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Backyard composting saves landfill space

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One of the byproducts of consumerism is waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash during 2010. Our trash, or municipal solid waste (MSW), is made up of things such as packaging, food scraps, grass clippings, furniture, electronics and tires. According to the report, the largest component of MSW is organic materials. Paper products accounted for 29 percent, and yard trimmings and food scraps accounted for another 27 percent. The good news is that in 2010 more than 44 million tons of paper (62 percent) was recycled and more than 19 million tons of yard trimmings (57 percent) were composted. Unfortunately, less than a million tons of food scraps (3 percent) were composted.

Not composting food scraps is costly. When processed in a kitchen disposal, the food is transported via wastewater to the treatment plant where it must be separated and disposed of in landfills or incinerated. When thrown in the garbage, the scraps must be picked up, transported and buried in a landfill, all of which require fuel and labor expenses.

Backyard composting offers property owners a proven, cost-efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to landfilling organic wastes. It can be as simple as a pile of shredded leaves in the corner of the yard or as fancy as a concrete, multi-bin facility complete with roof. Plenty of options are available to suit your taste, property size and compost requirement. Need assistance with bin design and construction? Help is as close as the Internet. Many garden centers and online stores offer composting barrels and easy-to-assemble composting bin kits.

Decomposition of organic wastes will occur no matter the size of pile or bin you choose. However, the volume will determine the rate of decomposition. As a general rule, the larger the pile, the quicker it will heat and maintain heat, which is important to ensure a rapid rate of decomposition. A pile 5 feet high (or bin 1 cubic yard in size) is large enough to generate sufficient heat for decomposition, yet small enough to allow air movement into the center of the pile.

The microorganisms responsible for decomposition need oxygen, water, nitrogen and a source of energy (carbon). Oxygen is provided by turning or aerating the pile. Water is added as needed to keep the pile moist but not wet. Nitrogen sources include vegetable and fruit scraps, lawn and landscape trimmings, and manure from grass eaters (rabbits, chickens, goats, etc.). Sources of energy include shredded newspaper and cardboard, leaves, straw, and wood shavings.

When forming the pile, it is best to thoroughly mix, not layer, the materials. Mixing facilitates quicker heating. The pile will reach temperatures between 130 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit at the core. As the center cools, the pile should be turned twice a month to ensure continued heating and decomposition of the entire mass. Turning a pile or compost in a bin is typically accomplished using a pitchfork to move the contents to form another pile or to an adjacent bin. In top-fed composting vessels equipped with a lid, a push-pull folding wing compost aerator can be used to mix the contents. Barrel-type composters are rolled to mix the contents.

Heavy rainfall can inhibit decomposition by reducing available oxygen, in addition to leaching nutrients from finished compost. Use a tarp or other means available to shed excess water.

A properly constructed and managed compost pile will be ready in as little as two months during the summer, whereas an unmanaged pile can take up to a year to decompose.

According to EPA statistics, the potential exists to generate millions of tons of soil-improving compost in America's backyards using readily available organic waste materials. Are you taking advantage of this opportunity? The next time you're preparing a meal, instead of tossing those overripe bananas and watermelon rinds into the trash, toss them into a compost bin. You'll be glad you did!

Steve Upson formerly served as a senior horticulture consultant and worked at Noble Research Institute since 1988. He received a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in horticulture from Kansas State University. Before joining Noble, he served as a county and area Extension horticulture specialist with the Oklahoma State University Extension service and managed a commercial market garden operation east of Kansas City, Missouri. His areas of interest include raised bed and container gardening, commercial market gardening, and high tunnel (hoop house) construction and management.