Compost Everything – Seriously

Ok, maybe not everything, but hear me out…

I am a huge fan of reducing waste, or rather, generating no waste by reusing discarded things. It just came naturally to me to fall in love with composting. Composting is the process of nature, decomposing organic matter. It leaves you with a valuable product that can be used as a natural pesticide, soil-enricher and conditioner, nutrient carrier and general do-gooder for the garden or farm. It is, however, a slow process that takes some time to get right; well worth it in the end.
Once you start composting, you will not only regret not starting earlier but also feel a little bias against non-composters.

So what can you compost then?
Almost everything. Some of my preferred composting authors (Joseph Jenkins, David The Good) say the same thing more or less: “If it lived at some point, it can live again”. Composting requires green and brown layers, carbon and nitrogen, moisture and oxygen. Aerobic bacteria live off oxygen, and they love eating carbon and nitrogen in a good ratio. Too much carbon and they will slow down. Not enough oxygen and they will perish until anaerobic (stinky, foul) bacteria take over.

Composting is a party-trick, a social event for all the team players involved. You and your family play a significant role by doing all you can to compost food scraps, paper, lawn cuttings and even humanure (more about that later). As much as you can gather, you can compost as long as it is organic. Some things will take longer, like bones and twigs, but everything organic will break down over time. Fungi will jump in and work on the larger parts, like the (lignin in) wood shavings and branches, while the earthworms, beetles and good bacteria do the rest. They will consume the water, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen inputs and turn it into carbon dioxide, heat and ammonium.

Heat is an imperative part of the process, and the right balance between brown/carbon inputs and green/wet/nitrogen inputs will ensure the proper temperatures. Piles that get too dry, or do not have good access to nitrogen-rich deposits, will not generate the needed heat. Nitrogen loaded materials are normally green and wet, but you will learn fairly quickly which is which. A lot of people say the ash is good, and they are not wrong, but I find that the massive pH spikes do more harm than good by upsetting the environment for the microbes.

Our pile-A with a water source and carbon material nearby. Built from 4 free (or cheap) pallets.

Let’s tackle some of the issues some readers may have.

Hygiene & odour,
Effort
Humanure??

Compost should never smell bad, maybe somewhat ammonia-like, but never strong or stinky. A bad-smelling pile is just calling for a little bit of help. It may have gotten too wet. Imagine squeezing a ball in your hand, and that it will only drip a few drops. It needs to be moist, but not soaked. Your carbon-to-nitrogen ratio may be off a little. In this case, just start correcting from that point onwards. A quick aid is to cover the pile with dry/brown material to keep it sealed off. A layer of sawdust, hay or chaff or dry leaves makes for an excellent top-sealer. It even keeps the mice and animals at bay (not that they are harmful to the pile other than disturbing the layers etc). Once you have a good oxygen-rich environment, the aerobic bacteria will do their thing and it should not smell any different from wet soil or a garden-shop/nursery. Occasionally, mine will have a little whiff of ‘stable’ (ammonia), but I consider that a good smell anyway. Remember, aerobic composting generates virtually no methane. No methane, no smell, no rodents.

Hygiene should not be an issue, again. If covered correctly and if animals cannot disturb, dig or eat any of its contents you will have no issues. Here’s the thing…
The heat created in a pile, can and will kill off pathogens and seeds. It is nature’s way of disinfecting. This is why folks with composting toilets can add everything in the pile, including humanure (layers of humanure and sawdust, odourless). Thermophilic organisms live and thrive in temperatures of 40°C up to 122°C. At these temperatures, pathogens are annihilated, seeds destroyed and the contents are pretty much sanitized. Take note though that this takes many months. We do 12-month cycles on our bins, which gives everything time to convert into safe, harmless, good smelling humus.

The last issue that I sense here, is effort. It’s all in the mind. Think about it this way: You throw away food, coffee grind, paper, cardboard toilet roll holders, newspaper, garden waste, the dead goldfish, bad meat from a cheap shop, poop, etc. It takes a lot of effort to put those rotten eggs in a bag and dispose of it, it’s wasteful and disturbing to flush the dead goldfish down the toilet and scraping the plate into the kitchen bin just causes the whole kitchen to smell. Don’t. As long as it is not plastic or chemicals you can chuck it into the compost bucket. Tissues, paper cups, chips, a dead mouse…

We have a small plastic bucket in the kitchen, which receives all organics. While we strive to buy and use less plastic, the inevitables are collected into separate bins, along with glass and other things that should not be composted (or cannot). At the end of the day, we just dump out the compostables on to the pile and cover it lightly with brown/carbon materials. Done. Waste that would generally rot in a bin or bag (anaerobically) are now turned into assets, by simply aerobically processing it. So why not?

The humanure issue is a problem for those who do not understand it, I get that. People think it’s weird and gross, but it’s an essential and super-natural way to deal with waste (and turn it into something good). At the same time, it does not require ANY water and the process is odourless and not bad at all. This also goes to the pile. Isn’t it weird to flush away clean drinkable (or at least usable) water every time you use the toilet? I find normal toilets weird and wasteful. As much as I recommend this, I cannot swing a closed-mind (as mine was). Please read Joseph Jenkins book, The Humanure Handbook. It is loaded with reason, facts and details that enrich even if you don’t go this route.

So start your pile today. However, you do it, watch a video or three by David The Good, do a few minutes of reading and run with it. If you want to ensure safe compost, operate two piles. Collect into pile A for a year, and let it work for a year while you collect into pile B. It’s that simple, and as the material decomposes, the piles shrink, so you will unlikely run out of space soon.

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