Composting is a great way to reduce waste and if you garden, save money. Involving kids allows you to teach them a useful skill, keep them busy while you do the chore, and provide an opportunity to teach them everything from sorting to biological cycles.
Composting mimics how biological materials decompose in nature. In forests, under the ground, and pretty much everywhere else, bacteria, fungi, and small animals are breaking down dead matter and turning it into soil. By providing the perfect environment for that to occur, composting just makes the process go faster.
In contrast, a landfill is the worst possible environment for decomposition to occur. Because landfills don’t have oxygen, food waste can’t break down properly. Instead of producing good soil, it releases methane, a nasty pollutant and greenhouse gas that’s 84 times stronger than carbon dioxide in terms of its short-term contribution to climate change.
If you don’t have any way to compost outside, many cities now have businesses that will collect and process your food waste for you, like Compost Cab in the greater D.C. region.
Materials you need
If you’re only composting yard waste, you can use a simple mesh composter, which is just a rectangle of plastic or metal mesh open on the top. Composting yard waste just requires holding it in one area and providing space for air to circulate. If you really want it to be easy and don’t mind being a bit messy, you can just pile it all up in one corner of the yard.
However, if you want to compost food, an enclosed composter is a better bet. These composters have locking lids, which are very helpful for keeping out raccoons, mice, rats and other critters. A number of different types of varying sizes and price points can work, depending on your needs. If you have a bad back, I would strongly recommend a tumbling composter that advertises itself as easy to turn.
In addition, figure out how big a composter you need ahead of time. If you don’t produce a lot of fruit and vegetable waste, you can probably go with a smaller one. If you’re going to compost both food and yard waste, you probably want to go with a larger one.
We have the original composter from EnviroCycle, which has excellent customer service. (Our latch broke after about five years and they sent us a new one for free.)
Involve your kid in picking out the composter, asking them their opinions on color and size. You can even build one yourself, a great DIY activity for a parent and kid to do together. (I’ve done this project and the hardest part is finding a big barrel. We got ours from the local Coca-Cola bottling plant.)
Sorting the compost
For yard waste, nearly everything can go in the compost in theory. Eventually, it will break down. In practice, it’s a bit more complicated. Wood takes longer than any other type of yard waste to break down, so if you put it in, just limit it to a few small branches. Most experts recommend not putting weeds in because weed seeds can survive very high temperatures that will destroy other plants. Potentially, weeds could grow out of the compost when you add it to your garden. Don’t add anything that has been treated with pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, especially if you are going to use the compost in a vegetable garden.
For food, you have to be quite picky. We limit the food we put in our compost to produce scraps with the occasional piece of stale bread thrown in. Some guidelines tell you not to put certain types of produce in (like citrus rinds) because they’re too acidic, but I think almost any produce is fine as long as it isn’t the majority of your waste. In contrast, never put meat, eggs, dairy products, or items cooked with fat, which may attract animals and flies. In addition, these don’t break down as quickly or as thoroughly as produce.
Never put anything non-biological in the compost, including metal or plastic. Those items can last hundreds of years before they break down! Although some companies make “compostable” plastic goods, most of these will only break down in an industrial compost facility. Always check the packaging before throwing them in.
Sorting out the compost provides a good exercise for kids to identify different types of materials. When you throw something away, ask them if it should go in the compost, recycling or garbage. It’s also an opportunity to talk about the problems with plastic and why we should limit how much of it we use.
To temporarily store your compost before bringing it to the bin, you can buy a fancy canister or like me, simply repurpose 32-oz yogurt containers. The Stonyfield Farms ones have excellent lids.
Maintaining the Compost
Once you have some compost, bring your kid, the compost, and some newspapers outside to dump it in the bin.
As you put the food in, throw in some shredded newspaper. To carry out decomposition, the bacteria and fungus both need access to oxygen as well as a balance of carbon and nitrogen. If the compost is too wet, they don’t have access to oxygen. If there’s too many food scraps (which are high in nitrogen) and not enough dry plant materials like leaves or newspapers (which have a lot of carbon), they produce sludge. (Everyone needs a balanced diet, even bacteria!)
I usually include a community newspaper for every 2-3 yogurt containers. Shredding the newspaper is important because it has to be evenly distributed throughout the bin. Only use newspaper or office paper – glossy magazines have too many dyes and won’t break down well. Kids love helping with this step, considering their fondness for shredding.
Over the course of a few weeks, the process of composting will begin to occur. You may feel some heat coming off of the composted materials, which is good. The bacteria are letting off heat as they work, just like people get hot when they exercise! Have your child hold their hand over the barrel to feel the heat. You may see some creepy crawlies inside, including worms, grubs, and beetles. That’s fine too! They’re part of the decomposition team.
But there are a few tell-tale signs that something has gone bad. If you see large, gnarly flies, your compost is probably too wet. If it smells terrible – really reeks – your carbon / nitrogen ratio is probably off. In both cases, add a lot more newspaper and leaves. If it’s really bad, hold off on putting more food scraps in for a while.
Turn your compost about once a week. This ensures that all of the materials get to the middle, which is where the best composting action is going on. Tumbling it much more often doesn’t give the microbes enough time to do their job. If it’s a simple yard waste pile, you can do this with a shovel. For a tumbling composter, you need to spin it. (Other types of composters come with specialized directions on how to rotate or turn them.) While older kids can be helpful here, it’s not a job I would involve little kids in. It can be very heavy and messy, with the watery goo from the barrel coating the outside of the composter. Knowing how often my kid puts his hands in his mouth (very), I try to keep him from touching the liquid as much as possible.
Using Your Compost
Estimates on how long it takes material to decompose vary depending on what you put in, your climate, and your style of composter. However, I usually wait six weeks between when I stop putting food in and when I use it in my garden. That gives enough time for the vast majority of food waste to break down. Waiting longer certainly won’t hurt though. In fact, the longer you wait, the more likely you are to end up with good quality compost.
Once it’s ready to go, I find it easiest to dump it into a wheelbarrow. As you do this with your child, talk about how different it looks than the food and yard waste you put in. This is a good time to talk about the role of microbes and insects breaking it down into an entirely new material.
From there, just shovel it into your garden! You can apply it directly to plants that need a boost or mix into into the soil for an even distribution. If you want more activities with your kids, My Kids’ Adventures has a bunch of creative ones relating to composting.
Good luck composting!
This is the first in a Green Kids series about how parents can carry out sustainability activities with their children. While not officially part of this series, A Toddler’s Guide to Starting Seeds talks about how I involve Sprout in the process of gardening.