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COMPOSTING

  ecochem.com


COMPOSTING PROCESS

Composting is nature's way of recycling. Composting biodegrades organic waste. i.e. food waste, manure, leaves, grass trimmings, paper, wood, feathers, crop residue etc., and turns it into a valuable organic fertilizer. 

Composting is a natural biological process, carried out under controlled aerobic conditions (requires oxygen). In this process, various microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, break down organic matter into simpler substances. The effectiveness of the composting process is dependent upon the environmental conditions present within the composting system i.e. oxygen, temperature, moisture, material disturbance, organic matter and the size and activity of microbial populations.

Composting is not a mysterious or complicated process. Natural recycling (composting) occurs on a continuous basis in the natural environment. Organic matter is metabolized by microorganisms and consumed by invertebrates. The resulting nutrients are returned to the soil to support plant growth.

Composting is relatively simple to manage and can be carried out on a wide range of scales in almost any indoor or outdoor environment and in almost any geographic location. It has the potential to manage most of the organic material in the waste stream including restaurant waste, leaves and yard wastes, farm waste, animal manure, animal carcasses, paper products, sewage sludge, wood etc. and can be easily incorporated into any waste management plan.

Since approximately 45 - 55% of the waste stream is organic matter, composting can play a significant role in diverting waste from landfills thereby conserving landfill space and reducing the production of leachate and methane gas. In addition, an effective composting program can produce a high quality soil amendment with a variety of end uses.

The essential elements required by the composting microorganisms are carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and moisture. If any of these elements are lacking, or if they are not provided in the proper proportion, the microorganisms will not flourish and will not provide adequate heat. A composting process that operates at optimum performance will convert organic matter into stable compost that is odor and pathogen free, and a poor breeding substrate for flies and other insects. In addition, it will significantly reduce the volume and weight of organic waste as the composting process converts much of the biodegradable component to gaseous carbon dioxide.

The composting process is carried out by three classes of microbes -

Psychrophiles - low temperature microbes
Mesophiles -medium temperature microbes
Thermophiles - high temperature microbes

Generally, composting begins at mesophilic temperatures and progresses into the thermophilic range. In later stages other organisms including Actinomycetes, Centipedes, Millipedes, Fungi, Sowbugs, Spiders and Earthworms assist in the process.

Temperature
Temperature is directly proportional to the biological activity within the composting system. As the metabolic rate of the microbes accelerates, the temperature within the system increases. Conversely, as the metabolic rate of the microbes decreases, the system temperature decreases. Maintaining a temperature of 130F or more for 3 to 4 days favors the destruction of weed seeds, fly larvae and plant pathogens.

At a temperature of 155 degrees F, organic matter will decompose about twice as fast as at 130 degrees F.   Temperatures above 155 degrees F may result in the destruction of certain microbe populations. In this case temperature may rapidly decline. Temperature will slowly rise again as the microbe population regenerates.  

Moisture content, oxygen availability, and microbial activity all influence temperature. When the pile temperature is increasing, it is operating at optimum performance and should be left alone. As the temperature peaks, and begins to decrease, the pile should be turned to incorporate oxygen into the compost. Subsequently , the pile should respond to the turning and incorporation of oxygen, and temperature should again cycle upwards. The turning process should be continued until the pile fails to re-heat. This indicates that the compost material is biologically stable.

Composting microorganisms thrive in moist conditions. For optimum performance, moisture content within the composting environment should be maintained at 45 percent. Too much water can cause the compost pile to go anaerobic and emit obnoxious odors. Too little will prevent the microorganisms from propagating.

Particle Size
The ideal particle size is around 2 to 3 inches. In some cases, such as in the composting of grass clippings, the raw material may be too dense to permit adequate air flow or may be too moist. A common solution to this problem is to add a bulking agent (straw, dry leaves, paper, cardboard) to allow for proper air flow. Mixing materials of different sizes and textures also helps aerate the compost pile.

Turning
During the composting process oxygen is used up quickly by the microbes as they metabolize the organic matter. As the oxygen becomes depleted the composting process slows and temperatures decline. Aerating the compost by turning should ensure an adequate supply of oxygen to the microbes.

Composting Period
The composting period is governed by a number of factors including, temperature, moisture, oxygen, particle size, the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and the degree of turning involved. Generally, effective management of these factors will accelerate the composting process.

Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio
The microbes in compost use carbon for energy and nitrogen for protein synthesis. The proportion of these two elements required by the microbes averages about 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Accordingly, the ideal ratio of Carbon to Nitrogen (C:N) is 30 to 1 (measured on a dry weight basis). This ratio governs the speed at which the microbes decompose organic waste.

Most organic materials do not have this ratio and, to accelerate the composting process, it may be necessary to balance the numbers.

The C:N ratio of materials can be calculated by using table 1 below. 
Example, if you have two bags of cow manure (C:N = 20:1)  and one bag of corn stalks (C:N = 60:1) then combined you have a C:N ration of (20:1 + 20:1 + 60:1)/3 = (100:1)/3 = 33:1

Table 1 lists the Carbon/Nitrogen Ratios of Some Common Organic Materials

Table 1.

Material C:N Ratio
Vegetable wastes 12-20:1
Alfalfa hay 13:1
Cow manure 20:1
Apple pomace 21:1
Leaves 40-80:1
Corn stalks 60:1
Oat straw 74:1
Wheat straw 80:1
Paper 150-200:1
Sawdust 100-500:1
Grass clippings 12-25:1
Coffee grounds 20:1
Bark 100-130:1
Fruit wastes 35:1
Poultry manure (fresh) 10:1
Horse manure 25:1
Newspaper 50-200:1
Pine needles 60-110:1
Rotted manure 20:1

The C:N ratios listed above are for guidelines only.

Composters for smaller volumes
Plastic bin (well ventilated)
Metal or plastic drum (base removed – well ventilated)

Composters for larger volumes
Rotating drum (in vessel)
Enclosure (made from 4 x 4 pallets lined with chicken wire)
Open pile – windrow (covered with plastic or tarp)

In-Vessel
An in-vessel, aerobic mechanical composter can be constructed from a steel drum, or tank designed to rotate at three to five revolutions per hour. Rotation can be carried out with a simple hand crank or a timed electrical mechanical device. This type of composter can produce a stabilized compost in three to four days and can be an environmentally appropriate, low management alternative to bin composting.

Aerated Bin
An aerated bin can be constructed using 4' 4' pallets fastened together to form a box and lined with wire mesh. To limit the degree of turning and permit air to flow through the pile the structure can be elevated or, in the alternative, perforated pipes can be incorporated into the structure. One side of the structure should be detachable to facilitate loading, mixing and unloading. The composter should be waterproof and located in and area that is protected from the wind.

Static compost piles and windrows should be large enough to retain heat and small enough to facilitate air to its center. As a rule of thumb, the minimum dimensions of a pile should be 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet.

Turning Units
Turning units are ideally suited for batch composting and are extremely practical for building and turning active compost. Turning units allow convenient mixing for aeration and accelerated composting.

Composting Methods

Hot Composting
Hot composting is the most efficient method for producing quality compost in a relatively short time. In addition, it favors the destruction of weed seeds, fly larvae and pathogens.  While hot composting, using the windrow or bin method, requires a high degree of management, hot composting, using the in-vessel method, requires a lesser degree of management.

Cold Composting
This method is ideal for adding organic matter around trees, in garden plots, in eroded areas etc. The time required to decompose organic matter using this method is governed, to a large extent, by environmental conditions and could take two years or more.

Sheet Composting
Sheet composting is carried out by spreading organic material on the surface of the soil or untilled ground and allowing it to decompose naturally. Over time, the material will decompose and filter into the soil. This method is ideally suited for forage land, no-till applications, erosion control, roadside landscaping etc. The process does not favor the destruction of weed seeds, fly larvae, pathogens etc. and composting materials should be limited to plant residue and manure. Again, decomposition time is governed by environmental conditions and can be quite lengthy.

Trench Composting
Trench composting is relatively simple. Simply dig a trench 6 - 8 inches deep, fill with 3 - 4 inches of organic material and cover with soil. Wait a few weeks and plant directly above the trench. This method does not favor the destruction of weed seeds, fly larvae and pathogens and the composting process can be relatively slow.

Loading the Bin / Windrow
Place the raw materials in layers using a balance of high carbon (moist) and low carbon (dry) materials. Each layer should be no more than four to six inches in depth. Spray each layer with a light mist of CBCT Stock Solution (Mix CBCT Concentrate and water at a rate of 1:200). This will initiate and accelerate the composting process and eliminate odors).

Procedure:

Step 1. Start with a 4 to 6 inch layer of coarse material set on the bottom of the composter or on top of the soil.

Step 2. Add a 3 to 4 inch layer of low carbon material.

Step 3. Add a 4 to 6 inch layer of high carbon material.

Step 4. Add a 1 inch layer of garden soil or finished compost.

Step 5. Mix the layers of high carbon material, low carbon material, and soil or compost.

Repeat steps 2 through 5 until the composting bin is filled (maximum 4 feet in height). Cap with dry material.

Loading the Vessel (in-vessel composting)
To accelerate the composting process, simply mix the high carbon and low carbon materials together before placing them in the composter. Add the mixture to the composter in small batches, spraying each batch with a light mist of water or CBCT stock solution.

Adding material during the composting process
Ideally, new materials should be added to the composting system during turning or mixing. Generally, the addition of moist materials accelerates the composting process while the addition of dry materials slows the process.

About Compost
Finished compost can be classified as a 100% organic fertilizer containing primary nutrients as well as trace minerals, humus and humic acids, in a slow release form. Compost improves soil porosity, drainage and aeration and moisture holding capacity and reduces compaction. Compost can retain up to ten times it's weight in water. In addition, compost helps buffer soils against extreme chemical imbalances; aids in unlocking soil minerals; releases nutrients over a wide time window; acts as a buffer against the absorption of chemicals and heavy metals; promotes the development of healthy root zones; suppresses diseases associated with certain fungi; and helps plants tolerate drought conditions.

Applications
Compost can be used in a variety of applications. High quality compost can be used in agriculture, horticulture, landscaping and home gardening. Medium quality compost can be used in applications such as erosion control and roadside landscaping. Low quality compost can be used as a landfill cover or in land reclamation projects.

Compost Faq Compost Faq
On Farm Composting Composting Livestock Mortality
Composting Manure Composting Manure

"Serious problems cannot be dealt with at the level of thinking that created them."
 Albert Einstein
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