How Does Composting Work? The Detailed Guide

how does composting work
Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Antranias

Composting is a green method of disposing of organic waste to create compost soil which functions as a healthy fertilizer, but how does composting work? Find out here.

Are you finding different ways to become more eco-conscious in your daily life and find yourself interested in compositing? Before getting involved in this method of disposing of waste, you might find yourself asking how does composting work? To be able to start composting ourselves, it’s important to understand how composting works because it will help you be able to compost more efficiently.

Composting is a system of disposing of waste and treating it in a way so the organic material can be broken down through organic mechanisms (by microorganisms like bacteria, worms, and fungi) so that the resulting compost material can be used safely in the future. Compost is often used as a natural fertilizer for gardening and farming.

This article highlights how composting works, how the cycle of waste turns into something beneficial, the advantages of composting, what compost is used for, and tips for starting your own compost.

How Does Composting Work?

When it's broken down, the process of composting is a simple process that requires the right amount of several kinds of materials.
When it’s broken down, the process of composting is a simple process that requires the right amount of several kinds of materials. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / melGreenFR)

The purpose of composting is to create the best conditions to boost the natural decay of organic waste. Materials that can be composted and that are required to encourage the natural decay of organic materials include:

  • Organic waste: newspaper, leaves/grass, kitchen waste (fruits, vegetables), wood materials
  • Soil: this is where the microorganisms come from
  • Water: but not too much
  • Air: as a source for oxygen
  • Heat: to produce carbon dioxide

How does composting work? Microorganisms from the soil eat and break down the carbon containing organic waste. This results in a fiber-rich, carbon-filled humus. It also now contains inorganic nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.

The microorganisms require oxygen to be able to break down the waste through aerobic respiration – a process in which oxygen is used to make energy from carbohydrates. Most compost bins require that you turn the material to be able to expose the waste to adequate airflow to ensure everything will be broken down better.

Furthermore, the microorganisms need water to live and multiply. From aerobic respiration, these microorganisms emit carbon dioxide and heat – which can keep compost piles warm at temperatures between 100 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

If the compost is properly cared for by creating the ideal environment for the microorganisms to eat and break down the organic waste, then the compost material can be broken down in as little as a few weeks, but it can also take several months to several years if the water levels, temperature, and proportions of material in the compost are off.

Best Conditions for Composting

Attaining the right conditions and proportions for a healthy compost bin requires lots of care and attention, but it is certainly doable.
Attaining the right conditions and proportions for a healthy compost bin requires lots of care and attention, but it is certainly doable. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / jokevanderleij8)

To ensure the decomposition of waste, the conditions of the compost pile must be balanced. There should be:

  • Plenty of airflow – this is accomplished by turning the compost daily or every other day.
  • Enough water – the compost mixture should be moist, but not dripping wet.
  • Proper proportion of carbon to nitrogen – the ideal ratio of carbon material to nitrogen is about 30:1.
  • Small pieces of waste – to ensure the rapid decomposition of material in a compost, waste should be broken up into small pieces because this will help them break down faster.
  • The right amount of soil – this allows enough microorganisms to make the waste decompose.

Carbon to Nitrogen Compost Ratio

Perhaps the trickiest part, getting the proper ratio of carbon to nitrogen in your compost pile will encourage a rapid decomposition of material, but if done wrong, it can also slow this process.
Perhaps the trickiest part, getting the proper ratio of carbon to nitrogen in your compost pile will encourage a rapid decomposition of material, but if done wrong, it can also slow this process. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / dmoreaurh)

Two of the required elements, carbon and nitrogen, are some of the most important variables to ensure that a compost works well. The carbon-to-nitrogen ratio generally agreed upon for proper decomposition is 30:1 – or 30 parts carbon for each part nitrogen. If this ratio is off-balance and there is too much nitrogen, this can cause unwanted odors in your compost. Alternatively, a higher ratio of carbon will mean there won’t be enough nitrogen for the optimal growth of microorganisms in the soil, and the waste will degrade at a slower pace.

How can you decipher between what is carbon material and what is nitrogen? In general, things that are green and moist are often higher in nitrogen, whereas materials that are brown and dry are high in carbon.

Materials High in Carbon:

  • Autumn leaves
  • Straw
  • Wood chips
  • Sawdust
  • Bark
  • Mixed Paper
  • Newspaper or cardboard

Materials High in Nitrogen:

  • Vegetable scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Grass clippings
  • Manure

Why Compost?

Composting can help reduce waste and create compost soil that is superior to synthetic fertilizers.
Composting can help reduce waste and create compost soil that is superior to synthetic fertilizers. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Prylarer)

There are many valuable reasons to compost. The benefit that usually draws people to this practice is that it’s eco-friendly because it reduces the amount of solid waste generated by a household, farm, garden, business, etc. This is good for the planet, as it decreases the amount of space used in landfills for trash.

Furthermore, the final results of compost (soil) can be used as a natural fertilizer for plants, gardens, farms, and other land. Using compost soil is more environmentally friendly than synthetic fertilizers which can pollute water and land.

Tips for Getting Your Own Compost Started

There are a lot of different techniques and practices you can use for your own compost, it's just about finding what's right for your space with the resources you have.
There are a lot of different techniques and practices you can use for your own compost, it’s just about finding what’s right for your space with the resources you have. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Antranias)

If you have access to outdoor space:

  • You may want to choose a space that is discrete or far enough away from your house, so you don’t smell the compost pile from your kitchen or patio.
  • Don’t set it outside of your own property, as this could cause issues with neighbors.
  • Placing your compost pile somewhere that gets good sunlight can encourage a warm compost that degrades quickly, but if it’s too sunny and not moist enough, the compost pile can dry out.
  • Make sure your compost has adequate drainage, so liquid doesn’t build up.
  • You can decide to build a structure, like a large wood box that would fit necessary materials for a healthy compost and let you turn the pile easily.
  • Others don’t even use a structure for their compost, and instead just heap all materials needed to compost into a pile and turn it periodically.
  • You can also purchase a compost bin that has a turning mechanism built in, making it easier to provide lots of airflow (such as the VIVOSUN Tumbling Composter available on Amazon**).
  • Take care of the compost pile by turning it frequently, making sure it is moist enough, and don’t forget to ensure the 30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen.
  • Break down all materials into smaller pieces before adding it to compost pile
  • Cover the top of the pile if you live in a rainy climate.
  • Add nitrogen fertilizer if your brown ratio is too high.
  • Add pulverized eggshells to increase the calcium in your finished compost.
  • Don’t keep food waste at the top of the pile where it can attract rodents.
  • Don’t put plant roots, diseased plant tissue, or pesticide-infected plant matter in the pile.

If you live in an apartment or don’t have a yard outside you can use a compost bin (like the Bamboozle Compost Bin available on Amazon**) just for organic waste collection. You can then try to organize a compost pickup for yourself. There are many community compost organizations that you can contact which will pick up your organic waste for you and use it in their own compost to help lower waste. If you aren’t sure where to find something like this, a good space to start looking is at your local farmers market by asking around at some of the stalls.

What to Compost (And What Not to Compost)

While composting can at first seem daunting, once you get into a routine, it will feel second nature and be well-worth the effort.
While composting can at first seem daunting, once you get into a routine, it will feel second nature and be well-worth the effort. (Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / herb007)

What can be composted?

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Tea
  • Leaves
  • Wood
  • Shredded paper
  • Cardboard (make sure to break up into smaller pieces)

What can’t be composted?

  • Animal products other than eggshells (dairy, bones, and meat)
  • Foods high in fat and oil
  • Garden waste that’s been treated with pesticides
  • Garden waste from sick plants because this can spread disease
  • Weeds
  • Plastics

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