It can be a feat for any family to place less than one trash bag by the curb each week. Yet in the McGovern home, that’s the standard.
Ann McGovern and her husband divert an array of refuse—from coffee filters to eggshells—from landfills through a process that “recycles” organic material. Typically, they throw out only plastic packaging and kitty litter.
“You don’t need a green thumb or even a garden to enjoy making and using compost,” says McGovern, consumer waste reduction coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. “In fact, using compost is the best way to develop a green thumb!”
Many businesses are catching on to the benefits of large-scale composting. AMC composts food waste at all of its facilities, even the huts (view the club’s new “Green Promise” commitment).
|Find instructions on how to create your own compost bin.|
Since nature does most of the dirty work, composting is virtually a hands-off activity. However, only 62 percent of yard trimmings and 2.5 percent of food wastes were composted in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
SCIENTIFIC METHOD A team of bacteria, fungi, molds, and larger organisms decompose matter in the composting process, turning organic material into nutrients used by plants. Microbial activity “heats up” a pile, an important step in destroying pathogens, while producing the end product—a nutrient-rich humus. If essential amounts of material, moisture, and aeration are present, the proper temperature will follow. Once you master the rules of this form of recycling, it can be almost as simple as tossing a plastic bottle into a receptacle.
BALANCING ACT Similar to any trash can, a compost bin or pile can hold a variety of items; the key is finding the right balance. Decomposition requires the proper amount of nitrogen-rich (“green”) and carbon-rich (“brown”) materials. “Green” includes grass clippings, weeds, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells, fruit and vegetable wastes, some forms of animal manure, and seaweed. Leaves, straw, paper products, newspapers, cornstalks, wood chips, and sawdust are satisfactory “browns.”
“Balancing high nitrogen materials with high carbon materials reduces the likelihood of odors developing in the compost pile,” says McGovern. Her simple formula is to mix three parts brown to one part green by volume.
Avoid dairy products, fats, oils, and meat and fish bones and scraps, as they also create foul odors. Coal, pet wastes, and diseased plants might be harmful to plants and humans even after decomposition occurs.
PILE IT ON While composting bins ward off pests and retain the pile’s heat and moisture, open piles also have benefits. “Having multiple piles at different ages allows me to have compost whenever I need it,” McGovern says.
If using a bin, place it in a shaded area with proper drainage. A 3-by-3 foot pile will suitably retain the heat created. Use coarse materials (such as corn stalks) for the base to create air passages. Next, alternate layers of browns and greens, placing some soil atop each. Place food scraps in the center of the pile to keep odors and pests at bay.
Moisture levels are critical. “All of the material in the pile should be nice and damp but not dripping wet,” McGovern says. “Any time the pile dries out, the composting process essentially stops, so water should be added if that happens.”
Oxygenate the pile by “fluffing” with a hoe or similar tool weekly. After about six months, the lower section of the bin will become compost, good for potting soil or container gardens as well as larger yards and gardens. The new earth even has regenerative powers. “Compost is the single best thing you can add to your soil,” says McGovern. “I can’t imagine [growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables]…in my lousy soil without using compost.”