What It Is
Composting is a natural process that turns decomposed organic materials into a rich soil called compost. Composting involves mixing yard and organic waste in a pile or bin and mimicking conditions that support the process of decomposition. Decomposition is fueled by millions of microscopic organisms (i.e., bacteria, fungi) that reside in the compost pile and repeatedly devour and recycle it, forming a rich organic fertilizer and valuable soil additive.
Why It Matters
Yard and food waste make up almost one third of business landfill waste, and for restaurants and grocery stores, it can be from 40 to 75 percent of total waste. If these materials are composted, the benefits would include:
- A reduction of waste collection and disposal costs. This reduction depends on your yard and food waste to overall waste ratio. For example, if your current total waste output contains roughly 50 percent compostable materials, the frequency of garbage disposal pickups could be cut in half.
- Cost savings of no longer having to buy soil conditioners, bagged manure, etc.
- Added income from selling nutrient-rich compost, which can be used (or sometimes even sold) as mulch, soil amendment, potting mixes, or compost tea.
- A reduction of water usage and costs, since compost helps soil retain its moisture.
- Moving toward becoming a zero waste company/organization.
- Contribution to your community—compost can be used for land remediation, landscaping, and quality topsoil in agriculture.
- A reduction of global methane (a greenhouse gas) due to less decomposing food wastes in landfills.
To begin composting follow these basic steps:
- Step One: Select a location for your compost bin.
- Step Two: Make or purchase a compost bin.
- Step Three: Know what can and can’t be composted.
- Step Four: Add water to compost heap frequently to retain moisture.
- Step Five: Aerate regularly.
- Step Six: Monitor temperature of the compost over time.
- Step Seven: Make sure compost does not become compacted as you add material.
Step One: Select a location for your compost bin.
Select a location indoors or outdoors for composting while considering aesthetics and employee safety and health—away from the building and from areas where people work is best, as compost is basically food waste that is decomposing. You may also want to screen the pile with brush or a fence, place it in an area with good air circulation and partial shade (to avoid overheating), and choose a place with good drainage. If you decide to purchase a sealed compost bin or tumbler, this may not be as large of a concern.
Step Two: Make or purchase a compost bin.
There are many different options that vary in price and whether it can be homemade or purchased. Basic choices to choose from include outdoor bin systems (bins made of wood and wire that allow piles to decompose while starting new piles—click here to find instructions on building your own bin), vermicomposting (using red wriggler worms to break waste down), or compost tumblers and bins that are purchased.
Step Three: Know what can and can’t be composted.
Educate yourself and employees about what can and cannot be composted. For the best compost, you want a lot of high carbon materials to a little high nitrogen materials. A good ratio is 25-30:1 carbon to nitrogen. If the ratio is too high, decomposition slows down; if it’s too low, the compost pile will begin to smell rotten. Click here to learn about the difference between high carbon (brown) and high nitrogen (green) materials. A good size bin is 3’x 3’ x 3’, but should not be any smaller.
Step Four: Add water to compost heap frequently to retain moisture.
Too much water means the material will not decompose properly (slimy, smelly); too little water will kill bacteria and yield bad compost. The more green material (cut grass, weeds, leaves, etc…) you include, the less water you’ll need. If the compost pile is outdoors and gets a lot of rain, you may want to build a roof over the pile. Simply using a tarp will suffice.
Step Five: Aerate regularly.
Oxygen is required by many microorganisms to survive and produce successful compost. Thus, make sure to turn the compost pile often (once a day for first weeks, then once every other day) by using a pitch fork, spade, or compost aerator. If using a compost tumbler, simply turn the pile with a handle or pertinent mechanism.
Step Six: Monitor temperature of the compost over time.
As microorganisms devour your compost pile, they generate large amounts of heat. A good temperature for successful composting is 140º-160º Fahrenheit. The cheapest and simplest way to track temperature is to simply purchase a regular thermometer.
Step Seven: Make sure compost does not become compacted as you add material.
Composting needs oxygen, and in order to get oxygen, it needs space. As you aerate, make sure the heap is loose and as you add material, make sure the heap does not become compacted.
Include a good mixture of brown fibrous ingredients and greens for quicker, less-smelly compost. Shred, dice, and cut up scraps for better decomposition.
Compost is ready to use when it is dark, brown, and crumbly with an earthy odor. It should not be moldy or rotten. Things to look out for include original materials that are no longer recognizable (except woody pieces) and the pile’s temperature being the same as the outside air (no longer hot). Once a compost heap has these characteristics, it is recommended to let it sit for at least an additional three weeks. If you turn your pile, and conditions are well-managed, compost can be ready in about 20 days. Without turning your pile, it can take anywhere from three months to a year. With a worm bin (which does not require turning your pile), it should take around one to there months.
Once in place, make it easy for employees to contribute to the composting process. Make sure that composting collection points are located in common areas (e.g., break rooms, kitchen). If your business has a green team, delegating the responsibilities to the team might be the easiest way to manage compost. Creating signage, identifying a location, and maintaining the process will greatly contribute to composting successfully. However, if waste collection and disposal is already an arranged service in your office, ask the service if they can take on some or all of those responsibilities. Furthermore, you can buy compostable products, such as compostable plates, utensils, cups, napkins, and paper towels.
If you decide you want to compost, but want to avoid the operations and maintenance, a compost pickup service may suit you. Some waste collection and disposal services, like in areas of Portland, Oregon, offer a compost pickup program. If your city or county does not offer this, there are other private business options to consider. For example, CompostNow is a new compost pickup service based in Raleigh, North Carolina, and serves homes and offices in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. For a monthly fee of $25, you are provided with compost bins, which will be picked up from your location once a week. CompostNow’s facilities can even handle meats, bones, dairy, paper products, and corn plastics. CompostNow will then manage your wastes into rich compost in its facilities and return the subsequent amount of compost to your doorstep, or provide the compost to local urban farms.
- For smoother, cleaner composting, consider purchasing composting equipment and tools. Basic supplies include compost pitchforks, shovels, compost tumblers, compost aerators, compost spreaders, and thermometers.
- If maintenance is a hassle, try a mechanical indoor unit. These units are compact devices that plug into the wall and are mostly maintenance-free.
- If you cannot or do not want to use your compost, consider selling it. However, there is national legislation mandating the quality of salable compost, so make sure yours is in compliance. You can check those standards here. Then, proceed by formulating your strategies for advertising, identifying and maintaining a clientele, and competing with the local market supply and demand (including market price). Click here for more details.
- If composting is not an option for you, consider food donation opportunities. These opportunities donate your edible food leftovers to community organizations that distribute food to the needy.
Burt’s Bees, located in Durham, North Carolina, sends certain organic by-products from its production processes to a compost facility offsite, uses compostable utensils, and has composting bins in break rooms. From March 2008 to July 2010, 300 tons of material was composted (and therefore diverted from landfills). Composting is a major aspect of Burt’s Bees’ success in becoming a Zero Waste company, which as a whole saves them $25,000 a year.
Resources for More Information
- Boston University’s cafeteria composting
- Basic Composting: All the Skills and Tools You Need to Get Started
- Composting for the Homeowner offers tips on how to compost at your home and discusses the benefits of compost in soil.
- RecycleWorks of San Mateo County in California offers recycling, composting, and waste reduction tips to its residents, but is applicable to everyone.
- Composting101. Arguably one of the most popular composting how-to guides available, it offers a thorough explanation, manual, and benefits of composting.
- Composting at your Business. From the city of Portland, Oregon, this site offers tips on successful composting in a business setting.
Composting is a great addition in running your business, organization, home, school, or community sustainably and economically. The major benefits include reducing waste collection and disposal costs, producing a valuable commodity in nutrient-rich compost, and supporting environmental sustainability.
Glossary of Related Terms
Compost. Decayed organic material used as a plant fertilizer; the product of composting.
Compost Aerator. A manual tool that digs deep into a compost pile and opens air passages for good compost aeration.
Compost Spreader. Equipment that effectively and conveniently spreads compost on top of lawns and gardens.
Compost Tea. A liquid fertilizer for plants from brewing compost. Benefits include providing nutrients to new transplants and young seedlings.
Compost Tumbler. An efficient alternative to the standard compost bin that makes composting easier, cleaner, and less smelly. Instead of manually turning your compost piles, these tumblers make it as easy as rotating the elevated tumbler or turning the installed handle. Compost tumblers come in a variety of designs and range in price.
Decomposition. Natural process of dead animal or plant tissue being rotted or broken down into simpler forms of matter.
Organic Material. Matter that came from once-living organisms; is capable of decay (or the end result of decay); or is composed of organic compounds.
Zero Waste. A philosophy and design principle that guides people to change their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles where discarded resources become valuable resources for other uses and where nothing is wasted. A Zero Waste company is one that diverts at least 90% of their wastes from going to landfills or incinerators.
 “Organic Materials Management,” CalRecycles, 9 May 2013, http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/organics/, accessed 5 August 2013; “Homepage,” Composting in Santa Cruz County, www.compostsantacruzcounty.org, accessed 5 August 2013..
 Jaymi Heimbuch, “Burt’s Bees Saves $25,000 a Year After Dumpster Diving,” Treehugger, 13 January 2009, http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/01/burts-bees-saves-25000-a-year-after-dumpster-diving.php, accessed 5 August 2013.