This is the second article in the Sustainability Champion Program series. While this article can be read independently, I recommend that you read the first article on what the Sustainability Champion Program is about to get a full picture.
Now, before I talk about how to set up your compost and how you should take care of it, let me tell you why it is important.
Why should you compost and why is it something you should care about?
Well, composting helps us take responsibility of our organic waste. You should know that when you give your organic waste to the municipality, it either goes to a landfill or to an industrial composter.
The unfortunate truth is that when the waste goes to landfills, it is mixed with a pile of inorganic waste. When mixed, it produces harmful greenhouse gases like methane and Carbon dioxide. As for industrial composters, they require a lot of energy, money and infrastructure. Most of the cities in our country don’t have this facility easily available.
Now all this circus can be avoided if we start composting at home.
Starting your compost is very simple. I’m going to guide you through this post. Follow every step to the T and you will convert all your wet waste into beautiful earthy manure in a month.
So, what do you need to start composting?
Step 1. Get a container for composting
Most of my colleagues and I use a khamba from daily dump. Some of us (with a larger quantity of wet waste) use a big blue drum with holes in it. Any container with holes to circulate air will work.
So far, the khamba has been the most effective. The daily dump website has detailed instructions and has made the entire process fun and easy.
If you are not using a khamba, get two containers. Container 1 is for you to fill up with daily wet waste. Container 1 is full, set it aside. It will need about a month’s rest to decompose fully. Use Container 2 for the next month and cycle the two.
Pro-tip: The volume of your containers should be enough to hold 2 months’ worth of kitchen waste.
Step 2. Collect your organic waste and start composting!
Once you have your containers, start collecting your organic waste separately in a small bin.
Every day, empty the bin into your compost container and sprinkle it with a layer of carbon-rich material. Cocopeat, sawdust, thoroughly dry leaves or remix powder (as offered by Daily dump) are all carbon-rich materials. I will explain to you why you need this in just a bit.
Pro-tip: Remix powder is so far the best carbon source I have used. After that, it would be cocopeat and fine sawdust.
Once a week, give the entire mix a stir to ensure air circulation.
Once the container is full, check for right moisture. The moisture content should be like washed clothes fresh out of a washing machine – damp but not dripping wet. Add a cup of buttermilk, give it a good toss and set it aside.
Pro-tip: Check the resting container once a week and add water to maintain the right level of moisture.
Understanding the Composting Process
To make good compost, it’s best to understand the why’s or how’s of the process. It’s quite simple. So let me take you through what happens during composting. I find that the joy of the process doubles up when you know exactly what you are doing!
The biggest hero of your compost are the microbes that break down your organic waste. So when you are composting, your role is to provide the right environment for these microbes to do their job efficiently and happily.
So, what can you do to keep microbes happy?
Microbes are very similar to us, humans. Just like us, they need food, shelter, air and water.
Let’s examine each of these elements.
A balanced diet for microbes consists of the right proportion carbon rich and nitrogen rich materials (our equivalent of carbs and protein). Nitrogen rich materials include all the kitchen waste, vegetable and fruit peels, used tea powder, used coffee powder, etc. Basically everything that you want to compost. Carbon rich materials are everything dry – cocopeat, sawdust, dry leaves, dry twigs, expired spices, etc. A good diet for microbes comprises of Nitrogen:Carbon in the ratio of 2:1.
Next comes air. The microbes are aerobic meaning they need oxygen to survive. So the container must contain holes for air to move in and out. It must also be stirred regularly to facilitate air circulation.
Then comes the right amount of water. We need water to survive but we cannot survive in water. Similarly, microbes require moisture but should not drown in water. A good compost pit has wetness equivalent to that of freshly washed laundry from a washing machine – damp but not dripping wet.
Last, shelter and ambient temperature. For microbes to survive and function efficiently, they need to be kept between 20-25 deg C. Your container should be kept in shade and protected from harsh sunlight or rain. (You can use a huge plastic bag as a raincoat for you compost container.)
Keeping these conditions ideal is all you need to do for your compost to work.
Common signs that all is not well with your compost
When the conditions are not ideal, your compost will tell you. You need to be able to understand the signs your compost is giving you and take necessary action.
Watch for these following signs, and if you notice any, follow the steps to get your compost back in balance again.
1. Your compost stinks
An ideal compost should not stink. It must have a neutral odor. So, when it stinks, your alarm should go off.
Why does it happen? There are two reasons, your compost might stink. a) There is more nitrogen than carbon and b) there is too much moisture.
How can you fix it? For both of these conditions, the simple solution is to add more carbon and give it a good mix. Once you do this, your compost should stop stinking within a day or two.
2. Your compost is visibly dry
Your compost looks and feels dry. This can mean that your microbes are dying of thirst. This will stop your composting from going forward.
Why does this happen? This happens when there isn’t enough moisture in your compost.
How can you fix it? Simply add more water and give it a good mix. You could also add some buttermilk from time to time. But ensure that you are not adding too much water. There is a fine difference between a flood and plentiful water.
3. Your compost is cold
A good working compost will feel warmer than your surroundings. You can feel it when you put your palm above your compost.
Why does it happen? If it is cold, it is for two reasons, the wet waste is fully decomposed (a good sign) or that the microbes are mostly dead (a bad sign). It is usually the latter if your compost is not yet two months old
How can you fix it? You need a fresh batch of microbes in your compost. Add a cup of buttermilk and jaggery water to your compost and give it a good mix. This should kickstart the composting process again. Keep giving this every once in a while to avoid your composting from going cold.
4. Your compost has a lot of flies around it
Many people fear that composting waste attracts flies. That’s not true. In an ideal scenario, you won’t find a single fly near your compost.
Why does it happen? You spot flies if your wet waste is exposed or there isn’t enough carbon in the mix.
How can you fix it? For both cases, cover the compost pit with a layer of your carbon source. Ideally, each time you cover your compost with carbon, no wet waste should be visible on top. The entire top layer should be brown.
5. Your compost has maggots
Ideally, you compost must not have maggots. If you have given you microbes all that they need, you don’t usually see maggots.
Why does it happen? Maggots come from the fruit flies that fly around your kitchen waste. Mostly, maggots are good for your compost. They are going to help breakdown the organic waste faster. They also come when there’s too much nitrogen in your wet waste.
How can you fix it? If you are amongst those who do not want maggots anywhere near your home, all you need to do are these: add citrus peels, and some more carbon. Uniformly mix the carbon with the nitrogen rich material and always cover compost with a layer of carbon.
How do you know when your compost is ready?
The composting process takes somewhere between 1-2 months to complete. The compost will look like dark, crumbly soil and smell like fresh earth. The original organic material will no longer be recognisable.
You can test the compost using two ways to know if it’s now ready to be used in your garden. Here’s what you can do:
1. Germination test
Drop a few okra seeds into it.
- The seeds should germinate in a few days. If they don’t the compost isn’t ready.
- If the seed germinates, but the leaves are yellow, the compost isn’t ready.
- If the seed germinates, and the leaves are a nice green the compost is ready.
2. Jar -smell test
Put some compost in a jar, and add water to it. Seal the bottle and leave it for a week. Open it after a week, and smell it.
- If it smells sour or bad, it is not ready.
- If it smells like fresh earth, then the compost is ready.
A few thoughts from our composting journey
One thing I realized after I started composting is how relaxing I found it. It always gives me a high to run my fingers through the compost and take in the fresh smell. I enjoy being a witness to the entire process of composting. It gives a strong sense of accomplishment when I do succeed.
“Once I started sharing my journey of composting on my social media handles, my friends got in touch with me and asked about the process. A lot of them were astonished with how simple it really is. I guess we all run around with a mental block thinking this is far more complicated and exhaustive – when it is not!” says Sreelakshmi, former Trek Coordinator.
“There is immense satisfaction in knowing that there is no waste that goes out from my kitchen” says Swathi Chatrapathy, Chief Editor. “One, because all the wet waste is being managed by my compost. Secondly, we buy everything we need for the kitchen in loose. Having a zero waste kitchen is something that is very satisfying!”
If having a zero waste kitchen excites you as it does to my fellow colleagues, get your compost bin and set it up soon! Often, just buying a container puts an end to starting troubles.
It is incredibly satisfying when the pile of waste that goes out from your house is dramatically reduced.
I would love for you to share your experience with us, or even learn something new. If you have questions about composting, drop in a comment below! I love solving composting problems.
If you have any other thoughts about the Sustainability Champion Programme, write to me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article was authored by Lakshmi and edited with inputs by Aswati Anand. Read the third article in the Sustainability Champion series here. )