exponentiation ezine
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exponentiation ezine: issue [3.0:self-sufficiency]


Reduce the amount of waste that goes to the landfill by composting. If you live out in the country or in an apartment in the heart of a large city you can compost.

For those unfamiliar, composting is a natural soil decomposition process performed by soil inhabiting macro and microorganisms such as fungi, earthworms and protozoa. During the process of decomposition a brown/black, nutrient rich byproduct is produced called humus. When humus is produced you have compost that is rich in nutrients.

Composting can be utilized to break down organic matter from ones own home, such as kitchen scraps, as well as soil and plant materials like leaves, grass clippings and hay. Utilizing the decomposition process reduces the amount of material waste sent to the landfill and the nutrient rich fertilizer produced can be used to fertilize any soil of your choice.

What to Compost

Good things to compost: Grass Clippings, Leaves, kitchen scraps, shredded paper, saw dust, wood chips, hay, straw, corn cobs, fruit and vegetable leftovers, shredded cardboard, egg shells, and most anything else organic and easily biodegradable.

Bad things to compost: Chemical waste, Styrofoam, fats and grease, chemically treated woods, human waste, dairy, meat, oil, plastics. *note: Fats, grease, oil, meat and dairy are generally not recommended for compost piles because they attract bad smells, rodents and insects. If you are willing to deal with smells, insects and rodents, then go ahead and compost meat, oil, grease and dairy products.

How to compost:

Composting is a relatively simple process. It's almost as easy as putting your compostable waste items (as noted above) into a pile and letting them decompose naturally. However doing it like this takes a long time, therefore in order to fully take advantage of the decomposition process, an understanding of the factors making a successful active compost pile is in order.

Regardless of the method you choose to use for composting, these are the four most important factors you need to keep in mind for a successful compost pile:

1. Aeration
2. Moisture
3. Carbon to Nitrogen ratio
4. Temperature

Aeration - Aerobic life forms are the dominant decomposers in a compost pile therefore it is essential to make sure your compost pile remains aerated. Allow the pile to remain lose and don't compact it. Compacting will limit airflow. Occasionally turning and shifting the compost pile increases aeration and is virtually necessary to keep up efficient decomposition. Also cutting up scraps that go into the pile exposes more surface area, which speeds up the decomposition process.

Moisture - The next important thing to keep in mind is the moisture of your pile. Decomposers require moisture in order to live, thus you must make sure your compost pile maintains a certain amount of moisture. The moisture level should be about the same as a wrung out sponge. If there is greater or less moisture than this the decomposition process will go much slower. If you live in a dry climate plan to put your pile in a shaded place so that less moisture will evaporate and be sure to add moisture to it more frequently. If you live in a rather wet climate put your compost in a dryer area and perhaps have some sort of cover available to keep out excess rain and moisture.

Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio - This is one of the most important things to consider when starting a compost pile. Micro and macro organisms doing the decomposition need carbon and nitrogen to survive, however too much carbon and nitrogen can be harmful to them. The ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio for composting is 30:1.

Here's a brief list of carbon to nitrogen levels found in some commonly composted items.

Compost Items: C:N Ratio:
Hay 12:1
Kitchen Scraps 15:1
Grass Clippings 19:1
Coffee Grounds 20:1
Rotten Manure 20:1
Leaves 60:1
Paper 180:1
Wood chips 300:1

In order to get good compost, mix and match some of these ingredients into your compost pile. Fresh material generally has a lower carbon to nitrogen ratio than does material that has had a while to decompose. Since most materials are higher in carbon than nitrogen make sure to consciously add nitrogen rich materials to your compost pile.

As a rule of thumb, green materials are higher in nitrogen while brown materials are generally higher in carbon. So an easy way to think of the carbon to nitrogen level is 30 parts brown and 1 part green, or for the amount of kitchen scraps put into the compost pile, put an equal amount of brown material. Following this rule of thumb should give you a healthy compost pile.

Temperature - As decomposition takes place the microorganisms produce an exothermic reaction that heats up the pile. If you have a good carbon to nitrogen level, moisture, aeration and volume for your pile this reaction will create a temperature anywhere between 110 to 140 degrees. However if you live in a climate where the temperatures get exceptionally cold you will need to locate your compost pile in a place that averages a temperature of at least fifty degrees. If your pile freezes it will only temporarily stunt the decomposers and decomposition will begin again once the pile thaws.

Methods of Composting

Compost Heap: An open compost heap is a recommended method only for those individuals who have open land and are willing to spare some of it for composting duties. Creating a compost heap is quite simple. Section of an area of your land and begin filling it with yard and kitchen scraps. Make sure the compost stays moist and occasionally turn the heap for quicker composting time. Covering your heap with a tarp and or straw will help it keep more stable composting conditions.

Once the heap starts to get to a good size-this might take anywhere from 6 to 24 weeks depending on your waste output-begin a new pile so as to let the old pile fully decompose. You will know the pile is done decomposing when it emanates an earthy aroma and is a rich brown or black color.

Pros: Takes little to no money and is easy to do.

Cons: Not orderly or aesthetically pleasing. Pile occasionally needs to be turned manually.

Composting in Bins and Containers: Composting in containers or holding units is relatively easy and inexpensive. There are many different kinds of composting containers and holding units that can be purchased or made. I will list a few container options and how to construct them yourself:

Mesh Wire Bin: Take a 10-foot long, 36-inch wide sheet of 1-inch galvanized chicken wire and fold its short ends back three or four inches. Bring together the folded ends to make a circle and tie them tightly together using industrial strength wire. Set the newly constructed wire cylinder in the place you wish to compost. You can apply stakes around the inside boarder of the wire circle for added stability (this is an optional step).

Buckets: Composting can also be done in 10 gallon buckets. Simply place the composting items in the bucket, take into account all the factors listed in the 'how to' section and allow for decomposition to take place. The downsides to this method are its lack of space, and the difficulty in mixing the materials together. If you choose this method make sure to have a few buckets on hand so that when one gets full you can leave it to the side to decompose and start filling a new one. This method, along with the other bin methods, takes time.

Trashcans: Get a plastic or metal garbage can and poke holes in the bottom, the sides and the lid to help with aeration. Place the trashcan on top of bricks and put a pan underneath to collect any water runoff. Put a bit of soil and grass clippings at the bottom of the trash can and then begin filling it with compost materials as normal.

Wooden Pallet Bin: Grab four wooden pallets like the ones found behind grocery stores. Stand them erect and place them next to each other to create a square bin. Screw them together or use wire to tie them together. If you want a bottom, grab a fifth pallet and place it on the bottom. This is a simple and nearly free way to make a decent wooden compost bin. The bin can be converted into more bins by adding more pallet walls.

These are just some of the ways you can compost using bins and containers. If none of these appeal to you or you find them unfeasible, consider designing your own small compost bin. Ideal compost piles are 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep, but there are no rules about making them smaller. For apartment dwellers a couple of these methods are applicable, such as the trashcan and bucket methods.

Pros: Keeps pile neat and orderly and is a quick and inexpensive method.

Cons: Slow decomposition time

Compost Tumbler: A compost tumbler is something you can buy or make yourself. Buying it can cost you over 100 dollars so my recommendation is to make it if you have the time. I won't go into the details of making a tumbler yourself as it is a more extensive process than the other methods discussed, but I will say that if you scour your local scrap yard you should find many of the materials needed for the project such as a 55 gallon drum, metal piping, and wood. This method of composting is perhaps the quickest way to compost a lot of material.

Pros: Fastest form of composting

Cons: Expensive when buying, time consuming and labor intensive when building

Vermiculture: This method involves composting with red wriggler worms (Eisenia foetida). Since worms are natural decomposers they break down the items you put into a composting bin. An advantage of vermiculture is that it requires less time and space than other methods, which makes it perfect for those living in an apartment.

Build a container to your preferred size, or find an old trunk and or wooden container and convert it into a worm bin. You want your container to be at least six to twelve inches deep and it needs to have a lid. Holes also need to be drilled into the container to allow for aeration (8 to 12 holes in the bottom should work, but make sure to elevate the bin if you put them in the bottom).

Once you have your container layer it with shredded newspaper, cardboard, and leaves (sawdust, straw and other dead plants will work well too). Cover those items with a bit of sandy dirt. Fill your container about three-quarters full with bedding before you put in the worms and make sure that the bedding is loose.

As for how many worms you need to put in your container, it varies based upon how much food waste you dump out per day on average. A general ratio is one pound of food waste a day requires two pounds of worms (2000 worms). Make a note of this ratio and use it when deciding how many worms you will need.

It is important that you keep the soil in the bin at a temperature between 40 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit otherwise the worms will die. If you keep your bin outside, consider taking it in on particularly cold nights. If you live in a very cold area, it is a must that you keep it inside someplace warm on freezing nights.

Pros: Great for composting food scraps in apartments

Cons: Temperature needs to be kept up. Large amount of worms needed to effectively decompose kitchen scraps.

Trash Bag Composting: Put the same things you would normally compost into a large black or opaque trash bag and add a couple of cups of soil. Make sure there are no holes in the bag, if there are mend them with duct tape. When full, seal the bag and let it lay out in the sun. The contents of the bag should turn to usable compost in three to four weeks. This method is simple, quick, and perfect for anyone living in an apartment, as it doesn't require a large amount of space.

Pros: Simple and quick method

Cons: Doesn't hold much, wastes bags.

Special considerations for Apartment Composting:

Since most apartment dwellers don't have access to grass clippings, leaves and other sorts of vegeatation, they should make a special attempt to gather leaves, grass clipping and wood shavings from around the community.

Another bit of advice to those living in an apartment is to assess the space you have to work with before going to buy materials to build a compost bin. Take a bit of time to measure out an area of your patio or balcony beforehand, it could save you time and resources.

Time Disclaimer

Composting takes time, it's not an overnight process. Keep this in mind when you decided upon what method you want to use when composting. Depending on the size of the pile composting can take anywhere from 3 weeks to 24 months. Generally small, active compost piles take 4 to 6 weeks, which means that if you are in an apartment or small residence your composting time will be shorter. If you have the land to start a large pile of well over 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep, it will take around 12 to 24 months for the compost to finish. You can keep adding material to the compost and it is recommended that you eventually start a second compost pile to allow the original one to finish without having half decomposed materials in it. If you can only begin one pile, throw the still decomposing materials into your next pile.


Once your compost is ready you can use it to fertilize your own garden. If you don't have a garden you can give it to someone who does and if that isn't an option for you, you can go and fertilize an empty dirt lot. Even if you can't use the fertilizer yourself the compost is still useful and it helps eliminate the extra waste that gets shipped to the landfill. - phantasm


[1]"Composting Your Garbage" [on line] Available at http://www.guvswd.org/compost
[2]"Composting Your Organic Kitchen Wastes with Worms" [on line] Available at http://www.ext.vt.edu/pubs/bse/442-005/442-005.html#L3
[3]"Composting in an Apartment or Condo" [on line] Available at http://www.dfwnetmall.com/earth/compost-condo-apartment.htm
[4]"The Way of the Compost" [on line] Available at http://www.humboldt.edu/~ccat/wastereduction/composting/ralphSP2002/composting.html
[5]"Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio for Various Compostable Materials" [on line] Available at http://www.microtack.com/html/compost_carbon.html

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