A Beginner's Guide To Composting

Merrick, 29th May 2002ce

How do you take a mountain of pollution and turn it into environmental benefit? How can you massively reduce your personal contribution to global warming and ecological damage? How can you do it in a way that is practical, effective, and yet lets you get on with your life?

In a word: compost.

Summer’s here, gardens are flourishing and all over the country people are putting grass cuttings and hedge trimmings into bin liners to be taken away by bin wagons, when it could readily be put back into the earth it grew from. It’s simple, easy, quick to organise your own composting system.

Up to half of household waste is compostable, but most of us put it in the dustbin and it disappears. It ‘disappears’ to become a massive unsustainable environmental hazard elsewhere.

Most household rubbish is dumped in landfill sites; valleys, ex-quarries and other large holes in the ground, where the mix of rubbish means that organic materials like food waste do not decompose properly. Instead they give off methane, which poisons the land and water it seeps through, and once it reaches the air it is a potent greenhouse gas.

And, of course, serious amounts of resources are used to collect and transport the waste to its dumping ground.

Yet these organic materials could simply and easily be broken down into a richly nutritious compost to be returned to the earth. It only takes a tiny patch of ground. Even if you live in a house without a garden, there will probably be a bin yard, allotment or friendly neighbour near you that would benefit from composting your household waste.


All you need is a container with a volume of about a cubic metre, roughly the size of a dustbin. In fact, an old dustbin with the bottom cut off and some holes in the side is ideal. Or you could take advantage of another summer phenomenon and go and pull some wood from a skip outside a house being refurbished and hammer yourself a container together. This further reduces landfill waste, and it’s free. You can buy purpose built green plastic bins but they’re really no better than what you can do yourself, they cost money and they’re made of indestructible and oil-derived plastic, none of which is sensible when there are alternatives at hand.

The container should be open to the ground, but the sides should be solid, except for a few small holes. A lid is good for keeping the heat of fermenting compost in and so speeding up the process, but it is certainly not essential. If you do want to make a lid, again reclaimed wood is good, or a piece of old carpet is just as efficient. If you do use a lid – even if you don’t – be sure to water the compost pile. The easiest way is to simply run your kitchen compost container under the tap before you take it out.


Now the bin’s in place somewhere on bare soil, the next thing is to put stuff in it. And that’s anything that will rot, except cooked foods or animal products. Cooked food can encourage rats, but if your compost is well away from houses and/or is a dustbin with a tight lid then it’s not much of a problem. Tea bags and coffee grinds are fine, though. Animal products – except eggshells – are a no-no as they do not readily break down and also attract rats.

Apart from that, put anything else in. Composts, like humans, are healthiest when given a varied diet. Put in all uncooked plant food waste (carrot tops, cauliflower stalks, apple cores, the manky bits from any veg, etc). Put in any soft garden waste (grass clippings, dead flowers, etc).

Tougher things like twigs, citrus peel and dried leaves take much longer to break down - up to 12 months as opposed to three or four months with ‘normal’ compost – so make a separate pile for that stuff.

Do put in paper as well. Magazines, newspaper and clean, flat office paper is good for recycling. However, paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. Paper fibres will last to about twelve recyclings, as their fibre breaks down each time. It starts as the strong office paper and ends as that eggbox stuff before it becomes useless as paper. Little scraps (bus tickets, till receipts), cardboards, toilet roll tubes and such like do not recycle well but are great for composting.

Much of your food waste will go to a slimy texture, and paper is excellent for releasing oxygen into the compost and ensuring a rich, earthy result. All papers are good, except for glossy stuff and anything with a covering of wax or plastic (such as milk cartons or tetrapak juice containers).

Paper, like all other ingredients, shouldn’t be put into the compost in huge batches – vary the diet, remember. Mix the wet and dry ingredients of the compost. Scrunch it, tear it or shred it and mix it with the food and/or garden stuff.

It doesn’t matter that it’s printed. Modern inks don’t contain the heavy metals used in earlier processes, and, as long as you don’t put glossy paper in, you’ll find it all readily and harmlessly breaks down.


Then comes the most important stage: leaving it. The real beauty of composting is that leaving nature to take its course is the best thing you can do. Garden centres sell bags of starter and booster stuff, but like the special compost bins or bottled water, it’s just a con to get your money when you can get the same thing done for free.

You’ll find that slugs and red worms and ants will move in, and they are an essential part of the rotting process. If the heap is big then it can get very hot as it breaks down, too.

Once in a while give it a stir with a big stick, particularly if you’ve just added a lot of one ingredient (grass clippings, especially). Incidentally, human urine is a rich source of nitrogen, an essential nutrient for kickstarting compost, so feel free to have a wazz in the heap if your neighbours aren’t looking.

After 3 months or so a fine, crumbly brown soil develops at the bottom. It has changed from a pile of smelly fermenting stuff into something wonderful, nutritious and not at all smelly any more. This is the finished compost, and is ready to be put into the soil. You can either make a hatch at the bottom of the container to access it, or else have two containers so one’s on the go while the other’s ready.

If the finished stuff is a bit wet, it will soon dry after a day or two out in the open. You might find one or two bits of plastic from coated paper products; these are entirely harmless and easily removed.

You don’t have to have a lot of time or skill to do this. Get a dustbin sized container; put in all plant matter, wet it, stir it, cover it, leave it. It’s barely more effort than putting stuff in the dustbin.

You don’t have to be a keen gardener to have it be worthwhile; the reduction of the amount of rubbish you produce is a huge reward. Imagine if the whole country reduced its rubbish by 30-50%!

Composting is powerful and practical grassroots environmental direct action, and it is something that affirms your active environmental stance every day.