Compost is a mixture of ingredients used to fertilize and improve the soil. It is commonly prepared by decomposing plant and food waste and recycling organic materials. The resulting mixture is rich in plant nutrients and beneficial organisms, such as worms and fungal mycelium. Compost improves soil fertility in gardens, landscaping, horticulture, urban agriculture, and organic farming, reducing dependency on commercial chemical fertilizers. The benefits of compost include providing nutrients to crops as fertilizer, acting as a soil conditioner, increasing the humus or humic acid contents of the soil, and introducing beneficial colonies of microbes that help to suppress pathogens in the soil.
At the simplest level, composting requires gathering a mix of 'greens' (green waste) and 'browns' (brown waste). Greens are materials that are rich in nitrogen such as leaves, grass, and food scraps. Browns are more woody materials that are rich in carbon, such as stalks, paper, and wood chips. Materials are wetted to break them down into humus, a process that occurs for months. However, composting can also take place as a multi-step, closely monitored process with measured inputs of water, air, and carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials. The decomposition process is aided by shredding the plant matter, adding water, and ensuring proper aeration by regularly turning the mixture in a process that uses open piles or "windrows." Fungi, earthworms, and other detritivores further break up the organic material. Aerobic bacteria and fungi manage the chemical process by converting the inputs into heat, carbon dioxide, and ammonium.
Composting is an important part of waste management, since food and other compostable materials make up about 20% of waste in landfills, and these materials take longer to biodegrade in the landfill. Composting offers an environmentally superior alternative to using organic material for landfill because composting reduces anaerobic methane emissions, and provides economic and environmental co-benefits. For example, compost can also be used for land and stream reclamation, wetland construction, and landfill cover.
Composting is an aerobic method of decomposing organic solid wastes. It can therefore be used to recycle organic material. The process involves decomposing organic material into a humus-like material, known as compost, which is a good fertilizer for plants.
Composting organisms require four equally important ingredients to work effectively:
- Carbon is needed for energy; the microbial oxidation of carbon produces the heat required for other parts of the composting process. High carbon materials tend to be brown and dry.
- Nitrogen is needed to grow and reproduce more organisms to oxidize the carbon. High nitrogen materials tend to be green and wet. They can also include colourful fruits and vegetables.
- Oxygen is required for oxidizing the carbon, the decomposition process. Aerobic bacteria need oxygen levels above 5% to perform the processes needed for composting.
- Water is necessary in the right amounts to maintain activity without causing anaerobic conditions.
Certain ratios of these materials will allow microorganisms to work at a rate that will heat up the compost pile. Active management of the pile (e.g., turning over the compost heap with a pitchfork) is needed to maintain sufficient oxygen and the right moisture level. The air/water balance is critical to maintaining high temperatures 130–160 °F (54–71 °C) until the materials are broken down.
Composting is most efficient with a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of about 25:1. Hot composting focuses on retaining heat to increase the decomposition rate thus producing compost more quickly. Rapid composting is favored by having a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of ~30 carbon units or less. Above 30, the substrate is nitrogen starved. Below 15, it is likely to outgas a portion of nitrogen as ammonia.
Nearly all dead plant and animal materials have both carbon and nitrogen in different amounts. Fresh grass clippings have an average ratio of about 15:1 and dry autumn leaves about 50:1 depending upon species. Composting is an ongoing and dynamic process, adding new sources of carbon and nitrogen consistently as well as active management is important.
Organisms can break down organic matter in compost if provided with the correct mixture of water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. They fall into two broad categories: chemical decomposers which perform chemical processes on the organic waste, and physical decomposers which process the waste into smaller pieces through methods such as grinding, tearing, chewing, and digesting.
- Bacteria – the most abundant and important of all the microorganisms found in compost. Bacteria process carbon and nitrogen and excrete plant available nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and magnesium. Depending on the phase of composting, mesophilic or thermophilic bacteria may be the most prominent.
- Mesophilic bacteria get compost to the thermophilic stage through oxidation of organic material. Afterwards, they cure it which makes the fresh compost more bio-available for plants.
- Thermophilic bacteria do not reproduce and are not active between −5 to 25 °C (23 to 77 °F), yet are found throughout soil. They activate once the mesophilic bacteria have begun to breakdown organic matter and increase the temperature to their optimal range. They have been shown to enter soils via rainwater. They are present so broadly because of many factors including their spores being resilient. Thermophilic bacteria thrive at higher temperatures, reaching 40–60 °C (104–140 °F) in typical mixes. Large-scale composting operations, such as windrow composting, may exceed this temperature, potentially killing beneficial soil microorganisms but also pasteurizing the waste.
- Actinomycetota are needed to break down paper products such as newspaper, bark, etc and other large molecules such as lignin and cellulose that are more difficult to decompose. The "pleasant earthy smell of compost" is attributed to Actinomycetota. They make carbon, ammonia, and nitrogen nutrients available to plants.
- Fungi such as mold and yeast help break down materials that bacteria cannot, especially cellulose and lignin in woody material.
- Protozoa – contribute to biodegradation of organic matter as well as consuming non-active bacteria, fungi, and micro-organic particulates.
- Ants – create nests, making the soil more porous and transporting nutrients to different areas of the compost.
- Beetles – grubs feed on decaying vegetables.
- Earthworms – ingest partly composted material and excrete worm castings, making nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium available to plants. The tunnels they create as they move through the compost also increase aeration and drainage.
- Flies – feed on almost all organic material and input bacteria into the compost. Their population is kept in check by mites and the thermophilic temperatures that are unsuitable for fly larvae.
- Millipedes – break down plant material.
- Rotifers – feed on plant particles.
- Snails and slugs – feed on living or fresh plant material. They should be removed from compost before use as they can damage plants and crops.
- Sow bugs – feed on rotting wood, and decaying vegetation.
- Springtails – feed on fungi, mold, and decomposing plants.
Phases of composting
Under ideal conditions, composting proceeds through three major phases:
- Mesophilic phase: an initial, mesophilic phase, in which the decomposition is carried out under moderate temperatures by mesophilic microorganisms.
- Thermophilic phase: as the temperature rises, a second, thermophilic phase starts, in which various thermophilic bacteria carry out the decomposition under higher temperatures (50 to 60 °C (122 to 140 °F).)
- Maturation phase: as the supply of high-energy compounds dwindles, the temperature starts to decrease, and the mesophilic bacteria once again predominate in the maturation phase.
Hot and cold composting – impact on timing
The time required to compost material relates to the volume of material, the size of the inputs (e.g. wood chips break down faster than branches), and the amount of mixing and aeration. Generally, larger piles will reach higher temperatures and remain in a thermophilic stage for days or weeks. This is referred to as hot composting and is the normal method for large-scale (e.g., municipal) composting facilities and many agricultural operations.
A process often referred to as the 'Berkeley method' produces finished compost in eighteen days. Still, it requires assembly of at least 1 cubic metre (35 cu ft) of material at the outset and requires turning every two days after a four-day initial phase. Many such short processes involve a few changes to traditional methods, including smaller, more homogenized pieces in the compost, controlling carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N) at 30:1 or less, and monitoring the moisture level carefully.
Cold composting is a slower process that can take up to a year to complete. It results from smaller piles, including many residential compost piles that receive small amounts of kitchen and garden waste over extended periods. Piles smaller than approximately 1 cubic metre (35 cu ft) have trouble reaching and maintaining high temperatures. Turning is not necessary with cold composting. However, there is a risk that parts of the pile may go anaerobic as they get compacted or water-logged.
Composting can destroy some pathogens or unwanted seeds, by reaching temperatures above 50 °C (122 °F). Dealing with stabilized compost – i.e. composted material in which microorganisms have finished digesting the organic matter and the temperature has reached between 50–70 °C (122–158 °F) – poses very little risk, as these temperatures kill pathogens and even make oocysts unviable. The temperature at which a pathogen dies depends on the pathogen, how long the temperature is maintained (it can take seconds to weeks), and even pH.
Compost products like compost tea and compost extracts have been found to have an inhibitory effect on Fusarium oxysporum, Rhizoctonia sp., and Pythium debaryanum, plant pathogens that can cause crop diseases. Aerated compost teas are more effective than compost extracts. The microbiota and enzymes present in compost extracts also have a suppressive effect on fungal plant pathogens. Compost is a good source of biocontrol agents like B. subtilis, B. licheniformis, and P. chrysogenum that fight plant pathogens. However, sterilizing the compost, compost tea, or compost extracts will reduce the effect of pathogen suppression.
Diseases that can be contracted from handling compost
When turning compost that has not gone through phases where temperatures above 50 °C (122 °F) are reached, a mouth mask and gloves must be worn to protect from diseases that can be contracted from handling compost. These include:
- Farmer's lung
- Histoplasmosis – a fungus that grows in guano and bird droppings
- Legionnaires' disease
- Paronychia – via infection around the fingernails and toenails
- Tetanus – a central nervous system disease, caused by bacteria that are very common in soil
Materials that can be composted
Potential sources of compostable materials, or feedstocks, include residential, agricultural, and commercial waste streams. Residential food or yard waste can be composted at home, or collected for inclusion in a large-scale municipal composting facility. In some regions, it could also be included in a local or neighborhood composting project.
Organic solid waste
There are two broad categories of organic solid waste: green waste and brown waste.
Green waste is generally considered a source of nitrogen and includes pre and post-consumer food waste, grass clippings, garden trimmings, and fresh leaves. Animal carcasses, roadkill, and butcher residue can also be composted and these are considered nitrogen sources.
Brown waste is a carbon source. Typical examples are dried vegetation and woody material such as fallen leaves, straw, woodchips, limbs, logs, pine needles, sawdust, and wood ash but not charcoal ash. Products derived from wood such as paper and plain cardboard are also considered carbon sources.
Animal manure and bedding
On many farms, the basic composting ingredients are animal manure generated on the farm as a nitrogen source, and bedding as the carbon source. Straw and sawdust are common bedding materials. Non-traditional bedding materials are also used, including newspaper and chopped cardboard. The amount of manure composted on a livestock farm is often determined by cleaning schedules, land availability, and weather conditions. Each type of manure has its own physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. Cattle and horse manures, when mixed with bedding, possess good qualities for composting. Swine manure, which is very wet and usually not mixed with bedding material, must be mixed with straw or similar raw materials. Poultry manure must be blended with high-carbon, low-nitrogen materials.
Human excreta, sometimes called "humanure" in the composting context, can be added as an input to the composting process since it is a nitrogen-rich organic material. It can be either composted directly in composting toilets, or indirectly in the form of sewage sludge after it has undergone treatment in a sewage treatment plant. Both processes require capable design as there are potential health risks that need to be managed. In the case of home composting, a wide range of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses and parasitic worms can be present in feces, and improper processing can pose significant health risks. In the case of large sewage treatment facilities that collect wastewater from a range of residential, commercial and industrial sources, there are additional considerations. The composted sewage sludge, referred to as biosolids, can be contaminated with a variety of metals and pharmaceutical compounds. Insufficient processing of biosolids can also lead to problems when the material is applied to land.
Urine can be put on compost piles or directly used as fertilizer. Adding urine to compost can increase temperatures and therefore increase its ability to destroy pathogens and unwanted seeds. Unlike feces, urine does not attract disease-spreading flies (such as houseflies or blowflies), and it does not contain the most hardy of pathogens, such as parasitic worm eggs.
Animal carcasses may be composed as a disposal option. Such material is rich in nitrogen.
Composting, or formally "natural organic reduction", is an emerging approach to the environmentally-friendly disposal of human corpses. Mixed with wood chips and aerated, a human corpse turns into compost in a month.
In-vessel composting generally describes a group of methods that confine the composting materials within a building, container, or vessel. In-vessel composting systems can consist of metal or plastic tanks or concrete bunkers in which air flow and temperature can be controlled, using the principles of a "bioreactor". Generally the air circulation is metered in via buried tubes that allow fresh air to be injected under pressure, with the exhaust being extracted through a biofilter, with temperature and moisture conditions monitored using probes in the mass to allow maintenance of optimum aerobic decomposition conditions.This technique is generally used for municipal scale organic waste processing, including final treatment of sewage biosolids, to a stable state with safe pathogen levels, for reclamation as a soil amendment. In-vessel composting can also refer to aerated static pile composting with the addition of removable covers that enclose the piles, as with the system in extensive use by farmer groups in Thailand, supported by the National Science and Technology Development Agency there. In recent years, smaller scale in-vessel composting has been advanced. These can even use common roll-off waste dumpsters as the vessel. The advantage of using roll-off waste dumpsters is their relatively low cost, wide availability, they are highly mobile, often do not need building permits and can be obtained by renting or buying.
Aerated static pile composting
Aerated Static Pile (ASP) composting, refers to any of a number of systems used to biodegrade organic material without physical manipulation during primary composting. The blended admixture is usually placed on perforated piping, providing air circulation for controlled aeration . It may be in windrows, open or covered, or in closed containers. With regard to complexity and cost, aerated systems are most commonly used by larger, professionally managed composting facilities, although the technique may range from very small, simple systems to very large, capital intensive, industrial installations.Aerated static piles offer process control for rapid biodegradation, and work well for facilities processing wet materials and large volumes of feedstocks. ASP facilities can be under roof or outdoor windrow composting operations, or totally enclosed in-vessel composting, sometimes referred to tunnel composting.
In agriculture, windrow composting is the production of compost by piling organic matter or biodegradable waste, such as animal manure and crop residues, in long rows (windrows). This method is suited to producing large volumes of compost. These rows are generally turned to improve porosity and oxygen content, mix in or remove moisture, and redistribute cooler and hotter portions of the pile. Windrow composting is a commonly used farm scale composting method. Composting process control parameters include the initial ratios of carbon and nitrogen rich materials, the amount of bulking agent added to assure air porosity, the pile size, moisture content, and turning frequency.The temperature of the windrows must be measured and logged constantly to determine the optimum time to turn them for quicker compost production.
Other systems at household level
Hügelkultur (raised garden beds or mounds)
Benefits of hügelkultur garden beds include water retention and warming of soil. Buried wood acts like a sponge as it decomposes, able to capture water and store it for later use by crops planted on top of the hügelkultur bed.
A composting toilet is a type of dry toilet that treats human waste by a biological process called composting. This process leads to the decomposition of organic matter and turns human waste into compost-like material. Composting is carried out by microorganisms (mainly bacteria and fungi) under controlled aerobic conditions. Most composting toilets use no water for flushing and are therefore called "dry toilets".
In many composting toilet designs, a carbon additive such as sawdust, coconut coir, or peat moss is added after each use. This practice creates air pockets in the human waste to promote aerobic decomposition. This also improves the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and reduces potential odor. Most composting toilet systems rely on mesophilic composting. Longer retention time in the composting chamber also facilitates pathogen die-off. The end product can also be moved to a secondary system – usually another composting step – to allow more time for mesophilic composting to further reduce pathogens.Composting toilets, together with the secondary composting step, produce a humus-like end product that can be used to enrich soil if local regulations allow this. Some composting toilets have urine diversion systems in the toilet bowl to collect the urine separately and control excess moisture. A vermifilter toilet is a composting toilet with flushing water where earthworms are used to promote decomposition to compost.
- Vermicompost (also called worm castings, worm humus, worm manure, or worm faeces) is the end-product of the breakdown of organic matter by earthworms. These castings have been shown to contain reduced levels of contaminants and a higher saturation of nutrients than the organic materials before vermicomposting.
- Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) larvae are able to rapidly consume large amounts of organic material and can be used to treat human waste. The resulting compost still contains nutrients and can be used for biogas production, or further traditional composting or vermicomposting
- Bokashi is a fermentation process rather than a decomposition process, and so retains the feedstock's energy, nutrient and carbon contents. There must be sufficient carbohydrate for fermentation to complete and therefore the process is typically applied to food waste, including non-compostable items. Carbohydrate is transformed into lactic acid, which dissociates naturally to form lactate, a biological energy carrier. The preserved result is therefore readily consumed by soil microbes and from there by the entire soil food web, leading to a significant increase in soil organic carbon and turbation. The process completes in weeks and returns soil acidity to normal.
- Co-composting is a technique that processes organic solid waste together with other input materials such as dewatered fecal sludge or sewage sludge.
- Anaerobic digestion combined with mechanical sorting of mixed waste streams is increasingly being used in developed countries due to regulations controlling the amount of organic matter allowed in landfills. Treating biodegradable waste before it enters a landfill reduces global warming from fugitive methane; untreated waste breaks down anaerobically in a landfill, producing landfill gas that contains methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The methane produced in an anaerobic digester can be converted to biogas.
Agriculture and gardening
On the open ground, for growing wheat, corn, soybeans, and similar crops, compost can be broadcast across the top of the soil using spreader trucks or spreaders pulled behind a tractor. It is expected that the spread layer is very thin (approximately 6 mm (0.24 in)) and worked into the soil prior to planting. However, application rates of 25 mm (0.98 in) or more are not unusual when trying to rebuild poor soils or control erosion. Due to the extremely high cost of compost per unit of nutrients in the Western world (such as the United States), on-farm use is relatively rare since rates over 4 tons/acre can not be afforded. This results from an over-emphasis on "recycling organic matter" than on "sustainable nutrients." In other countries such as Germany, where compost distribution and spreading are partially subsidized in the original waste fees, compost is used more frequently on open ground, but only on the premise of nutrient "sustainability".
In plasticulture, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, melons, and other fruits and vegetables are often grown under plastic to control temperature, retain moisture and control weeds. Compost may be banded (applied in strips along rows) and worked into the soil prior to bedding and planting, be applied at the same time the beds are constructed and plastic laid down, or used as a "top dressing".
Many crops are not seeded directly in the field but are started in seed trays in a greenhouse (see transplanting). When the seedlings reach a certain stage of growth, they are transplanted in the field. Compost can be used as an ingredient in the mix used to grow the seedlings, but is not normally used as the only planting substrate. The crop to be grown and the seeds' sensitivity to nutrients, salts, etc. dictates the ratio of the blend, and maturity is important to insure that oxygen deprivation will not occur or that no lingering phyto-toxins remain.
Compost can be added to soil, coir, or peat, as a tilth improver, supplying humus and nutrients. It provides a rich growing medium as absorbent material. This material contains moisture and soluble minerals, which provide support and nutrients. Although it is rarely used alone, plants can flourish from mixed soil, sand, grit, bark chips, vermiculite, perlite, or clay granules to produce loam.[relevant? ] Compost can be tilled directly into the soil or growing medium to boost the level of organic matter and the overall fertility of the soil. Compost that is ready to be used as an additive is dark brown or even black with an earthy smell.
Generally, direct seeding into a compost is not recommended due to the speed with which it may dry, the possible presence of phytotoxins in immature compost that may inhibit germination, and the possible tie up of nitrogen by incompletely decomposed lignin. It is very common to see blends of 20–30% compost used for transplanting seedlings.
Compost can be used to increase plant immunity to diseases and pests.
Compost tea is made up of extracts of fermented water leached from composted materials. Composts can be either aerated or non-aerated depending on its fermentation process. Compost teas are generally produced from adding compost to water in a ratio of 1:4–1:10, occasionally stirring to release microbes.
There has been debate about the benefits of aerating the mixture. Non-aerated compost tea is cheaper and less labor intensive. However, there are conflicting studies regarding the risks of phytotoxicity and human pathogen regrowth. Aerated compost tea brews faster and generates more microbes, but has potential for human pathogen regrowth.[verification needed]
Field studies have shown the benefits of adding compost teas to crops due to organic matter input, increased nutrient availability, and increased microbial activity. They have also been shown to have a suppressive effect on plant pathogens and soil-borne diseases. The efficacy is influenced by a number of factors, such as the preparation process, the type of source the conditions of the brewing process, and the environment of the crops. Adding nutrients to compost tea can be beneficial for disease suppression, although it can trigger the regrowth of human pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella.
Compost extracts are unfermented or non-brewed extracts of leached compost contents dissolved in any solvent.
Compost is sold as bagged potting mixes in garden centers and other outlets. This may include composted materials such as manure and peat but is also likely to contain loam, fertilizers, sand, grit, etc. Varieties include multi-purpose composts designed for most aspects of planting, John Innes formulations, grow bags, designed to have crops such as tomatoes directly planted into them. There are also a range of specialist composts available, e.g. for vegetables, orchids, houseplants, hanging baskets, roses, ericaceous plants, seedlings, potting on, etc.
There are process and product guidelines in Europe that date to the early 1980s (Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland) and only more recently in the UK and the US. In both these countries, private trade associations within the industry have established loose standards, some say as a stop-gap measure to discourage independent government agencies from establishing tougher consumer-friendly standards. Compost is regulated in Canada and Australia as well.
EPA Class A and B guidelines in the United States were developed solely to manage the processing and beneficial reuse of sludge, also now called biosolids, following the US EPA ban of ocean dumping. About 26 American states now require composts to be processed according to these federal protocols for pathogen and vector control, even though the application to non-sludge materials has not been scientifically tested. An example is that green waste composts are used at much higher rates than sludge composts were ever anticipated to be applied at. U.K guidelines also exist regarding compost quality, as well as Canadian, Australian, and the various European states.
In the United States, some compost manufacturers participate in a testing program offered by a private lobbying organization called the U.S. Composting Council. The USCC was originally established in 1991 by Procter & Gamble to promote composting of disposable diapers, following state mandates to ban diapers in landfills, which caused a national uproar. Ultimately the idea of composting diapers was abandoned, partly since it was not proven scientifically to be possible, and mostly because the concept was a marketing stunt in the first place. After this, composting emphasis shifted back to recycling organic wastes previously destined for landfills. There are no bonafide quality standards in America, but the USCC sells a seal called "Seal of Testing Assurance" (also called "STA"). For a considerable fee, the applicant may display the USCC logo on products, agreeing to volunteer to customers a current laboratory analysis that includes parameters such as nutrients, respiration rate, salt content, pH, and limited other indicators.
Many countries such as Wales and some individual cities such as Seattle and San Francisco require food and yard waste to be sorted for composting (San Francisco Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance).
The USA is the only Western country that does not distinguish sludge-source compost from green-composts, and by default 50% of US states expect composts to comply in some manner with the federal EPA 503 rule promulgated in 1984 for sludge products.
There are health risk concerns about PFASs ("forever chemicals") levels in compost derived from sewage sledge sourced biosolids, and EPA has not set health risk standards for this. The Sierra Club recommends that home gardeners avoid the use of sewage sludge-base fertilizer and compost, in part due to potentially high levels of PFASs. The EPA PFAS Strategic Roadmap initiative, running from 2021 to 2024, will consider the full lifecycle of PFAS including health risks of PFAS in wastewater sludge.
Composting dates back to at least the early Roman Empire, and was mentioned as early as Cato the Elder's 160 BCE piece De Agri Cultura. Traditionally, composting involved piling organic materials until the next planting season, at which time the materials would have decayed enough to be ready for use in the soil. The advantage of this method is that little working time or effort is required from the composter and it fits in naturally with agricultural practices in temperate climates. Disadvantages (from the modern perspective) are that space is used for a whole year, some nutrients might be leached due to exposure to rainfall, and disease-producing organisms and insects may not be adequately controlled.
Composting began to modernize somewhat from the 1920s in Europe as a tool for organic farming. The first industrial station for the transformation of urban organic materials into compost was set up in Wels, Austria in the year 1921. Early proponents of composting within farming include Rudolf Steiner, founder of a farming method called biodynamics, and Annie Francé-Harrar, who was appointed on behalf of the government in Mexico and supported the country in 1950–1958 to set up a large humus organization in the fight against erosion and soil degradation. Sir Albert Howard, who worked extensively in India on sustainable practices, and Lady Eve Balfour were also major proponents of composting. Composting was imported to America by the likes of:
- J.I. Rodale – founder of Rodale Organic Gardening
- E.E. Pfeiffer – developed scientific practices in biodynamic farming
- Paul Keene – founder of Walnut Acres in Pennsylvania
- and Scott and Helen Nearing – inspired the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s
- Carbon farming
- Human composting
- Organic farming
- Soil science
- Sustainable agriculture
- Terra preta
- Waste sorting
- Zero waste
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