Many have heard of the three Rs principle on which waste-free life is based: reduce, reuse, recycle. In fact, the zero-waste philosophy includes at least 5 of those Rs: before the famous triad there is “refuse” and “rot” (for compost) concludes the sequence. Let’s look at the latter today and find out how to reduce the amount of organic waste which ends up in landfills and how to turn this time bomb into a source useful for the planet and the human.
So, what’s wrong with food waste? It is just harmless organics, isn’t it?
Every kid knows that one does not necessarily need a bin to dispose of an apple stump. Just throw it into a ditch or bushes and with time it will decompose and turn into fertilizer plants will be thankful for. In general, it is true: organic waste becomes a valuable resource when handled properly. This happens when our imaginary apple stump enters a prepared environment either natural — soil, or man-made — a compost container with moisture and air access. In scientific terms, compost is a soil improving organic fertilizer generated from organic waste by biodegradation. It makes soil softer and more permeable to air, saturated with the necessary microorganisms and minerals (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, etc.). Producing and using compost is environmentally friendly, cost effective and efficient.
And what about when organic waste ends up in a landfill? What happens then? Since most of the time we dispose of organic leftovers together with general waste in plastic bags, there is no air access to the waste. Even if you chose an old-fashioned way and empty your bucket into a container, the rubbish in landfills lies in thick layers, still with no air access, and then… Without air good worms producing fertilizer cannot develop on our harmless apple stump. Instead anaerobic bacteria develop, which activity is accompanied by the release of methane — a greenhouse gas, which disastrous impact is 21 times stronger than that of carbon dioxide.
The rise of the planet surface temperature leads in turn to changes in amount of rainfall, melting of glaciers, rising of the sea level, lack of drinking water, agricultural struggles, decrease in diversity of flora and fauna, threats to human health. Convincing enough? If so, let’s look at risk-free ways to dispose of organic waste.
A disposer, built-in under your kitchen sink, helps to get rid of food, fruit and vegetable leftovers right in the kitchen. It can even process chicken bones. Having been drained into the sewage system, shredded waste streams through pipes to a wastewater treatment plant. There it can become a source of biohumus or biogas. It is in fact the same methane as in a landfill, however, it is not released into the atmosphere, but serves peacefully such human needs as, for example, heating or electricity generating.
This would be an optimistic scenario for Cyprus, one should say, as problems with the water supply system are not uncommon here. On the island there is a distributor of such shredders and a community of customers using them. Furthermore, Nicosia Wastewater Treatment Plant, also serving the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, is technically suitable for processing sludge into green energy and biofertilizer. In Limassol the wastewater treatment plant at Moni is equipped with similar technical solutions. Biogas generated there is used at a cement plant nearby. Another plant serving West Limassol is to open in 2021 in Kato Polemidia. At the wastewater treatment plants in Larnaca and Paphos sludge, generated after the water treatment, is dried and subsequently used in organic farming.
Composting at home or in a garden
A compost container in a garden is a sign of high agronomic culture. To produce compost from organic waste one only needs three components: water, air and microorganisms. This brings us to the simplest kind of composter — a compost pit or pile where waste is dumped in layers. This is not the best way to compost, however, as it does not let you control the temperature and humidity, besides it takes more time for compost to mature.
There are also ready-to-use plastic containers on the market. They are compact and mobile. Those living in a city flat can arrange their composter in a flower pot. This video shows simple instructions on how to do it.
Usually a non-industrial composter is a wooden box made of scrap materials or your DIY leftovers. It is easy to build observing just a few technological requirements:
- Dimensions. The box’s side should be at least one meter wide, otherwise it is not possible to get required temperature inside.
- Ventilation. Oxygen is essential for decomposing to start. To provide oxygen access one can create gaps between the boards, or use a net for one of the box’s sides. Make sure you build your container without bottom, so that worms and microorganisms could access the contents.
- Lid. It would protect the waste from too much sun or rain.
You would want two or three such containers. One for the compost ready to be used whenever needed, one for collected waste to mature and one for storing fresh organics. Depending on conditions it takes one or two years for compost to mature.
There is a certain technique for placing organic waste into the composter too. It is best to put large branches as drainage first. Then in turns place green (fresh cut grass, vegetable peels) and brown (dry leaves, hay or soil) waste. This will help achieve a good moisture balance. This can also be maintained artificially, by watering or drying the heap. Mixing the contents will also help speed up the process. It is important to avoid meat leftovers, bones and egg shell as well as diseased plants getting into the composter. Those are best burned or berried in the ground.
Observing these simple rules would help avoid unpleasant smells or insects which normally prevent people from composting.
Composting in a park or woods
If it is not possible to arrange a composter at home, one can take their green waste to a place where it can compost naturally. For fast decomposing the waste should be distributed over the ground evenly or berried in the soil. Until taken out into the nature, organic waste can be stored in sealed containers in a freezer. If there is a public park nearby, it is likely to be equipped with a composter. Check with your local authorities, if one can dump their organic waste and contribute to the soil fertility.
Home vermicompost farm is smaller than a conventional composter and can be set up in a flat. Several plastic bins containing worms are placed one into another. Nothing to be scared of here: a vermicomposter releases no smells, there is no noise to be heard from the worms either. The construction looks decent and can be placed anywhere. Worms’ activity in a composter is the same as in nature. Only they live on the organic waste you generously offer, not on fallen leaves and grass.
One can buy a vermicomposter or make their own (the process is much appreciated by children). All you need is two or more plastic containers of the same size placed one into another and a lid. Using a needle make small holes (1-2 mm in diameter, bigger ones may let flies get inside) in the upper container and the lid for air circulation and water drainage. Use non-transparent plastic or put your container in a dark place.
Dig worms in a park or woods or buy them at a fishing supplies shop. They will need base substrate retaining moisture and allowing air circulation. Rotten foliage, sawdust, used paper, eggs containers will do the job. Fill one third of the container with the moist substrate and put the worms in. Let them first feast on sweet fruit leftovers such as banana peel, where most of the microorganisms involved in the composting process usually live. Two or three days should be enough for the worms to do their job. Next portion of feedstock can be put when three-fourths of the previous one has disappeared. It is important to exclude any leftovers of animal origin and bury the feedstock in the substrate, since the worms eat what’s in the soil, not on its surface.
When the upper container is full, replace it with a new one and put it aside for the compost to mature. If provided conditions are good, the worms will multiply until they reach a stable population (and you can share them with fellow farmers!). The final product of the vermifarm is biohumus — an ideal fertilizer for house and garden plants or lawn, any soil will be thankful for such fertilizer.
How do you know when the compost is ready to be used?
Biohumus looks like good crumbly “fatty” earth. Although an experienced gardener would see it straight away when the waste has turned into useful fertilizer, it could be tricky for a novice. There are certain signs which could help recognise mature compost:
- Lack of any plant residue. Everything that had been placed into the container, has been decomposed or recycled. That is if you see some grass or a piece of banana peel, your biohumus is not yet ready.
- The texture of the mature compost is crumbly. The substance is moist and dark in colour.
- Smell. When done correctly and according to the technique, the composting should not be a source of unpleasant smells. When ready, biohumus smells nicely of wet soil and forest.
It is normally organic waste that takes up most of the room in the bin and causes most discomfort: smell, damp, dirt. Getting rid of these minor troubles and turning waste into a useful resource is easier than it seems. Just choose a recycling method most suitable for you, start small, watch how slowly your bin fills up and you’ll soon find yourself on the road to a waste-free life and won’t be able to imagine it any other way.