to the compost bin every time you have something to put in there, just keep a container in your freezer exclusively dedicated to compost material. Whenever you cook, keep it on the counter to toss things into, then pop it back into the freezer till you have time to make a trip out to your garden. By keeping the collection container in the freezer, you won't deal with any annoying insects or smells, but you can still benefit from all the joys of composting.

I love learning new things. Happy composting!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Compost Friendly Meals

My imaginary readers know that I write a zero waste baby steps blog that talks about how to manage a lifestyle that produces no garbage. Technically I produce waste, but the kind of waste that can be fed into a new life-cycle (everyone remembers technical and biological nutrients, right?). The main form of waste I produce is biological material. I go to the bathroom, I use water, I trim my hair and nails, but most of all, I eat.

When we think about it, cooking makes a lot of garbage. There are cans, bags, wrappers, ties, leftover food, and all the inedible bits that come off of unprocessed food like stems, pits, hulls, peels, and cores. However, garbage from unprocessed food can be composted, while packaged and processed food create waste that at best can be recycled, but at worst ends up entombed for eternity in a landfill. That last statement maybe was a little exaggerated, but really, processed, packaged food isn't good for the planet or you.

At first cooking with plants and whole food can seem complicated and unappetizing, but really it's a simple process that can often be a nice way to unwind after a long day. For example, last night I made my family lentils and rice, Colombian style. Look how yummers it was:

I know it doesn't look its best right now, but I ate it all before I remembered to photograph it, so here you see some of the lovely, package free tomatoes I used to make it, the leftover lentils (I always make twice as much as I need because I love having lentil leftovers), and the broth I spooned off the top which I will use tomorrow to make tomato--carrot soup.

To make it I cooked lentils, while caramelizing onions in a little olive oil. Then I shredded a couple of pounds of tomatoes into the onions, added my secret blend of herbs and spices (and by secret I mean I can't remember what I added because I wing it every time), then mixed the tomatoes and lentils together and let everything cook for a bit together while I spooned broth off the top (not normally part of the process, but I added too much water to the lentils and decided to make the best out of it). I cooked rice while this whole process was going on, then put the lentils on a bed of rice to serve.

Since I was able to buy the lentils and rice in bulk, this meant that aside from the glass jars the olive oil and spices came in, the meal was zero waste, except for the bits that were collected to be composted:

And there you have it, a healthy, zero waste meal that fed my family and my compost bin. I'm building a little collection of these types of recipes, and I promise to keep you updated on all the delicious news.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Friendly Holiday Reminder

As we are all gearing up for the big holiday season I'd like to offer a few reminders, mainly that a lot of holiday decorations and paraphernalia can be composted! I know it's like beating a dead horse, but this site is all about composting, so I don't feel too bad.

Carved pumpkins, homemade treats, and decorations made out of paper, cotton cloth, leaves, and wood can all be composted. Let's all make this a compostable haunting holiday. For those of you who know your neighbors (and so have shown them that you're not a crazy child-poisoner), consider giving out homemade treats like cookies, suckers, and popcorn balls. If you have a large neighborhood or aren't that outgoing, consider giving tea lights, coins, feathers, or other trinkets which will delight kids, give grown-up no worries, and are biodegradable or can be considered a technical nutrient.

It may be time-intensive, but try making all your treats this year from scratch. Get the whole family involved for a holiday activity that allows everyone to spend time together. Properly store any leftovers, but feel free to compost anything that doesn't get eaten, can't be eaten, or won't be eaten (cooking mistakes, anyone?). Try decorating with leaves, popcorn strings, or flower arrangements that can all be composted. The kids can paint or draw on newspaper, make construction paper cutouts, or form sculptures out of salt dough. All of these make creative, fun, and decorative crafts that can all be composted afterwards. You can even compost the turkey carcass, but try making a delicious broth from it first.

I love picking out gifts for people. I love the challenge of finding a person something they'll both love and use, and now I've given myself the challenge of getting them something earth-friendly as well. If you have the money, I recommend getting people a rotating compost bin, as a lot of my family would happily compost if they didn't perceive it as so work intensive. I've been saving up all year to get my parents and in-laws each one of these, but you can also make one yourself for much less money.
Other great Christmas gifts that are less preachy but still good for the environment include lunch containers, furoshiki wraps, second-hand books, and homemade food. While I spend a lot of time picking out the ideal gift for those high on my list, I like to make a big batch of cookies, candy, or nut mix and then individually portion them in compostable waxed bags for all of those who are on my list in big groups, like coworkers, classmates, and the neighborhood.
Remember that a lot of Christmas decorations can be compostable, like your wreaths, garlands, popcorn strings, and even your tree, though you'll want to chop it up first. Wrap your presents in painted newspaper or dyed tissue paper and all the wrappings can be composted as well (don't use tape).
The Christmas card exchange is a wonderful tradition, but there are a multitude of ways to make it earth friendly. You can make your own paper for the cards, send plantable seed cards, stamp your cards with a friendly reminder to recycle, or send the cards to receive to St. Jude's Ranch to be reused and support a good cause.

New Years Eve
Again, make all your decorations out of compostable material, or reuse decorations from last year. Serve drinks and goodies on your standard dinnerware or special occasion china rather than buying plastic utensils and cups. If you want the convenience of throwaway stuff, there's plenty of reusable and compostable options on the market. Just remember that most plastic goods claiming to be biodegradable actually aren't, so opt for things that will obviously break down in your compost bin.
When buying libations for your friends and family, opt for those in glass bottles that can be reused or recycled (If you can't find anyplace else, remember that Target recycles glass). Freeze any leftover wine for cooking if you like, but beer and wine can also be poured on your compost pile and will contribute a flood of good bacteria (the same bacteria that made that grape juice alcoholic in the first place).

I know the holiday rush can be overwhelming, but taking the few extra minutes to pick a compostable option will have a huge payout for your garden come spring, will greatly reduce the trash you have to cart to the curb, and will give you that warm feeling of doing good that we all love to have.

Happy holiday composting!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cradle to Cradle: Waste Equals Food

Not to burden you with too many book reviews in a row, but I just read Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, and found one concept in their book particularly interesting. The book primarily addresses how products, buildings, and systems can be designed to be beneficial for the earth, the population, and the economy, rather than harmful or just "less bad". It doesn't deal much with composting, but their concept of technical vs. biological nutrients is incredibly relevant.

Ideally, in the human world we would treat our resources like the natural world, where everything cycles through different systems; the waste of one system is food for another. This isn't the case, even when one considers the growing recycling industry, but we could easily make it so by viewing all materials as either technical or biological nutrients. Biological nutrients are things that are compostable and can be fed back into the natural world as a nutritious, safe resource for plants and animals. Technical nutrients are things that can be fed back into the industrial system endlessly to be reused to make new products.

Currently our recycling system is flawed, as much of what we recycle is actually "down-cycled" into products of lesser quality. I definitely need to do more research on this subject, but basically the adding of dyes, paints, or solvents to a material contaminates it when it comes to future use. So if you have a green soda bottle, that plastic is still recyclable, but only as a different, usually lower-quality product.

There are exceptions to this, but system-wide we don't have a good method for recycling materials into products of equal quality and value. Even materials which should be easy to recycle, like metal, are often contaminated because of current recycling methods. For example, aluminum soda cans are often lined in plastic, and cars are crushed into a large block of material, rather than being disassembled to retrieve their copper, steel, and other resources.

I have a whole rant building on how we need to recycle better, design products and packaging with their reuse and recycling in mind, and how the plastics industry is particularly troublesome, but that's an article that needs a lot more thought, research, and calmer state of mind. So what I want to talk about is biological nutrients, and how important it is to separate them out from (what should be) technical nutrients.

As it stands now, unless you participate in some sort of recycling program, technical nutrients and biological nutrients are mixed together in your trash, then buried in the ground at a landfill where they are sealed off from soil and air. What this means is that even the biodegradable waste like banana peels and newspapers won't break down because the right aerobic (or air-loving) bacteria won't grow in this environment, and so there's nothing to facilitate the rotting, or composting, process. I wish every city had a composting program and was vigilant about separating out its waste, but this just isn't the case.

If the city won't do it, it's up to the citizens to make it happen. By all means write letters to your mayor, attend city council meetings, and make phone calls to your city's waste management department, but in the mean time, take matters into your own hands and start composting. Put everything you can into your home compost bin. If you know of neighbors or apartment dwellers who are unable to compost, offer your bin to them as well, it will only enrich your compost and make for a more beautiful world.

I think the idea of technical and biological nutrients is brilliant, and I intend to explore it further. But in the mean time, I know exactly what to do with all my biological nutrients to make sure they are returned safely and responsibly to the earth.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pet Poop Composter

If I had any readers at this point I imagine they'd want more information on how to make a pet poop composter. I mentioned this in my post of What to Compost, Even Though Most People Say You Shouldn't, but only briefly, so I thought I'd go more in depth on the subject. Also, if you're intrigued with the idea of composting to deal with humanure, but aren't quite comfortable with that yet, you can follow in my footsteps and start by composting animal poop first.

First things first, poop is something that needs to be composted outside. Indoor composting methods (to be covered soon, I promise, especially with winter coming) aren't recommended by this writer, at least not until more experimentation is completed in a successful manner. A lot of dog owners have a yard of some sort, but if this isn't the case for you, try engaging in a little bit of guerrilla composting by building your pet poop composter in an abandoned lot, earthy alleyway, under a camouflaging shrub, or in a friendly neighbor's yard. Only do that last one if your neighbor knows about it and agrees, otherwise you could end up explaining to a judge why composting trumps trespassing; it's true that the same situation could arise from any of the other spots, but those are usually less monitored, and so easier to get away with.

It's easiest to build a pet poop composter with an old trash can or some chicken wire. This isn't necessary, but it helps keep the pit from collapsing in on itself, as well as makes the finished compost easier to haul out. Cut the bottom out of the trash can (tin snips, also called aviator snips, work great for this), and drill or pound a lot of holes in the sides to promote drainage and interaction with the surrounding soil. Dig a hole a little deeper than your trash can or chicken wire. If you have heavy clay soil you'll want the hole to be a foot or more deep than your lining material, and then add some gravel to help with drainage. To tell if you have clay soil grab a handful of it when it's damp, roll it into a snake, and bend it into a 'U' shape. If you can do this without it breaking, you have clay soil. This method is stolen from the amazing Alys Fowler, who wrote a wonderful book on gardening and composting which you should definitely check out here.

If you're working with chicken wire, line the hole with it, keeping the wire level with the ground. For a trash can, sink it into the hole, but leave two inches sticking up above ground level to accommodate the lid. Now just collect all the animal waste in your yard/litter box/terrarium/cage/aquarium and dump it in. Some people like to throw a little septic starter in to promote healthy bacterial growth, but I just toss in a little topsoil and call it good.

I hadn't done much more than this in previous years, but after reading the humanure handbook I now cover the poopy up with leaves or grass clippings. This keeps the smell down, but also contributes much-needed carbon material to the nitrogen-rich animal leavings. It make for better compost, eliminates the extra step of mixing pet compost with regular compost for balance, and allows me to open the composter on the hottest of days with the freshest of turds and not have to worry about the stink. In the summer I like to water the bin, but I live in a desert, so this may not be necessary for those residing in moister climates.

If you used a trash can, just the leave the lid on when you're not adding material to the composter to keep people and animals from falling in. You can also cover the hole with some scrap lumber, a bit of old carpet, or leave it open, whichever appeals to your aesthetic sensibilities. I do recommend covering it or cordoning it off in some way, as my cute but clumsy shih tzu-poodle fell in once and made quite a mess afterwards while trying to get out. You may not have the same dog, but there are clumsy things everywhere who don't deserve to fall in what is essentially a giant toilet.

Poop does carry pathogens, so it's important to let the compost sit, undisturbed, for a year or more in order to make sure every thing dies off. I do this by building two composters, then filling one up while the other one sits for a while. If you are thermophilicly composting your pet poop, this waiting period is not necessary. You can take extra precaution by only using the resulting compost on horticultural gardens, rather than agricultural ones, but I've never had a problem as long as I've either let the compost sit for a year or put it through a thermophilic process.

Finally, it's important to put only biodegradable material in your pet poop composter. Of course any feces or urine is fine to go in, but make sure the collection method is also compostable. I use Biobags to collect dog droppings when we're on a walk, and have found that they compost just fine. If you have a cat, opt for cat litter made out of corn cobs, newspaper, saw dust, or wheat husks, as all of these materials work great in compost piles; sand, clay, and crystalline based kitty litters are a no-no as they can leach toxins and mess up your soil structure. Fish tank water is fine to pitch straight onto your garden (roses love it), but can also be poured into the pet poop composter. If you have hermit crabs or other small animals try lining their tank either with sawdust or coconut husks, as these are earth-friendly beddings that compost with ease.

As you can see, it will take an initial investment of effort build a pet poop composter, and requires developing some new habits when dealing with your pet's leavings, but once these routines are established I think you'll find dealing with pet waste a much easier, pleasanter, and rewarding task than it ever was before.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Composting Book Review: The Humanure Handbook

I just finished reading The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, and I highly recommend it, especially as you can download it for free if money is tight. I think it's worth the ten to twenty bucks to pay Mr. Jenkins for his wonderful work, but I know not all composters have the cash to spare.

The book primarily addresses how to compost human waste (poop and pee) in an environmentally responsible and safe manner. Jenkins has amassed a huge collection of scientific studies showing that pathogens will be completely eliminated in responsibly managed compost, and that composting "humanure", is often more effective at turning out a safe, usable product than standard sewage treatment facility procedures. Mr. Jenkins does a very good job over the course of the book at convincing "fecophobes" that humanure is safe for use in both horticultural and agricultural applications.

I particularly like the gradual build of subject matter in the book from an introduction to thermophilic composting, which leads to a review of studies on composting humanure, to an all-inclusive tutorial on how to collect, compost, and use humanure without odor, pests, or pathogens.

If I had to pick the most important idea Mr. Jenkins puts forth in his book, it's that human waste isn't really waste at all, it's a resource rich in nutrients that requires only a cheap, simple process to make safe for use all over the world. He has picked the term "humanure" to particularly highlight this fact and to move our collective mindset away from the idea of poop and urine as disgusting things, and more towards the understanding that these are natural byproducts of our bodies which would best be used to close the loop on food production.

The Humanure Handbook is written in a friendly, informative tone that's accurate without being boring, and provides a plethora of new ideas and concepts which become more convincing with each passing page. Best of all, the topic is addressed with not only common sense, but a sense of humour, something that's invaluable when talking about poo. You can obtain a copy of the book, in whatever format you like, through a page on Mr. Jenkin's official site here (the bolded book options are clickable).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What To Compost

Composting is great because it keeps your trash from becoming stinky. How? By taking anything biodegradable out of the waste stream. Food scraps, yard trimmings, and pet waste can all go into the compost bin and will come out six or so months later as a rich, earthy smelling material that's ready to be fed right back into the soil where it will help you grow more wonderful food for you and your family.

Every time I do yard work I keep a five gallon bucket close by to deposit my yard waste into. Likewise, I keep a smaller bucket under my kitchen sink to collect household compostable waste. I empty the indoor bucket every couple of days, and have never had a problem with fruit flies as long as I stuck to this schedule. Once I forgot to take the contents to the compost bin before a trip and came home a week later to a colony of fruit flies, but these were easily taken care of.

With a good collection system in place you'll be more likely to get that cotton ball, banana peel, or dead flower to the compost bin, rather than just realize all the things you could have composted when you take the trash out. I run a zero waste household, and so only have compost and recycling bins, but putting a compost can next to every trash can you have is a good start.

Anything that breaks down in water, is organic in origin, or is edible by any animal can be composted. These are good rules of thumb to follow, but examples are great too, so here is a list of all the things I like to compost:

  • leaves
  • grass clippings
  • branches (chopped into smaller pieces)
  • weeds
  • dead plants or plant parts
  • plants removed during pruning
  • dog poop
  • unneeded sod
  • dead animals
  • dead trees (chop them up first)
  • moss, lichen, and fungus
  • dropped or rotten fruit
  • inedible food parts like pits, peels, stems, or rinds
  • rotten food, moldy food, expired food
  • cooking experiments gone wrong (I've made things even my dogs won't eat)
  • stale crackers, bread, and baked goods
  • tea leaves and bags
  • coffee grounds
  • leftover wine or beer(I usually save this for cooking, but every so often I throw it in the bin, as the bacteria in wine do wonders for compost piles)
  • rancid dairy products
  • inedible meat bits like bones, gristle, and fat (after I make stock with it, of course)
  • egg shells
  • leftover food from dinner parties (scrape people's plates into your compost can)
  • cheese rinds and wax casings
  • pizza boxes
  • paper towels or napkins
  • paper bags contaminated with food stains or spills
  • take-out containers (make sure these are paper based and coated with wax, not plastic)
  • movie theater popcorn bags (not the glossy kind)
  • bamboo chopsticks
  • used tissue and toilet paper
  • nail and hair trimmings
  • cotton balls used for non-toxic applications (organic makeup and nail polish are fine)
  • kitty litter (not clay, sand, or crystalline based)
  • fish tank water
  • indoor plant trimmings
  • pencil sharpener contents
  • old socks and underwear (only if made of natural fibers like wool or cotton)
  • newspaper and other non-glossy paper
  • poop, pee, and menstrual blood (gross to think about, cool once you do it)
  • pet fur
  • floor sweepings and vacuum cleaner contents
  • feathers
  • natural fibers like wool yarn or cotton thread

I've tried my best to make this list comprehensive, but if you see anything missing let me know in the comments and I'll add it in. Some of these things might not be obvious or intuitive to the new composter, but stick a compost bin in your back yard and you'll be amazed at the things you realize can go in there.

Happy composting!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What To Compost, Even Though Most People Say You Shouldn't

It seems like whenever composting is introduced there is always a long list of things not to compost. Meat, dairy products, soiled newspaper or cardboard, poop, weeds, and even egg shells have been included on lists of things that must never, ever, ever be composted, under the pain of insanitary death. This, as I (a confirmed OCD neat-freak) can tell you from research, testing, and experience, is just not true. Anything that is biodegradable is compostable, and many dangerous things like toxins, pathogens, and chemicals come out on the other side of composting as inert materials.

This is not to say that you should purposely compost toxic or harmful material (battery acid is not a good idea), just that things we might usually consider harmful, like poop, come out of the composting process as pathogen free and nutrient rich materials. As always, what you compost is up to you, and may be dictated by the kind of composting system you have, but with a little creativity almost anything you have can be composted.

Now, without further delay, here is the Who Says It Can't Be Composted Compost List:

Pizza Boxes and other Soiled Paper Products:
It is a special pet peeve of mine when 'do not compost' lists include pizza boxes. These can most certainly be composted, in fact, nothing else really can be done with them as they gum up recycling machines and will ruin a whole batch of cardboard, and putting them in the garbage will just contribute to landfill produced methane, which causes the greenhouse effect, as well as wastes valuable resources, rather than recycling them back into the environment.

Cardboard pizza boxes are the most common example of soiled paper products, but used toilet paper, dirty paper towels, and any paper-based, wax coated (as opposed to plastic coated) take out containers can all be safely added to the compost bin without fear of contamination or impeding the biological breakdown process. If you happened to use a paper towel to clean up battery acid you might want to just throw it away, but anything else that would normally spoil paper products can be composted without problem; grease, oil, butter, spilled kool-aid, bits of food, and coffee soaked things can all be composted. You can even toss water-damaged novels in the compost bin (only if they're too damaged to be usable, remember, reuse before recycle), though you might want to cut it up first to facilitate quick decomposition.

Of course, before you decide to go on a paper-products buying bonanza, remember that many of these things can be replaced by reusable versions (handkerchiefs instead of tissue, towels instead of paper towels, and cleaning rags instead of old newspapers (get an online subscription instead)), which will be much cheaper in the long run and better for the planet. Still, while you're switching over, or in case you find one of these items indispensable, keep composting in mind as a viable alternative to just throwing it away. Plus, even the most hard core activists like to order a pizza once in a while.

Meat and Dairy Products:
Most people advise against composting meat and dairy products, and possibly other food scraps such as bread, eggshells, and leftover prepared food, because of the risk of attracting pests and rodents to their compost pile. As long as the pile is about one cubic yard in volume and is turned regularly, this should not be a problem. I know that one cubic yard sounds like a lot, but you can easily generate this much compost in about a month through collecting your lawn trimmings, kitchen scraps, and pruning a few trees or rosebushes. This volume of compost allows you to bury the questionable food scraps in the middle of the pile, thus making them less accessible to roaming animals. Additionally, turning the pile at least once a month keeps the environment of the pile changing which discourages rodents, who like a stable, navigational environment.

Meat and dairy products are also popular favorites on the 'do not compost' lists because of the risk of pathogens. However, as you will soon see, even the most pathogen-infested of material can be rendered safe through the miracle of composting. If you are particularly worried about it, only use the compost for horticultural application, rather than agricultural. If you aren't eating food made from the compost, then you're not ingesting any possible diseases. You eliminate the risk of pathogens by leaving the compost to sit undisturbed for a year and a half (no adding new material), as this is long enough that all disease-causing microorganisms will have died off, or by making sure that you have a large enough compost pile for thermophilic bacteria to move in and kill off the bad guys. There's a lot of things you can do to ensure a thermophilic pile, but the primary one is to have a big pile; the bigger the pile the easier it is to heat up. I know that's not a lot to go on, but thermophilic composting is a huge topic, and this post is long enough already, so look for a more detailed post on this topic at a later date.

Weeds and weed seed containing material are not typically recommended for composting because of the risk of infesting cleaner garden soil with weed-ridden compost. However, thermophilic compost piles will also take care of this problem, as that type of bacteria kills seeds as well as pathogens. However, there are other ways of composting weeds to keep them from becoming a problem in your finished compost. The first, and easiest, is just composting as usual, and then pulling any weeds that may grow in the resulting compost. Well-mulched and composted garden beds are a breeze to weed, and ripping weeds out of finished compost is even easier. However, if you have a bad weed problem, or if you're just not as lazy as I am, you can also rot the weeds down. Just put water and weeds into a container, cover it with some sort of lid, and let it sit for a week or so. The resulting mixture of rotten plant sludge will smell like death, but will also be a nutrient rich additive for your compost that has no viable weed seeds, shoots, or bits left to start any trouble at all in your compost. I recommend emptying the bucket into the middle of your compost pile just before you go to bed. Bury the concoction well to keep the smell down, and by the time you wake up the reek should be gone.

Poop, Pee, and Other Bodily Productions:
Dog and cat poo are always included on the 'do not compost' lists, and most people would never consider composting their own waste, but it's really not that hard or dangerous to do, and would actually solve a lot of our water usage and pathogen outbreak problems if we had a system-wide methods of composting waste rather than "treating" sewage. However, since this is an icky subject, and since you haven't had time to learn to love me enough to put up with the un-wonderful detail that we'll have to go into in order to fully explain humanure processing, let's just stick with pet waste composting.

Poop and cat litter can be composted as long as the pile is (say it with me) thermophilic, or allowed to sit, untouched for eighteen months. I like to make an in-ground dog poop composter (two actually), to trade off on letting materials decompose long enough to become inert. Then I mix the resulting humus in with my regular compost for a turn or two to make sure that everything is good and diverse, then I dig it into my garden. Of course, if I was worried about soil contamination, I would only use poop compost on non-food gardening projects, but I believe in the power of compost, so I don't worry about it, though some people might, and that's just fine.

On a supplementary note, cat litter should only be composted if it's biodegradable, so litter made from sawdust, corn cobs, wheat hulls, and newspapers is all okay, but clay, sand, and crystalline based litters aren't so great because they can easily leach toxins and can easily mess up your soil structure.

Body waste is not limited to things that come out the back end. Nail and hair trimmings are also things that most people might not thing about, but which can easily be composted. They can also safely be composted in a normal pile, which is more than can be said for most other things talked about here today, so if you're not comfortable with composting weeds, meat, or doodie, then at least remember your friend the planet when you're cutting your nails and ordering a pizza.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Composting: The Basics

Nature composts everyday, and without much trouble, which is why it is so frustrating when our concentrated human efforts at composting are thwarted. However, with a solid understanding of the basics and a few simple trouble-shooting tricks up your sleeve, composting is an attainable goal for everyone. This simple guide will get you started.

To compost you need material, a place to put it, and time to wait for it to break down. That's it. There are a lot of things you can do to help the process along though. The first of these is to provide the right ratio of material. Compost needs carbon and nitrogen in about a 30:1 ratio. Don't worry about getting this exactly: successful compost can be made by using the brown/green ratio of two to one. Brown material, or your main sources of carbon, are dead (or brown) plant material, cardboard, newspaper, and wood chips. Green material, or your main sources of nitrogen, are green or moist things such as lawn trimmings, food scraps, poop, urine, and fresh plant material. If you keep a two to one ratio of brown to green, and pile materials in layers of no more than six inches thick, within a year you'll have compost.

If a big messy pile of what can easily be considered garbage isn't your thing, then you'll find a compost container to be a gift from the heavens. A compost container keeps larger pests from rooting through the material, shelters the compost from gentle or judgmental eyes, and helps contain heat which aids in the breakdown of material and pathogens. More practically, a bin keeps your compost contained and can help you see when it's time to turn the material. Some composters don't advocate turning the pile, but I find that it greatly enhances the composting process. When you have a container, you don't have compost being spread around, and when you do turn your compost, you have a clearly designated place to deposit the material as you turn it.

A compost container, at its most basic, just needs to be a tall, rectangular box. You're welcome to leave the compost in there until it's totally broken down, but I recommend being able to lift the box in order to turn the compost. If you can lift the box up, either all at once or in sections, you can put it down right next to the pile, then use a shovel, fork, or scoop to transfer the pile back into the box from the top down, thus completely turning the material. A standard composting unit can be found at any hardware store. These types are usually either one solid piece of round plastic with a lid, or four pieces of plastic that are bolted or screwed together then topped with a lid.

You can easily build your own composting container out of wood, storage totes, old garbage bins, or even bales of straw. The straw bales are best set up in a 'W' formation; this allows you to shovel the compost pile from one section to the other without having to move the heavy bales. The rest of the materials mentioned can just set up to make a bin. You'll need to cut the bottom out of plastic storage totes or garbage bins, as interaction with the ground is handy for bacteria formation, but if you have a round garbage can with a secure lid you could leave the whole deal intact and make yourself a rolling composter, thus eliminating the need to turn the pile. Flat boards (ideally six inches or wider) can be assemble to make four to six boxes which stack on top of each other. Then, when it's time to turn the compost, you simply take the top box off, place it on the ground next to the existing pile, then turn any existing material into it, then place the second box on top of the first, and continue the pattern until the entire stack is reversed, and all the material has been turned. Additionally, you can just use scrap lumber and stack the boards up Lincoln Log style to make a box to hold the compost in.

The current contents of my composting bin.

No matter what container, if anything at all, you use to contain your compost, you're going to need to be patient while all the bacteria do their work and break down old vegetable peelings, crumpled newspaper, dead leaves, bits of cotton and wool yarn (knitters raise your hands), plant trimmings, and coffee grounds into organic, rich fertilizer for your garden that turns toxins inert, neutralizes pathogens, and returns vital nutrients to the soil.

Taking steps such as shredding your compost material, insulating your compost bin, and purposely adding beneficial bacteria can all speed up the composting process; there are internet citizens who claim that such tactics have cut their composting time down to six weeks. I have not tried such methods, but I have found that it is possible to make compost in less than four months in the summer time as long as nothing you put in the bin is more than an inch thick in any direction. This means cutting tree trimmings down to less than one inch in length, breaking up food scraps to less than one inch in diameter, and ensuring that even though all your compost is made of relatively tiny materials it's still properly aerated.

The basic logic behind the tiny diameter policy is that the smaller the material added to the bin, the larger the surface area the bacteria has to work on. No matter what you do right or wrong when composting, bacteria will show up and eat away at whatever it is you put in the pile. If there's not enough air pockets in the pile, anaerobic bacteria will show up and do their work, but the pile will stink. If the pile is big enough and properly balanced, thermophilic bacteria will heat up the pile and break down a large amount of material in a small amount of time. If the pile is small but well-balanced, bacteria will move in and slowly break down the material, and eventually earthworms, slugs, and other slimy things will move in and further break down the material.

The point is, no matter how bad your composting technique is, your pile will eventually break down into the brown, beautiful, crumbly material that is so coveted by gardeners everywhere. There are plenty of things you can do besides feeding your compost pile right, covering it in style, and giving it enough time to do its work, but those are topics for later posts, so for now, just start by piling all your organic, biodegradable material into a container of some sort, and letting it slip your mind, something most people can do without any trouble at all, which is really all any compost takes.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why Compost is Wonderful

Composting will save the world. The more I learn about product production, packaging waste, and waste management practices, the more I come to believe this. At no time in human history have we ever completely eliminated trash, but in the past when things were dearer they were re-used and re-purposed until they were worn to nothing. Additionally, most products and their packaging were compostable, which is why people could live for thousands of years before running into the waste problems we have today.

I truly believe that if everyone composted, even if it was only through a city composting system, we could become a zero-waste society within the decade, and without the cost of extra time or expense. By changing a few of our habits and becoming involved from cradle to grave in production and waste management loops, we could eliminate overloaded landfills, cropland depletion, and even contamination of our water resources.

When I made my first clumsy attempts at composting at age eleven, I ended up with a huge, stinking mess that my parents had to load into the trash can because of complaining neighbors. Composting was summarily banned from our household, and I did not try again until I moved out on my own. Since then, I have composted enthusiastically, and have spent a lot of time trying out and researching various composting methods. I know nothing I do is really new, but I still view it as discovering a lost art that has enriched my garden, significantly reduced my household waste, and turned out to be one of the most fun science experiments I've ever carried out.

I decided to write this blog when I realized that a lot of people want to do something to reduce their negative impact on the earth, but were usually overlooking composting as the primary means to eliminate waste. Composting is the original and ultimate form of recycling, as every little bit of matter is consumed by an organism which turns it into the richest, healthiest fertilizer your garden or yard could ever hope for. Perhaps more importantly, composting shows us how much waste we make, and how easily it can be broken down into something useful without harmful toxins, by-products, or down-cycling.

My goal is to spread the good news of composting, provide simple, dependable instructions on how to compost materials in a variety of ways, and provide a forum for the composting community to interact with and support each other. Additionally, I'd like to use this blog to encourage people to work with their city and municipal councils to create city-wide composting systems, as well as contact product manufacturers and encourage the use of indefinitely recyclable or compostable materials.

I look forward to sharing my love of composting, as well as to hearing from readers who are true-blue-noobs, or decades-long-veterans. Everyone can make a valuable difference by composting; I only hope to help more people learn how to do it efficiently, un-invasively, and joyfully.