A Beginners Guide to Backyard Composting

We took a family trip to the new Burke museum a couple of weeks ago. It contains exhibits about a few different areas of interest – natural history, Native American art, and a bit about Seattle and the Northwest. There’s a section on garbage that shows how our waste output has been rising exponentially over time, and according to the museum, the average American produces an appalling 2,000 pounds of garbage per year. I looked into this online and found the statistics from the EPA:

The total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2017 was 267.8 million tons (U.S. short tons, unless specified) or 4.51 pounds per person per day. Of the MSW generated, approximately 67 million tons were recycled and 27 million tons were composted. Together, more than 94 million tons of MSW were recycled and composted, equivalent to a 35.2 percent recycling and composting rate. In addition, more than 34 million tons of MSW (12.7 percent) were combusted with energy recovery and more than 139 million tons of MSW (52.1 percent) were landfilled.

139 million tons / 327 million people comes out to 850 pounds per person per year – well under 2,000 but still rather appalling. My goal is for my family of 4 to produce less than half this much. 

When it comes to waste, we need to remember what is a problem and what is not. Anything going into a landfill will take hundreds or even thousands of years to decompose. Researchers have extracted intact hot dogs from 30-40 year old landfills. The worst thing of all is plastic, which only degrades with prolonged exposure to sunlight. All of this represents yet another problem that our generation will pass on to many generations that follow.

If you want to behave like a responsible adult and reduce your waste output, follow the 5 Rs from the excellent book, Zero Waste Home:

  1. Refuse
  2. Reduce
  3. Reuse
  4. Recycle
  5. Rot

This post will mostly be about #5, but I’ll briefly talk about the other 4. I’ve been refusing disposable bags and shopping the bulk isle to refill my olive and vegetable oil and stock up on staples like coffee, pasta, and beans. I’ve also tried refilling laundry detergent containers at Public Goods and Services in West Seattle. I started recycling plastic film and styrofoam with Ridwell and dropping off used dental plastics like toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes with Terracycle. I recycle everything else that I can, like beer bottles, aluminum cans, cardboard, and larger plastics in the municipal bin, and I’ve been composting food scraps and yard waste in the curbside compost for years. Another good thing about recycling those beer bottles: they may actually just get directly reused rather than crushed and melted down.

That leaves a couple of things that can rot but wind up in the trash. This includes things like tissues, Q-tips, and biodegradable floss. For that, I bought a backyard composter. It’s a rotating black plastic drum with two seperate compartments. I found the assembly a little confusing, but fortunately I was able to find someone to help me.

Once assembled, you need to fill your composter with an assortment of “greens” and “browns.” Greens include things like grass clippings, weeds, and leftover spoiled lettuce. Browns are all the products that I mentioned above that are derived from wood (like tissue paper and biodegradable sponges) as well as sawdust, twigs, and pinecones. Generally 4 parts browns to 1 parts greens is the right ratio, but recommendations vary and I don’t think it’s too important. I prioritize the things I can’t compost and supplement it with stuff from the yard and kitchen when necessary. You should cut up larger items, like this old sponge made from plant-based materials, to make them break down more easily.

Whatever you do, don’t put meat, bones, oils, or dairy in the composter. It will stink! If you contain yourself to paper based waste and yard waste, your composter won’t smell bad.

The compost barrel needs to be rotated 2-3 times per day, but once again, that’s not strictly necessary. If you skip a few rotations, the effect will be the decomposition process takes a bit longer. Lastly, if you want, you can sprinkle a little compost starter on the mix. It will take 3-6 weeks for the compost to turn into dirt, depending on the outside temperature and moisture. Generally, you want to keep the compost moist but not too wet, and you should use untreated water from a rain barrel if you can. The result will be very high quality soil that you can use anywhere in your garden.

There are some things you don’t need to put in the composter. I’ve been putting coffee on my plants and on my lawn for years with good results. All you need to do is take your coffee grains outside, put them on a bare patch of lawn and step on them, like this:

Ideally, do this before it rains. After a month it will look like this:

The dark spot seems to just keep shrinking until eventually you will never know it was even there. The grass grows into the bare patch. 

If you’re really hardcore about it, you can compost dog poop, but make sure you check the warnings first. There are many products sold for this purpose, but the cheap and easy way to do it is to take an old latex paint can, cut out the bottom and cut holes in the sides, and then bury it up to the top in your yard. You can then fill it with dog waste mixed with a few pine needles and leaves and once it decomposes, use it for any part of your garden that will never be edible (i.e. not your vegetables!). I opted not to do this for my 4-legged friend because it’s not recommended that you compost the stuff or use it as fertilizer anywhere that little children could be playing. Instead, I’ve stuck to buying lightweight biodegradable bags and chucking them in the trash.

2020-06-16: An update
I’ve been using my composter for a long time now but I’m not yet ready to take the first load of dirt out. The culprit is tissue – it takes a very long time to break down:

Those brown lumps are balls of tissue paper. The paper has turned into a ball of what seems a lot like wood pulp. If you pick it up and break it in two, it splits apart like dough rather than ripping like paper, and on the inside is a wood colored goo. My guess is that this is taking a long time to break down because of the presence of chlorine in the tissue, which acts as a disinfectant. I’ll try some seventh generation tissue at some point and see if its better.

Now that I’ve been working on making dirt for a few months, here’s some tips on what to do and what not to do.
What to Do:

  • Think about why you have it to begin with. There are two purposes – to reduce your garbage and to make good soil.
  • To that end, reserve space in your composter for the stuff that can’t go in the municipal compost and anything that breaks down quickly and helps other things rot.
  • What can’t go in the compost but can go in the composter? Tissues, q-tips, and similar household waste. Hair from your Covid cut and nail clippings are also good candidates.
  • Things that break down quickly and speed the decomposition process are grass clippings, banana peels, and coffee grounds. All 3 are shown in the composter above.
  • To get the process started, you should find some already mostly decomposed pine needes and shovel it in. This stuff is full of bacteria to colonize the composter.
  • If you can, shred or rip up that tissue paper before putting it in the barrel!

What not to do:

  • Sticks, pine cones, recently fallen pine needles, and leaves take a surprisingly long time to break down. My advice is to just leave them on the ground.
  • If you’re going to water your composter, don’t use tap water. Use rain water from your rain barrel or a watering can left outside. Tap water contains chlorine specifically to prevent it from getting colonized with bacteria. That’s good for your glass of water but not so much if you’re trying to promote decomposition.

Its slow, but those tissues are breaking down. By the end of the summer, they should be dirt, and I’ll post another update then.

3 comments on “A Beginners Guide to Backyard Composting

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