A Basic Guide to Composting
Composting can be a daunting task and many people are unsure about how to incorporate it into their lifestyle. As a zero-waste store we feel it is important for us to help educate our customers on the importance of composting and how to keep organic waste out of rubbish bins. We therefore hope this article will shed some light on how to tackle composting.
While composting may not sound impactful, individual action in composting can prove to be highly beneficial for the environment and the economy.
Why is it important to compost?
Around 30% of household waste is organic. Imagine the space we could save in landfill if we could divert that amount. When mixed with rubbish in landfill, organic matter cannot break down naturally (aerobically), and instead, produces methane gas. Organic matter is extremely valuable for a circular economy as it enriches the soil and natural environment when it breaks down in a healthy way.
What is compost?
In layman’s terms, compost is the end product when we allow our organic waste to decompose naturally (or aerobically).
Composting is a process whereby carbon and nitrogen elements are combined to form humus. Food waste and green grass cuttings from the lawnmower are considered to be the nitrogen (“green”) element. Cardboard, fallen leaves, twigs and branches or the brown parts of garden waste are considered to be the carbon (“brown”) element. It is important to have both to make healthy compost, with a ratio of one part “green” to two parts “brown”.
Common reasons why people don’t compost:
- It is too time-consuming
- It is smelly
- It will attract pests and rodents
- I live in a flat and don’t have space to compost
- I can’t afford to invest in a compost system
- I’m afraid of animals/pets getting into my compost
- I have neighbours who don’t want ‘smelly’ compost
- I don’t know what to do with compost
If you can relate to any of these then hopefully this post will bring some perspective and demystify some of these myths.
The first things to ask yourself are: what are your needs, and what will suit your lifestyle and space?
How does composting work?
Set up a container in your kitchen to collect any leftovers, fruit and vegetable peels, bamboo toothbrushes (without bristles), toilet rolls etc.
Dairy and meat can also be composted if you are using a bokashi bin, but is not recommended on a compost heap as it will attract pests and rodents and cause smell issues.
Add the organic matter collected in your kitchen container to your bokashi bin, compost heap, worm farm or compost tumblers, whatever your setup may be.
Compost (if using a compost heap, bin or tumbler) needs enough moisture and a balanced amount of garden and kitchen waste to produce a healthy compost - as mentioned previously, at a ratio of one part “green” kitchen scraps to two parts “brown” garden waste.
A mulching machine or shredder can help considerably to reduce the volume of garden waste “browns” by up to 70%, saving space and speeding up the composting process.
Composting takes time. To speed up the process, you can use a bokashi bin, tumblers or worm farm.
Once the organic material has broken down into compost it will smell of soil and be a rich dark colour, with no rotten material. Work the compost into your garden by adding it to your vegetable gardens or flower beds. If there are still larger “brown” pieces in your compost, sieve the larger pieces out with a builders sieve and add them back to your compost heap.
What can I compost?
Items that compost quickly:
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Coffee grounds
- Loose leaf tea
- Spoiled soy/rice/almond/coconut milk
- Cooked pasta
- Cooked rice
- Pasta sauce/tomato paste
Items that compost slowly:
- Nut shells
- Old herbs and spices
- Unpopped or burnt popcorn kernels
- Stale sweets
- Lint, hair and fur
- Wine corks (chopped up)
- Old jam/preserves
- Avocado pits
- Newspapers (shredded)
- Items made of 100% cotton or wool
- Grass clippings (no fertilizer/pesticides used)
- Used matches
Items that can be added to a bokashi bin:
What products and services are available in South Africa to make the composting journey easier and less painful?
This is a great service for people who want to compost but are time strapped or don’t have a garden or only a small garden. Unfortunately this service is only available in JHB North but let them know if you are interested in their service and they might branch out into the rest of South Africa.
This business collects your organic kitchen waste monthly, and returns it to you once their hungry earthworms have transformed it into ‘vermicompost’. Vermicompost is premium compost made by earthworms - which is the way nature intended – and provides biology in addition to nutrients.
Every month you will receive 2kg of of high quality vermicompost in exchange for your organic waste, which you can use in your vegetable garden or pot plants to grow food again.
The bokashi bucket is a practical and convenient indoor method of composting your food waste. The combination of an airtight container, organic material and bokashi bran (a “brown” microbial bran that you add to the bucket) creates the ideal conditions for anaerobic (fermenting) composting. Once the bucket is full, the semi-compost needs to be trenched (buried in your garden), or added to a compost heap, worm farm or tumbler to fully decompose.
- Allows you to compost cooked food, meat products and dairy
- Speeds up the composting process
- Closed system with no smells or risk of pest invasion
- Ideal for indoor use and for households with space limitations
- Creates a nutrient-rich tea for plants
Worm farms use earthworms to break down organic waste to produce worm castings and liquid ‘worm tea’.
Worm farms are usually made from two stacked trays:
- The top tray contains the worms and food scraps. It has a lid to keep pests out, with air holes in the lid so the worms can breathe. It has drain holes in the bottom which allow any liquid to drip out.
- The bottom tray collects the liquid that drips out of the top tray and has a tap or outlet on one side where the liquid can be collected.
Although worm farms take a bit of research to set up, they have many benefits:
- Easy to maintain
- Works for households with limited space
- Pest and rat proof
- Speeds up the composting process
- Creates a great fertilising tea for your plants
- Worms take most of your kitchen scraps without the need for garden waste. The limitations are citrus, onions in small quantities and no fish or meat products.
YOLO have taken the concept of compost tumbling and have made it even better through good design and smart engineering.
The YOLO Compost Tumbler is a convenient method to compost organic waste from the kitchen and garden. Simply add your kitchen scraps and garden trimmings in the correct ratio to the tumbler and aerate the compost by turning it regularly (whenever you add organic material).
Advantages of a closed-bin system:
- Maintains higher temperatures - ideal for year-round composting
- Maintains moisture well
- Compost matures faster (6-12 weeks)
- Easy turning of compost
- Pest, rat and pet proof
- Takes little space, suitable for gardens of all sizes (as they come in different sizes)
One of the cheapest methods of organic composting is to establish composting bins. You will need to invest in several bins to let the full bins “rest”. It is a great space saver and being a closed system, is pest and rat proof and odour-free.
If you have the space, the cheapest way to process your organic food waste is in a traditional compost heap that has been piled up with garden waste.
A compost heap needs to be turned every two to three weeks for best results, but can be left to rest and slowly decompose if you don't mind the wait. Make sure that your compost has about 60% moisture in order to raise the temperature and kill off any weeds. You can check the moisture content by squeezing a handful of compost and there should almost be a drip.
A compost heap is a slow method of composting, taking between 6-10 months. Create different piles to allow “full” heaps to rest and decompose without adding new organic material.
The challenges that dog owners often face are the odour, the amount of plastic bags used to pick after your dog and where to go with all the poop? The Big Scoop offers a solution for better pet waste management.
Their aim is to:
- Keep pet waste out of landfills, waterways and soil
- Reduce single-use products involved in the pet waste process
- Create a circular economy by turning pet waste into compost to nourish the land
How does it work?
- Buy a Big Scoop starter set and begin by disposing of your dog’s waste in the designated bin.
- They will collect the bag once a month and replace it with a clean one.
- All the poop that has been collected is placed into their Big Scoop Compost Tumblers where it is turned into a nutrient rich compost (which is not intended to be used on vegetable patches or food sources).
- Alternatively, The Big Scoop will advise you on how to set up a composting system for your pet’s waste that is safe and effective.
Lastly, if you have organic waste, a full bokashi bin or compost that you don't know what to do with, ask around in your local community if there are community gardens or even neighbours that would love to take it off your hands.
Composting may seem challenging and time consuming but just start small and learn as you go. In the end, the aim is to keep organic waste out of our bins and rather create healthy soil that we can use to grow food with. Yes, it takes a bit of manual labour, but fortunately there are many options available to make this process easier for all of us.