Composting for a Healthy Environment

By: L. Scott

Tons of organic materials are thrown in the garbage and needlessly tossed in landfills each year. By composting these materials, the life of your local landfill can be extended and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. According to the EPA, Americans dump approximately 4.6 pounds of trash per person per day. More than half of that goes into landfills. By composting, an average of 700 lbs of food waste per household can be diverted from the waste stream each year. This means less garbage entering the landfills that take up space and are harmful to the environment. Food and paper waste can account for nearly 50 percent of the trash output for the average restaurant, which is why more businesses are considering compost programs to reduce its waste and as a way of limiting their environmental footprint.


When solid waste is sealed in landfills without oxygen, organic materials release methane gas as they decompose. Methane gas is a potent, green house gas which contributes to global warming, smog, and can impair human health. If composted, the food can be broken down into a non-chemical fertilizer. A compost pile undergoes aerobic decomposition and produces carbon dioxide instead of methane. Composting is a biological process that causes microorganisms, bacteria and insects to break down organic materials, such as leaves, grass clippings and kitchen scraps. It involves mixing yard and organic waste in a pile or bin. The 4 main ingredients needed to make compost are carbon (brown material, such as wood chips and brown leaves), oxygen, water, and nitrogen (green material, such as grass clippings and vegetable scraps). Compost is finished when it has a dark, rich color and earthy smell. It takes approximately 6-9 months for the finished compost to be ready.

Composting Tips

  1. Place your compost bin on a partial shade or sunny, well-drained spot.
  2. Drill small holes at the bottom and sides of your bin for aeration purposes. This will also make it easier for worms to get inside and break down the contents.
  3. Place dry leaves or shredded newspaper at the bottom of the compost bin.
  4. Fill your bin with 50 percent dry brown material (cardboard, dead leaves and paper) and 50 percent green material (kitchen waste and grass clippings). If your compost bin smells bad, it probably is too wet or contains too much green material. The best way to solve this problem is to add brown material, which is high in carbon.
  5. Add kitchen scraps to the compost bin. Kitchen scraps speed up the composting process. Fruit waste, egg shells, peanut shells, coffee grounds, and vegetable peels are good materials to include in a compost bin (or pile).
  6. Use grass clippings, blood meal, cottonseed meal, compost starter, or aged manure. They are rich in nitrogen and will help activate the microbes responsible for breaking down organic matter into compost. Nitrogen is necessary for quick decomposition and rich compost. Never compost fats, pet droppings or animal products.

If you have a compost pile, instead of a bin, you should do the following:

  1. Make your pile no more than 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. The pile should be in a partly shaded area and at least 2 feet away from any structure, such as a fence or building.
  2. Aerate your compost using a pitch fork or garden hoe four to five times per season. If the compost smells like ammonia, it is time to aerate the pile. Odors are usually caused by a large number of anaerobic microbes. Aerating your pile will cut down on the anaerobic process.
  3. Turn the compost often. When the compost pile is turned often, many of the microorganisms will get the required oxygen and ventilation. This will also help your compost break down faster. Use a compost aerator or pitch fork to mix your pile.
  4. Keep your compost pile moist. A moisture content of between 50-60 percent is desirable in an active compost pile. If your pile is too wet, add some dry brown materials, such as straw, chopped leaves or hay.
  5. Cut up or shred all materials you put into your compost pile. If you freeze your kitchen scraps before you put them into your compost pile it will make the process go even more quickly.
  6. Use a compost thermometer to measure the temperature inside the pile. A compost pile will usually produce temperatures of 140 – 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Composting is the sensible next step for people who recycle often and are looking for other ways to reduce their household waste. Among the many benefits of composting are improved soil structure, erosion reduction, weed control, and the retention of vital nutrients in the soil.