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What is Composting, and How Does it Work?

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Composting is nature’s recycling! It creates ideal conditions for the decomposition process that happens everywhere in nature.

Organic materials are introduced to microorganisms, moisture, and oxygen. These materials are then broken down into their simplest parts - creating a nutrient-rich end product that benefits soil and plants.

Why Should We Compost?

Composting is a preferred alternative to sending our waste to landfills. The EPA estimates that more food waste reaches landfills than any other material in everyday trash. Food waste that decomposes in landfills releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is at least 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Composting allows us to dispose of organic waste so that it will decompose in the same way that it would in nature. Wasted food turned into compost can be used as a fertilizer to improve soil health on cropland and gardens.

"The act of creating “trash” is actually a modern practice that arose when people began modifying natural materials. Historically, indigenous people have been composting as a natural way of living for generations."

- DOHM, How to Compost at Home

An Apple Decomposing in nature

The Composting Process

The composting process involves four main components: organic matter, moisture, oxygen, and microorganisms/bacteria.

To create the right conditions, the organic matter should be a mixture of “browns” and “greens”. Brown materials supply carbon, while green materials supply nitrogen.

The microorganisms break the material down through aerobic respiration. They require oxygen, introduced from the air when you turn the material in your compost bin. They also require water to live and multiply. These microorganisms give off carbon dioxide and heat. A hot compost pile indicates that the process is working!

The conditions of your compost bin needs to be balanced for efficient decomposition.

An efficient composting process needs:

  • Plenty of air - the mixture should be turned frequently.
  • Adequate water - moist, but not soaking wet.
  • Proper mix of carbon and nitrogen - 3 parts browns to 1 part greens!
  • Small particle size - big pieces should be broken up. Smaller particles break down more rapidly.
  • Bacteria and microorganisms - you can add soil or finished compost to supply more bacteria and speed the process.

How does Compostable Packaging Fit in?

Plastic tomato container in the trash

Compostable food packaging aids in diversion of food waste away from landfills. Think about how many times you’ve seen a plastic container in the trash. It was probably sitting there with a few uneaten pieces of food in the bottom. The food is already compostable! If the packaging were compostable too, consumers would be able to dispose of both together in a compost bin.

Plastic Produce Stickers mixed with compost

Compostable packaging and labels also help avoid compost contamination. You only have to mention plastic produce stickers to a composter and you’ll see what we mean! Compostable produce stickers would break down along with fruit or vegetable scraps.

Is Compostable Packaging Beneficial to the Composting Process?

A recent study by the Foodservice Packaging Institute and BPI has shown that compostable products do have value to the composting process itself. They are not only a tool for diverting other organic waste, although that is an important benefit.

However, beware of putting biodegradable packaging in your compost! While all compostable packaging is biodegradable, not all biodegradable packaging is compostable.

Biodegradable products may contain additives or chemicals that will harm your compost. There is also packaging described as oxo-degradable. These materials are designed to break down into microplastics - making them unsuitable for compost, and bad for our environment.

In a compost bin, compostable packaging can be considered similarly to other carbon-rich materials. Your compostable packaging can be included in ”brown” material, along with the dead leaves and shredded paper that supply carbon to the microorganisms involved in the composting process.