Composting creates value from disposable materials

Ray Mueller
Finished compost looks like rich, clean soil and is ready for use.

CUSTER – With appropriate practices, a variety of disposable materials can be converted into compost for use in several ways on one's property.

That was the message from Recycling Connections program director Angie Lemar in a presentation at the 2017 Energy Fair. The non-profit firm, based at Stevens Point, has been providing educational services on recycling practices for 35 years.

Food waste factor

Food waste that would otherwise be going to landfills is a top candidate for making compost in one's backyard, Lemar pointed out. She noted that at least 25 percent of the material entering landfills, including lots of food, violates the minimum of a 6-inch diameter which is called for in a 1993 law pertaining to landfills in Wisconsin.

When food is disposed of in a landfill, the anaerobic deterioration process will emit methane into the air, Lemar observed. When composted, the natural environment of an aerobic process will emit carbon dioxide instead, she explained.

Compost menu

To create good compost, the task involves providing a proper mix of carbon and nitrogen from brown and green materials, sufficient moisture, and access to oxygen, Lemar said.

Carbon is supplied by bagged brown leaves, straw, and paper (sawdust and wood chips are less desirable) while food waste, green leaves, plants, and grass cuttings are the top nitrogen sources, she noted.

Other sources of nitrogen can be fibrous materials, hair, coffee grounds, clothes dryer lint, and livestock manure while meat, bones, fat, oils, dairy products, treated wood, pet and human waste, charcoal, and tree branches are to be avoided, Lemar said. A bit of sprinkled ash is acceptable while large amounts of citrus or pine tree waste wastes would affect the pH, she added.

Ideally, there should be a three to one carbon to nitrogen ratio by volume, not by weight, Lemar advised. She said a one to one ratio often happens in practice.

Composting guidelines

The choice of container for composting will determine how quickly the process will take, Lemar stated. The slowest way will be with a pile, minimum size of three by three by three feet, placed on the ground at a site with good drainage, she pointed out.

For such a pile, start with an equal weight of brown and green materials along with having brown layers on the bottom and top in order to control odor and to avoid being an attraction to fruit flies and other pests, Lemar said.

It's also necessary to turn the pile every five to seven days to enable access to oxygen, she pointed out.

For quicker composting, as fast as six weeks in ideal conditions, there are several types of containers for which the minimum volume should be 125 gallons, not as little as 80 gallons, Lemar advised. She would avoid tumblers because of drawbacks such as handling, having to add water, and minimal access to beneficial micro-organisms.

Container choices

In addition to the manufactured bins in many shapes, sizes, and styles the commercial market offers. The lineup of containers includes wire cages, cinder blocks, wood bins, and layers of pallets – all of which should be placed at least two feet from a building wall in full sun or shade, Lemar noted. Be sure to put the container where it's convenient to obtain water and for access to the garden or to another place where the compost will be placed, she added.

Whatever the choice of container, it's important to provide enough water to maintain sponginess in the decomposting materials, Lemar stressed. Too much moisture or failure to have the proper mix of brown and green materials will result in a rotten and stinky mess that could smell like ammonia, she warned.

In addition, protection must provided against pests either with a physical barrier or by not including meats, bones, or fats, Lemar pointed out. Good drainage at the location of the container is also essential, she added.

Enjoying the results

Good quality compost “will smell like good earth,” Lemar promised. A bag test for pliability or a germination test with radish or cucumber seeds are other ways to check if the process has been completed, she pointed out.

Compost can be used as a soil amendment, as a soil surface mulch, as a fertilizer source under trees, as a potting mix, as a topdressing for lawns, or even as a raw material for making tea provided that the batch is stirred at least three times a day, Lemar indicated.

For more information about composting or recycling, check the website or call the main office at (715) 343-0722.

To contact Lemar,call (715) 347-5979 or send an e-mail to