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Here's What Happens When You Compost

Composting is how nature recycles, or biodegrades, organic waste. No, this doesn’t mean only the most expensive Whole Foods products end up in compost bins, and voila! We have compost gold! But rather, organic waste is comprised of a bunch of different types of organic matter: food scraps, manure, leaves and grass trimmings, paper, wood, etc., are all the materials you’ll find in a compost bin, and with the help of some very helpful microscopic organisms, it all turns into valuable organic fertilizer.

While it’s a totally natural biological process and occurs on a constant basis in nature, anyone can contribute to it daily. Austin restaurants have turned to composting as a part of their zero waste efforts, and more and more businesses and homes are learning just how simple it is to put what usually ends up in a landfill to good use. Although it can seem like a lot of work, much of it on the human end is pretty easy and nature simply takes care of the rest of it.

So, what does the composting process actually look like?

First of all, you have to know what to throw in a compost bin. While much of it can come from the kitchen, plenty of other daily household items and various scraps can get tossed in there as well:

●      Fruits and vegetables/fruit and veggie scraps

●      Eggshells

●      Coffee grounds and filters

●      Tea bags

●      Nutshells

●      Shredded newspaper, paper, and cardboard

●      Yard trimmings including grass, leaves, branches, and twigs

●      Houseplants

●      Hay and straw

●      Sawdust

●      Woodchips

●      100% cotton and wool rags

●      Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint

●      Hair and fur

●      Fireplace ashes

In order to create an ideal environment for all the above to work its magic, you’ll need warm temperatures, the right nutrients, plenty of moisture, and oxygen. Choose your compost bin wisely, as that’ll be a key factor in maintaining this environment.

There are three main stages that occur during the composting process. The first lasts just a couple of days or so during which mesophilic microorganisms (microorganisms that thrive in temperatures of about 68 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit or 20 to 45 degrees Celsius) begin to break down the compounds. This creates heat and can raise the internal temperature of your compost bin to over 104 degrees F or 40 degrees C.

When your compost hits the second stage, those first microscopic little buddies are replaced by thermophilic microorganisms that thrive in higher temperatures and take their time breaking down organic materials into even finer pieces. This process takes anywhere from a few days to several months. The temperature continues to rise and breaks down proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates. This is the stage in which to be mindful of temperatures that can continue to rise to the point where all those helpful microorganisms can die off. It’s important to utilize aeration techniques, turn over the pile, and keep the temperature below 149 degrees F or 54 degrees C. Providing the bin with some oxygen during this stage can give the thermophilic microorganisms more resources to do their job.

Once the thermophilic microorganisms use up all the available resources, the compost enters its third and final stage which lasts several months. The temperatures begin to drop enough for our first little heroes, the mesophilic microorganisms, to come back and finish breaking down the remaining organic matter so you have rich, organic fertilizer as your end result.

Now, what you do with your compost is entirely up to you. You can use it in your own garden, become your gardening-aficionado neighbor’s new BFF, or utilize a curbside compost service if your city offers one, see if any local farmers can use it, or select E: all of the above. Whatever you choose, know that you’re doing your part to keep valuable resources out of landfills while helping your community stay healthy.