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Composting for beginners: The need and how to do it?

Updated: Dec 1, 2020


Composting is the natural process of decomposition and recycling of organic material into a humus rich soil. From the water we drain after soaking grains and vegetables, to the peels we throw, all can be placed again in the system through composting.

This is also the foundation of a Circular Economy.


Compost can be used in potted plants at your home and workplace. For the best potting soil, mix the compost with store-bought organic potting soil or homemade soil combination of coarse sand, perlite, and vermiculite.


In case you do not have a home garden, you can share the compost with your gardening neighbours and contribute to your local sustainable agriculture scene by either donating it to an to an organic farm, school or community garden in your area.



Why is it essential to reduce, reuse and recycle?


Landfills contribute to global warming because once waste has been dumped, very little air remains below the surface. Due to the lack of oxygen, bacteria found in organic waste produce methane gas, a highly flammable and dangerous gas when allowed to collect underground. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 25 to 72 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide


One-sixth of these emissions are released from food in landfills. Along with uneaten food, the waste piles also include seeds and skins of fruits & vegetables that we throw out everyday. Food scraps and yard waste together currently make up more than 28 percent of household waste.


Composting can reduce emissions by 2.3 billion tonnes over the next 30 years. - BBC

Other than reducing the size of piles in landfills, composting reduces the need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The organic matter acts as a natural fertiliser that enriches soil, helps retain moisture and suppress plant diseases and pests. It also reduces the carbon footprint by reducing the need to transport waste from one place to another.



Small habitual changes can make a vast difference.


Composting as a habit


We all struggle with finding ways to manage our time. Adding a new habit like composting might seem like it will eat up more time, but it doesn’t have to be super intensive to be effective.


1. Begin with maintaining separate bins for biodegradable, non- biodegradable and foodwaste. A study by ndtv suggests that, by segregating, recycling and composting, a family of four can reduce their waste from 1000kg to less than 100kg every year.


2. Identify your composting spot. The best place is to start outdoors (balcony, terrace, roof or garden), but you can even start indoors (kitchen, tabletop or sink).


3. Build a composting bin. Select a container-anything from a bucket to a normal dustbin or garden pot, and drill 4-5 holes around upper and mid levels to let some air in easily. Layer the bottom of the container with a compostable lining (optional) and then soil.


4. Break food waste into finer pieces and combine with dry leaves, twigs or shredded newspaper to mature as a compost.


5. Depending on the size of your pile and the type and size of organic matter used, it may take between three months to over a year for the compost to be ready. This last stage is called curing



Tips for beginners


1. As the term micro describes, the animals doing the job in your compost are tiny, and they take small bites. Break the materials into finer pieces so it’s easier for them to address.


2. Brown Green balance is the ratio of two necessary elements needed in the decomposition process: carbon & nitrogen. Microbes prefer a carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio of 30:1 to do their best work. The “browns” (or carbons), include leaves, dry grasses, straw, pine needles, or sawdust. The greens are nitrogen rich materials like grass clippings, kitchen waste, or manures. A good rule of thumb is two browns to every green.


3. Turn the pile regularly to ensure it is breathing.


4. If your compost bin is too dry it will stop decomposing as the microbes responsible for the composting won’t be able to work effectively. Re-wet the heap by watering it or adding lots of fresh material.


5. Do not add Meat, Bones, Fish, Fats, Dairy to compost as they can “overheat” the pile and attract animals.



Addressing some common concerns


1. Your compost smells very bad (like rotten vegetables).

Ordinarily, composting does not smell. Factors that can cause this condition are: lack of aeration, too much water, or an imbalance of carbon to nitrogen ratio. Without air, the material becomes stagnant and rancid.


Solution: Address by immediately turning your pile and add some fast-decomposing, sawdust or fine carbon material like chimney ash. Repeat as necessary.


2. Flies around the bin.

You won’t get ordinary household flies if you don’t put any meat or bones into your compost. Crushed egg shells can be added, if washed.


Solution: To avoid fruit flies,

- always keep the lid on firmly. This keeps the rain out and hinders the flies.

- always put a thin layer of fine mulch over every layer of ‘wet’ waste. It makes it hard for the flies to get to the vegetable waste.

- plant some dense shrubs near your compost bin. These will attract birds who will eat the flies.



Characteristics of a mature compost


To make sure that your compost is ready to use, grab a handful and have a look. Mature compost has the following characteristics:

- it has a pleasant earthy odour.

- the compost pile should have shrunk by half the size.

- it has a dark rich colour and a smooth crumbly texture.

- temperature of the pile is the same as the air temperature.

- the original organic materials should no longer be recognisable.



Sources and additional reading:

- Composting At Home

- Compost Troubleshooting

- We're worse with food than we think (BBC News)

- Signs that your compost is struggling (eartheasy.com)

- Simple steps to turn household waste into compost (NDTV news)

- Food waste is a vastly overlooked driver of climate change (Washington Post)

- DIY Compost Bin - How to Make Compost At Home (Happy DIY Home)



Watercolour Art: Sugandha Menda @sugandha_menda_ Graphic Illustrations: Synesthesia Collective @synthesthesia_collective



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