The Science of Composting

Aren’t we a bit retro to talk about composting? This is a pretty old concept that eco-minded people (and subsistence farmers) still like to bandy about from time to time. There is nothing wrong with it as a means of recycling and saving energy, but it seems a bit anti-scientific at first. In actually, there is some pretty basic science going on. It might be nature’s way, but you can help it along with your human touch if you understand the dynamics involved.

To provide super soil for healthy plants and great harvests, you start with yard waste and kitchen scraps, for example. Everyone has them. (Some people buy organic compost but it seems more hands-on to make your own.) Besides, once you begin, the whole things builds on itself and requires very little maintenance. You need to make a holder bin to contain all that beneficial bacteria that breaks everything down into the desired compost. You will need to turn the mixture once in a while with a pitchfork or other utensil to provide oxygen. Make sure there are air pockets. That’s the science part. Heat (from the sun) and moisture will quicken the results. It depends on quantity and the ratio of brown (shredded newspapers, wood chips, and dry leaves) to green matter (kitchen waste and grass clippings). Watch what you use so you don’t attract animals. Forget meat and fish and similar pungent foods.

These are the basics, plain and simple. If you want to get fancy and see the same science at work, you can study up on composting toilets that involve an aerobic process of decomposition. If you have a cabin in the woods or the mountains, or a shed in your back forty, this is for you. Sawdust, coconut coir, and peat moss are used to mix with excrement to absorb liquids. It is known to be a faster system than a septic tank. No water is needed, or of course traditional plumbing fixtures.

Thus, science as a forward-looking enterprise produces backward-seeming devices. But there are reasons and uses for them in this modern world, even for something invented in the 1850s. I hear there are roadside facilities of this nature in Sweden and Australia, maybe the US and UK. Apparently an option is a waterless adjacent urinal since the typical composting toilet is not the same as a urine-diverting dry toilet. It is rather about ventilation (aeration) and oxidation of waste to prevent or eliminate harmful pathogens (not accomplished with “pit latrines”).

While it can take up to years to achieve cold composting, under better and more ideal conditions it can take weeks (with active hot composting). There are various horticultural applications when local regulations allow it, but they are outside the limits of this blog. For now, we are revealing the marvels of natural science in a very basic way. Going from the simple to the extreme (for later writings) is part of appreciating human knowledge and the way it can solve every day to more complex problems.