OBSERVATIONS FROM A COMPOSTING TRAINER
By Doug Remington
I have been a composting trainer for the City of Columbia, MO for
two years. I was blessed with
students that knew more about composting than I did. I would like to
share some of that information with
The first thing I learned is keep it simple. Kitchen wastes can be
composted quickly, without
any odors, no rats, mice, snakes (we have had composters find snake
families living in their compost
bins), and no flies or other noxious insects. The only tool you need
is a small shovel. Simply bury each
days wastes in a small hole about 6 inches deep. Just dig a small
hole, put the wastes in the hole, and
put the top soil back on. In just a few days (not 1 to 3 years like
the wire bin) it will be gone. I have had
many people tell me they have been burying their trash for 15 years
or more and never a problem or
complaint. One elderly couple that moved into a downtown condo
buries their trash in the flower beds
along their sidewalk and in front of their unit. That is enough
space for their needs and they have been
doing it for three years and not a single problem.
Why does in-the-ground composting work so well. Because it
moderates the tremendous swings
in the parameters of moisture, temperature, and oxygen. The same
thing a good compost bin is supposed
to do. When choosing a compost bin, you should check and see how
well it scores on each of these
parameters. Take a very commonly recommended compost bin, the wire
bin. It does nothing to control
moisture swings, no wind protection, no vermin protection, no
insulation, no shade, and no nothing. It is
the worst compost bin design possible. The people who recommend it
say materials will breakdown in 1 to
3 years. Lots of time for bad things to happen. One researcher I
work with lives in a nice suburban
neighborhood. A few years ago he and his neighbors attended a
neighborhood meeting to learn about
composting. The wire bin was suggested because it is cheap and
anyone can make one. So they all
made one and filled them with leaves. A few people put some more
leaves in the next Fall. Then they all
ir bins because nothing was happening. Then we had several wet
Springs and something did happen. All
of the wire compost bins went anaerobic. The stench was so terrible
that it would almost bring tears to
your eyes. The whole neighborhood was a foul and putrid place.
Everyone gave up composting because
it didnít work. The simple answer is to mow the leaves when they
have fallen and are dry. Start at the
outside of your yard and mow in a counter-clockwise concentric circle.
Spread out any clumps and in a
few weeks you wonít be able to see a single leaf. It will fertilize
the yard for free and improve the overall
health of your yard. There is no easier(no raking, bagging or
lifting heavy bags), quicker, more effective
or cheaper way to dispose of leaves.
It is very important for composting trainers to be firm and
recommend bins that are really
effective. One to three years is not an acceptable time frame. Too
much time for something to go wrong.
A compost bin should create an environment that stimulates both
macbobes and microbes. That means a
top for shade and to repel rain and sides to protect the pile from
the drying winds and provide vermin
control. Cost is not a prohibitive factor. Cardboard can make great
walls and a small piece of white or
black plastic makes a great roof. As a matter of fact, they can be
used to retrofit the wire bins. Several
of my students have done just that and have been amazed at the
Remember, no compost bin will work at peak performance levels
without a lid and sides.
Subject: Composting document
Please give this document to any group or person wanting to learn
about choosing a compost bin. I have
illustrations I can send on paper if you are interested. The
World's Ultimate Compost Bin
Columbia Public Works Volunteer Program
I am always amused by the modern pursuit of a single
device that will work perfectly for
everyone, everywhere, under every possible set of conditions. One of
my favorite sayings is, "If it says
one size fits all, it won't fit anyone." So the world's ultimate
compost bin is one that meets the following
1. A bin that you can afford. You may not be able to
afford a $3,000 solar powered, motor driven
composting facility. A simple, cheap, but effective compost bin can
be made of newspaper, heavy string,
and small sticks. (See the diagram and instructions for how to
construct one.) A newspaper bin is
especially good for batch composting things like leaves. A farmer can
tell you how fast hay rots when the
bales are turned on end.
If appearances are not a main concern for you, either
because you can screen off the bin or
because you have a large enough property to keep the bin out of sight,
a free, biodegradable bin is as
close as a store that sells appliances. Collecting a shipping box
from a washing machine or dishwasher
and punching some aeration holes in the bottom and sides gives you an
instant compost bin that will
eventually turn into compost itself. The shipping box and newspaper
bins are both static pile composters
which means they are not to be turned or stirred. This results in a
slower process but is a perfectly
acceptable method of composting.
You can also build a very attractive and highly
efficient unit very cheaply out of wooden pallets.
(See the diagram and instructions for how to construct one.) Wood is
an ideal material for compost bins for
several reasons. It is biodegradable, strong, a fairly good insulator,
makes an attractive compost bin, and
when coupled with screen provides protection from insects and vermin.
It also protects the compost from
the drying rays of the sun and wind, and it is available everywhere.
Wooden pallets are often discarded after a single use
or when broken. You can usually get them
for free or very cheap. If you don't know of a source through your
employment or friends you can purchase
pallets very inexpensively from Civic Recycling on Brown Station Road.
2. A bin that is made out of recycled, biodegradable
materials. One of the main reasons for
composting is to lessen the flow of materials into landfills. If bins
are made of non-recyclable plastics, for
instances, they will wear out and need disposal. In the future
landfills could be filling up with old, worn
out, plastic compost bins.
3. A design that provides an ideal growth environment
for the hundreds of organisms that form a
community of waste degraders and that works for your lifestyle.
How well your compost bin controls the environmental
parameters of moisture, humidity,
aeration, and temperature, determines how fast your wastes will break
A commonly suggested design is the woven wire bin. The
biggest problem with this design is
excessive wetting and drying. This means the bin provides ideal
conditions only a small fraction of the
time in our Missouri climate. The wastes are held up for the sun and
wind to do the maximum drying. Dry
wastes do not compost. Then, when it finally does rain the pile
either gets too wet or the excessively dry
material sheds the rain and stays dry. If it should get too wet,
anaerobic digestion takes place which
causes foul odors. If it sheds the rain _ have you ever noticed how
much harder it is to get a completely
dry sponge to soak up a spill_ it stays too dry and nothing happens.
These problems can be overcome by
wetting the pile as you build it and then covering the pile with
white plastic if your compost pile is in the
direct sun or black plastic it is in the shade. Be sure to cut some
aeration holes in the plastic to allow the
pile to breathe. Don't cut the holes in the top because it will
unwanted water to enter the system. You can use rocks, bricks, soil,
or boards around the base of the
compost pile to hold the plastic in place. But the pallet bin is
really a better option.
There are dozens of designs for compost bins to fit
into almost any lifestyle. The first step is to
decide what you want the compost bin to do for you. Many people have
sedentary jobs and need some
physical exercise. Having a composting system that requires regular
turning with a shovel can be the best
choice. Regular turning also speeds up the composting process. The
Columbia Volunteer Program,
University Extension, or the public library all have information on
compost bin designs. You can also visit
the Compost Bin Demonstration Sites at Oakland Middle School and the
Community Garden on 9th Street
to see a number of different types of bins.
Other people are so busy and overworked they don't have
the time or energy to turn the
compost pile. Most modern commercial composting companies use a
composting system called Aerated
Static Piles. Instead of regularly turning the piles to expose all
parts of the pile to the fresh air, they run
slotted flexible pipe throughout the pile to allow the air to flow
through the pile. The same technique can
be used in a small scale unit. Slotted flexible pipe is used
underground to drain water away from buildings
and is available at most building supply stores. Simply cover each
end with screen or old pantyhose to
prevent vermin from living in the pipe, and bury it in the pile with
both ends exposed. If the pile is fairly
large, bury one or two pieces of pipe in a U-shape with both ends
poking up out of the top of the waste
material. See below for suggested use of pipe system.
The design of a compost bin is limited only by the
imagination, but the best bin is one that fits
the needs and lifestyle of the composter who uses it.
4. Finally, a compost bin that is legal. Where you live
determines what waste disposal
regulations you have to follow. If you live in Columbia, composting
is legal unless it becomes a nuisance
because of odor or is attracting or providing a breeding site for
flies or rats. If one of your neighbors calls
in a complaint about your compost pile to the Health Department it
will be investigated. If it is determined
there is a problem you will be given seven days to fix the problem
and you will be referred to the Columbia
Volunteer Program for help in solving the problem and maintaining the
pile correctly. If you are a renter
you will need your landlord's permission to start a compost pile.
Even if you own your home, you may be
restricted by neighborhood codes.
Many rural people can legally have a simple, open pile
in the backyard under the old oak tree.
Open piles are cheap, but the drawback is that they are slow, prone
to excessive wetting and drying, offer
poor insect and vermin control, and can be very unsightly.
Building a Newspaper Compost Bin
Assemble newspaper, heavy string, small, fairly
straight sticks and compostable materials (A).
Cut several small matching holes along the edge of
several thicknesses of newspaper. If you
fold the edge and cut a >, it will form a diamond as pictured (B).
Add a few holes scattered throughout the
face of the paper to provide aeration. Don't make too many aeration
Lay the newspaper down with ends overlapping and
diamond cuts matching. Weave a stick in
and out through the diamond cuts to hold the newspaper together (C).
When you have enough sheets to form the diameter you
want, overlap the two ends
and weave them together. Three sheets should be a manageable size,
but it can be bigger if you like. You
will wind up with a cylinder of newspaper (D).
Fill the cylinder with compostable materials like
leaves and grass clippings. Tie a few bands of
stout biodegradable string around the bin during the filling to
provide extra support (E).
You will end up with a bale covered on the outside with
newspaper. You can even remove the
support sticks once the bale is made and use them over and over if
you have done a good job of tying the
The Baffled Compost Bin
A moderately priced compost bin that is very efficient
is the baffled bin. It works so well because
of moisture, humidity, and air control. Hot dry wind can dry out any
material it comes in direct contact with.
The baffles (see illustration) prevent hot dry air from coming in
direct contact with the composting
materials. As the air is drawn into the bin it swirls around and
slowly picks up moisture before being drawn
into the interior of the pile where composting is taking place.
Having moisture laden air drawn into the
center of the pile is very beneficial because compost piles dry out
from the inside out. The moisture laden
air also stimulates many microorganisms because they can draw their
moisture from the air. The baffles
provide excellent control of large vermin like rats and mice and if
screen is used to cover the openings
there is excellent insect control. The baffled bin will compost as
efficiently as any high priced system and
is very attractive if built with quality materials.
Construct five baffled panels for your bin. This will
give you four sides and a top. A top is very
important on a baffled bin to moderate the air flow. Construction is
similar to the pallet bin. In fact, pallets
can be turned into baffled panels by nailing boards and spacers onto
them. For ease in turning the pile or
getting at the finished compost, have one side open out or detach.
The top panel can either be hinged so
it can be raised or just rest on the top edges of the four sides.
Building A Pallet Bin
Assemble four wooden pallets, six fence posts, some
boards, nails, and wire.
Try to get pallets the same size as it will make
construction easier, but they don't have to be
exactly the same size. You can join the pallets together using six
steel fence posts, some 1" x 4" boards,
galvanized wire or coated heavy copper wire, or galvanized nails. But
be creative. If you have materials at
hand like untreated wooden posts or nylon rope instead of wire, use
Choose the largest of your pallets to be the roof and
measure it's length and width. This will be
the maximum outside dimension of the walls of your compost bin. Draw
a square or rectangle that size on
the ground where you will be placing your bin. Next measure the other
three pallets and lay out a
C-shaped design smaller than the roof (see top view).
Drive two fence posts for each wall spaced about a foot
from each end. Drive them in so the top
of the fence post is lower than the top edge of the pallet. This will
keep them from sticking up over the
top edges of the sides and interfering with the roof. Wire or tie the
pallets to the posts.
The pallet you have chosen for the roof needs to be
modified for maximum effectiveness. What
you want is a roof that doesn't leak too badly. Use the 1" x 4"
boards to cover the open spaces between
the boards that make up the top surface of the pallet (see the roof).
Then put the roof on and wire it to the pallets used
for the walls. Some kind of front door would
improve effectiveness, even one as simple as a heavy canvas flap with
a board stapled to the bottom. Or
purchase five pallets instead of four and wire or tie the fifth to
the front as a door.