Community Philosphy Blog and Library

3 Rules for Composting (Plus, 6 Things You Might Not Be Composting But Could)

 

BY TONI TIEMANN  A few of us from the HOMEGROWN/Farm Aid team had the opportunity to get our elbows dirty at a recent workshop on composting with coffee at Counter Culture’s Boston-area training facility. Everett Hoffman of Bootstrap Compost, a local start-up that picks up food scraps from commercial and residential customers and turns them into compost, was on hand to lend his know-how. 

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Bootstrap’s Everett Hoffman and Counter Culture’s Jake Robinson

Everett went to Skidmore College with dreams of becoming a carpenter but decided to enter the world of composting after hearing Will Allen of Growing Power speak at an urban agriculture meeting. “It’s creative and artistic,” Everett says of compost. “You are literally making something from what you would have thrown away.” Since I’m not an experienced composter, I sat down with Everett after the workshop to get the lowdown on composting basics, plus tips on what to compost, including some surprises.

1. Balance your nitrogen and carbon levels. Compost should maintain a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 3:1, although this formula can vary, depending on what the compost will be used for. Typically, for the right molecular balance, you want three “brown” materials for every “green” one. Brown materials, like leaves and sticks, are high in carbon, whereas green ones, like most vegetable scraps, have a higher nitrogen content. 

This gets tricky with substances like coffee that look brown but act green. Similarly, grass is high in nitrogen when it’s green and growing but builds greater carbon content as it dries out. One way to determine if your compost is balanced is by its smell. If the compost smells bad, you’ve got too much nitrogen and need more carbon. Solution: Add more twigs or leaves. And if the pile isn’t decomposing, it’s probably lacking nitrogen, which you can fix by adding more food scraps. 

2. Know what you’re brewing: fungal- versus bacterial-dominant compost. There are two types of compost: fungal- and bacterial-dominant. Fungal compost works over a long period of time and is most effective for growing shrubs and trees. Bacterium, on the other hand, isn’t capable of breaking down wood on its own. Bacterial-dominant compost works best in a garden environment because it has a higher level of nitrogen, a crucial element for growing tomatoes and veggies.

3. Give your compost enough water and air. “There are more microorganisms in this handful of compost than there are stars in our galaxy,” Everett said as he lifted a handful of compost at the coffee workshop. Just as humans and plants need water and air to survive, so do the microorganisms in compost. The perfect compost should leave your hand moist, but not dripping wet, when you squeeze it.

You also want to keep an eye on the density of your compost pile. Compost needs rigid materials like twigs or wood chips to create space for air to circulate throughout. Compost can reach temperatures of up to 160 degrees, and the microbes need to be able to breathe when the temp starts to rise. Those rigid materials also help encourage an even distribution of water, like stones in a brook.

So, now that we know the basic principles, what can we compost? Old shower loofahs? Leather? Feathers? Elmer’s glue? Everett’s mantra: “It’s not waste unless we call it waste.” He shared the dirt on six things you can compost—but might not be.

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Toni (right, with Jake) prepares to plant bean seeds in compost-rich soil

1. Coffee. Everett says people across the globe throw away 20 million tons of coffee grounds each year, so compost is a great way to reduce that waste. Coffee makes a good addition to compost because it’s 2 percent nitrogen by volume, a relatively high concentration that aids plants in the natural process of creating chlorophyll.

2. Hair. From both humans and pets, for that matter. Hair is a source of nitrogen and is nonputrescible—good word, huh?—meaning it doesn’t smell bad quickly. Hair is similar to a substance like fish guts, which also provides a high amount of nitrogen but is putrescible.

3. Shells/mollusks. Because a shell takes a long time to decompose, it adds a long-term supply of valuable calcium as it breaks down.

4. No. 6 plastics. Any plastic with “PLA” embossed on its bottom is no. 6 plastic, meaning it can be composted in a professional facility. Companies like Vegware and NatureWorks recently started manufacturing cups and other products made from this corn-based plastic.

5. Dryer lint. Most lint found in the dryer comes from cotton, which is a plant, making it compostable. Lint typically has a higher concentration of carbon than nitrogen, but it contains both.

6. Humanure. Humanure is basically what it sounds like: manure made from human fecal matter. (Go ahead and take a minute to digest that one.) Humanure is not readily compostable on its own and requires a special composting toilet. Once it has been processed through the composting toilet, the remaining feces can be blended with a substance, such as wood chips, and used to grow mushrooms. The mushrooms remove any pathogens from the humanure, and the remnants then can be used like typical compost.

Don’t want to recycle your poop? Don’t sweat it. There are plenty of other things to compost, and doing so is a great first step in living a more sustainable life. In fact, Everett says, Americans throw out a staggering amount of food every day, enough to fill an entire football stadium. Most of this waste is sent to landfills where it produces a tremendous amount of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas.

Although composting may seem like a small act for a single person, Everett sees it as the beginning of a bigger movement for change. “The way that we feel affects the way that we think, and the way that we think affects everything,” he says.

MORE FROM HOMEGROWN

• See HOMEGROWN 101s on composting and making compost tea

• Check out HOMEGROWN member Karin’s blog post for suggestions on where to get free compostable coffee grounds

Toni is a second year student at Northeastern University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in music industry. Having grown up on a farm in Upstate New York, she is completing her first co-op at Farm Aid and is very eager to learn more about modern farming practices. Toni has a passion for live music, hiking, creative writing, and cooking.

4 Responses to “3 Rules for Composting (Plus, 6 Things You Might Not Be Composting But Could)”

  1. Great article! I’m already a convert since I’ve been composting for decades now, but I’ll add a hearty harrumph of approval to your suggestions. Coffee grounds are also readily available at Starbucks and many other coffee shops, and also help raise soil acidity, so my blueberries (which like acidic soil) love it!

  2. I’ve composted all of those things except the coffee grounds. The plastic cup took a couple years though. Everything else breaks down pretty quickly. (It’s not as bad as it sounds!) This reminds me I should go dump out my kitchen scraps!

  3. thank you for sharing such valuable information. I have been collecting kitchen scrap in plastic container since two weeks. And have left 6 earthworms in it. (I hope they are still alive inside) My question is , is a mud pot better container than plastic keeping in mind that it needs to breath?? Thanks,

  4. Anne Bedarf Says:

    Hi there, thanks for helping folks compost! One IMPORTANT correction: It’s not No. 6 plastics that are compostable–Resin Identification Code #6 is polystyrene including Styrofoam. Cups with RIC #7 are “Other” so only the #7 plastics that specifically say “PLA” or “Compostable” are of the plant-based type compostable in commercial facilities.

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