How did Week 1 and Week 2 go? It’s okay if you stumbled. Eliminating waste materials from our homes is not easy, so cut yourself some slack. Just stay focused on the goal, and remind yourself why you’re doing this.
This week, we look at composting. Composting is the most amazing thing ever. It’s that bit of the grand circle of life where discarded organic material gets turned into rich soil that can nourish plants and other lifeforms. The organic material decomposes in the presence of air and water, over a period of time, and ends up looking like rich crumbled chocolate cake (!) and smelling divine.
During the process, though, there are chances that the smell is not so great. But that’s only if there’s something missing in the mix. If you do everything properly (and you will learn with practice), there will be no “bad” smell, no mess, and no worms crawling around where you don’t want them.
But first, before we begin…
Let’s look at why composting is such an important thing to do
Organic waste, which accumulate in our homes from food that we throw away, naturally decomposes. But we usually over-do things, and send tremendous amounts of organic waste to our landfills. There, due to lack of adequate oxygen, no decomposition happens, and the waste just….lies there. Stinking up the place.
Moreover, methane gas escapes from this landfill pile, which is terrible for the climate. What can we do with the crazy amounts of waste we generate? We shouldn’t burn the pile: Incineration leaves toxic ash waste, apart from releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. What we, individually, can do, is to minimise our waste (oh wait, isn’t that the entire point of this Zero Waste series?). We’ve cut down on paper and plastic in our first two weeks. Now, we tackle organic waste.
Composting at home is also surprisingly useful (for the planet). Commercial composting uses machines that are reliant on oil. The commercial process is also sped up to save time (and make more money), which by design excludes the gradual process of fungal decomposition. In contrast, when we compost at home, we give the stuff enough time to naturally break down. So things happen the way they’re meant to.
Apart from the practical aspects, there’s also something so beautiful about composting. I was reading the article on composting at One Green Planet, and loved this paragraph:
Environmentalism is at times heavily focused on the idea of ‘waste,’ because it is such a key issue to the health of the planet. However, ‘waste’ is a human concept and also a human problem. In nature there is no waste, as every living thing serves a greater purpose than its own lifespan, and contributes to the growth of something else. It’s easy to forget this crucial fact, but when you delve into composting your own ‘waste’ you learn to appreciate the cycle of life which involves decay and new growth in equal measure, and you come to understand that everything has a place in the world.
Let’s get started.
A compost needs green materials (for nitrogen), brown materials (for carbon), and sufficient air and water (both of which help the microbes that work on decomposing all the material). Some fertilizer or top soil or manure (like this one) is also vital to push the fermentation process.
Note: You can use worms to do the breaking down of your organic materials (vermicompost). Or, you can do wormless composting using the fermentation process. Which is carried out in the presence of fertilizer or manure/ rich top soil.
Green materials include leaves, fruits and vegetable remains, used coffee grounds and tea leaves, etc. Brown materials include top soil, dried leaves, weeds, sawdust, newspaper, etc.
The basic conditions you need to prepare are:
- You’ll need to stir the contents every few days (to avoid anaerobic pockets and to speed up the composting process)
- You’ll need to make sure there’s enough air and water, and a good balance of green and brown materials
Now for the container that the magic happens in!
You can use a large plastic container (like a bucket) or a tin drum. You need to have a lid to cover this container securely. Poke a couple of holes in the lid, and a couple in the base of the container. These holes allow air flow and also let excess water drain out from the bottom. Place this container on a tray (just like you do your potted plants) to catch the draining water.
Give the container a home in an area that gets a lot of light, but also doesn’t get very hot.
Prepare the container.
Line the bottom of this container with wet newspaper strips. Add a couple inches of top soil on top of this layer. The container is now ready for the compost piles.
Finally, the composting.
Add in your food and other organic scraps once a day. Add some top soil. Then cover it with soaked paper strips. Place the lid to cover the container until the next day.
24 hours later, open the lid, mix/toss the contents around a bit (so the air gets into every part of the compost pile), and add in your day’s waste. Add some top soil. Cover this with soaked paper strips. 24 hours later, repeat again. And so on and so forth.
Note: Plastic, animal waste, citrus, meat, bones and dairy are things you absolutely must not add to the compost.
It takes any time between six weeks to a few months for the composting to finish, depending on what exactly you put in, so it’s advisable to start a new container when the first one gets full. This depends on how big your container is. For me, my first container got full after nearly three weeks. I set it aside and began with a new container. Just open your first container once every five/six days to give it a good stir. You’ll see when the contents begin breaking down and turning into rich soil. Once the composting is more or less finished, you can add this very nutritious soil to your plants. They’ll thank you for it!
If at first you don’t succeed, try again (and again).
If you’re ever worried about whether this will be successful, just remember the basics: You need greens, browns, water and air. Experiment with the ratios until you arrive at the ideal mix. As you can imagine, the ideal mix is different for different people, depending on the waste and the ambient conditions (including moisture levels).
So, just hang in there, and stay committed to figuring this out. Remember that everything that is biodegradable degrades! Whether you want it to or not. So, this really isn’t that complicated:)
Here’s a highly recommended book on kitchen waste, with a helpful section on composting (affiliate link):
Advanced Zero Waste: Building Your Kitchen Garden