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Home > Garbage and Recycling > Recyclable Materials > Organic Materials > Composting

Recyclable Materials: Organic: Composting

There are many ways to create compost. Here we look at the different types of composting.


About 55% of the municipal solid waste generated in this country is organic (table scraps, yard trimmings and paper). Roughly, half of that, is diverted from the landfills which is encouraging.
     Composting is one way much of the diverted material goes. In this section we will answer your questions about composting.  
  • What is compost?

  • What are the different ways to compost?

  • Is compost and composting safe?

  • Now that I have compost, what do I do with it?

What is compost?
"Composting" is the process of decomposing organic material to a point where it forms a "compost". This "compost" is rich in nutrients for plant growth and can be applied to gardens, lawns and farms.
     Basically, this is just another part of the circle of life. When plants and animals die, the material that made them is broken down naturally by bacteria, fungus, worms and other organisms. This broken down material (humus) helps to form a "living" soil (when mixed with other dirt) and can provide nutrients to new plants that grow in it.
     This material is bulkier than liquid or granular fertilizer. However, compost can help the soil retain water and nutrients for longer periods than an application of fertilizer will. Great for home gardens because you will buy less (or no) top soil to till in every year.
     If you are curious about the more technical aspects of this break down process you can check out this explanation for microbial composting from Cornell. To learn more about the differences between Anaerobic vs. Aerobic composting check this link from FAO. 

Different Ways to Compost:
leaf pic Grasscycling:
By far, the easiest of all the composting methods. There are no bins to buy. You will save time mowing and money buying less fertilizer. You will also produce less garbage to be collected (also saving money). With the time you save, you may even be able to maintain a compost pile.
     Worried about thatch? Grass clippings do not cause it. The top of the grass plant decays quickly upon removal from the plant. The root cause of thatch is the roots of the grass plant which decay slower. Check out advice given by the University of Illinois about controlling thatch.
      Cut about the top 1/3 of the grass in your mowers "mulch" mode when the grass is dry to the touch. Also, make sure the blade is sharp. How much less fertilizing? We have seen estimates that grasscycling will provide 15% - 20% of the lawns yearly nitrogen needs.

leaf pic Aerated Static Pile:
This method is used on an industrial scale as well as at people's homes. Aerated means oxygen is allowed to circulate through the pile. Static simply means that the pile is not turned.
     These compost piles can be in windrows, in-vessel, covered or not. The main idea is to get air (oxygen) flowing through the pile so the organic material can decompose aerobically. This means that the material can be compost quickly (30 to 60 days) verses a non-aerated (anaerobic) compost pile (months).
     The aeration is accomplished by having a system of perforated pipes running through the pile. Air is pumped through or sucked out of these pipes allowing circulation. On a large scale, this is usually done inside a large building and the off gasses are filtered so the smell does not get to neighboring buildings.

leaf pic Vermicomposting:
Do you like worms? Yeah, they are kinda icky. However, they are lighting fast decomposing your table scraps (and other organic waste). In vermicomposting, worms do most of the composting work.
     This type of composting can be done indoors or outdoors as long as the ambient temperature is between 45 and about 80 deg F. The red worm (not earthworm) is generally used in shallow  stackable trays. There are some kits you can buy (check our Amazon.com Store) or you could make what you need out of old dresser drawers.
     There may be a few more do's and don'ts to this method than some other composting methods but the results are fast and maintenance is fairly easy. For a more complete description of vermicomposting (at home), check out this short write up from the University of Nebraska. 

leaf pic In-Vessel:
Generally, In-vessel, means the organic material is enclosed. For small scale composting it is done in a barrel and for large scale a closed off building. The main reason to do this is to create an environment in which the temperature and air flow can be controlled.
leaf pic In-Vessel: cont.
     This is not a composting method as much it is a composting climate. Some of the other methods can be in-vessel (such as Aerated Static Pile). Vermicomposting can be done inside your temperature controlled home.
     This method deserves mention here because this is the preferred technique for the smellier organic materials and for larger producers of food waste (restaurants). In-vessel usually force air into the pile and filter the off-gas the pile creates. A restaurant could possibly do in-vessel composting on-site and not worry about attracting rodents and having unpleasant smells. For larger producers of food waste, this may be the only method allowed to do on-site.
     Check here for regulations in your state for composting different organic materials.

leaf pic Aerated (Turned) Windrow:
Usually used in a larger scale, the key to this method is the mixing and aerating the materials. Many times the materials are put in long rows and turned by automatic machines or by devices pulled by tractors. Sometimes it is done on a medium scale in large drums (cement mixer truck). It can even be done at home.
     This process is ultra fast and some produce useable product in under a week. Therefore, daily turning (mixing) is needed in the first couple of weeks. As the pile ages, the turning can be once a week.
     Some procedures involve this method as a first step (1-5 days). Then it is the feed stock for aerated static piles. This method can also be done at home in horizontal barrels that are manually turned. For more information check out this write up from the FAO

leaf pic Honorable Mention:
There are other methods of composting. We will not give an explanation here but we can point you to a few references that will help you find some more information on the subject Is compost and composting safe?
The short answer is "yes". However, before you start your own composting operation, we want to point out a few extra facts.
     Avoid meat and dairy: Most of these methods are sensitive to having meat, grease, fat and diary items in the pile. Since meat and diary are organic they will break down. However, the microorganisms that break those items down are sometimes harmful and can make your pile smell bad.
      Avoid excrement: While human and animal excrement do break down eventually, that process usually takes longer than for food scraps and exposes the pile to some harmful bacteria. The only exception is urine from a health person (not on medication). Many medicines take an extremely long time to break down.  Human urine is sterile and can give your compost pile extra nitrogen.
     If the pile begins to smell: Usually this means an anaerobic condition exists in the pile. Most often what is required is to mix the pile, add more brown material, or dry it out (cover) or some combination of these. For more details check out this write-up from About.com.

What do I do with it?
This is great stuff to add to the soil of your garden or lawn. If you are an apartment dweller (and you vermicompost), you might ask your apartment manager if they would like to used it on the landscaping. You could offer it to a community garden or even sell it on Craig's List. 
     There are some techniques to mixing compost into the soil of a potted plant, garden and lawn. However, over time everything will mix together.

Helpful Links:


Items in our "Lawn and Garden" section.

  • Indoor Composters:
    Home Recycling ________________
  • Outdoor Composters:
    Home Recycling ________________
  • Vermicomposters:
    Home Recycling ________________
  • Garbage Bags:
    Home Recycling ________________
  • Core Aerators:
    Home Recycling ________________




Glossary of Terms:

Aerobic: A process in an oxygen rich environment.

anaerobic: A process in an oxygen poor environment.

F.O.G.: Fats, Oil and Grease.
Humus: The dark organic material in soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter and essential to the fertility of the earth.

Brown Material: Carbon rich material used to moderate the decomposition process. Usually, shredded paper, straw, dried leaves.


Municipal solid waste generation, recycling, disposal in US, 2010. EPA document, .pdf

http://www.epa.gov/compost/, Composting facilities, EPA site, taken 2/21/13

http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5104e/y5104e05.htm, Composting process and techniques, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, taken 2/22/13.

http://urbanext.illinois.edu/lawnchallenge/lesson5.html, Thatch and how to manage it. University of Illinois, taken 2/24/13.

http://www.edmonton.ca/for_residents/garbage_recycling/edmonton-composting-facility.aspx, Edmonton Composting Facility, taken 2/24/13.

http://lancaster.unl.edu/pest/resources/vermicompost107.shtml, Vermicomposting: Composting with worms. University of Nebraska, taken 2/25/13.

http://www.cool2012.com/tools/regulations/, Navigating Composting Regulations, Cool2012.com, taken 2/26/13.

http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5104e/y5104e07.htm, Large scale composting, FAO.org, taken 2/27/13.

http://organicgardening.about.com/od/compost/f/smellycompost.htm, What is making my compost pile stink? About.com, taken 3/1/13.

http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/home/no-yard-heres-how-you-can-still-make-and-use-compost.htm, No Yard? TLC,  taken 3/1/13.