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Community-level composting in a rural area in Germany
Community-level composting in a rural area in Germany

Compost is a mixture of ingredients used to fertilize and improve soil. It is commonly prepared by decomposing plant and food waste and recycling organic materials. The resulting mixture is rich in plant nutrients and beneficial organisms, such as worms and fungal mycelium.

Compost improves soil fertility in gardens, landscaping, horticulture, urban agriculture, and organic farming. The benefits of compost include providing nutrients to crops as fertilizer, acting as a soil conditioner, increasing the humus or humic acid contents of the soil, and introducing beneficial colonies of microbes that help to suppress pathogens in the soil. The natural interaction of soil, plant roots, and nutrients in compost improve the soil structure, which increases the soil's water retention ability and controls soil erosion. Compost can be used for land and stream reclamation, wetland construction, and landfill cover.

At the simplest level, composting requires gathering a mix of 'Greens' and 'Browns'. Greens are materials that are rich in nitrogen such as leaves, grass, and food scraps. Browns are more woody materials that are rich in carbon, such as stalks, paper, and wood chips. Materials are wetted to break them down into humus, a process that occurs for months. Most organic standards demand at least 60 days for the composting process. However, composting can also take place as a multi-step, closely monitored process with measured inputs of water, air, and carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials. The decomposition process is aided by shredding the plant matter, adding water, and ensuring proper aeration by regularly turning the mixture in a process that uses open piles or "windrows." Fungi, earthworms, and other detritivores further break up the organic material. Aerobic bacteria and fungi manage the chemical process by converting the inputs into heat, carbon dioxide, and ammonium.


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Home compost barrel
Home compost barrel
Materials in a compost pile
Materials in a compost pile
Food scraps compost heap
Food scraps compost heap

Composting is an aerobic method (meaning that it requires the presence of air) of decomposing organic solid wastes.[1] It can therefore be used to recycle organic material. The process involves decomposition of organic material into a humus-like material, known as compost, which is a good fertilizer for plants.

Composting organisms require four equally important ingredients to work effectively:

Certain ratios of these materials will allow microorganisms to work at a rate that will heat up the compost pile. Active management of the pile (e.g., turning) is needed to maintain sufficient supply of oxygen and the right moisture level. The air/water balance is critical to maintaining high temperatures 130–160 °F (54–71 °C) until the materials are broken down.[4]

The most efficient composting occurs with an optimal carbon:nitrogen ratio of about 25:1.[5] Hot container composting focuses on retaining heat in order to increase the decomposition rate thus producing compost more quickly. Rapid composting is favored by having a C/N ratio of ~30 or less. Above 30 the substrate is nitrogen starved. Below 15 it is likely to outgas a portion of nitrogen as ammonia.[6]

Nearly all dead plant and animal materials have both carbon and nitrogen, but amounts vary widely, with characteristics noted above (dry/wet, brown/green).[7] Fresh grass clippings have an average ratio of about 15:1 and dry autumn leaves about 50:1 depending upon species. Mixing equal parts by volume approximates the ideal C:N range. Few individual situations will provide the ideal mix of materials at any point. Observation of amounts, and consideration of different materials as the compost pile is built up over time, can quickly achieve a workable technique for the individual situation.


With the proper mixture of water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, microorganisms are able to break down organic matter to produce compost. The composting process is dependent on microorganisms to break down organic matter into compost. There are many types of microorganisms found in active compost of which the most common are:

In addition, earthworms not only ingest partly composted material, excreting worm castings, which is separate from but can happen in compost, but also continually re-create aeration and drainage tunnels as they move through the compost.

Phases of composting

Three year old household compost
Three year old household compost

Under ideal conditions, composting proceeds through three major phases:[11]

Hot and cold composting - impact on timing

The time required to compost material relates to the volume of material, the size of the inputs (eg. wood chips break down faster than branches) and the amount of mixing or aeration - usually by turning the pile. Generally, larger piles will reach higher temperatures and remain in a thermophilic stage for days or weeks. This is referred to as hot composting and is the normal method for large-scale (eg. municipal) composting facilities and many agricultural operations.

A process often referred to as the 'Berkeley method' produces finished compost in eighteen days, but it requires the assembly of a least a cubic meter of material at the outset, and requires turning every two days after a four-day initial phase.[12] Many such short processes involve a few changes to traditional methods, including smaller, more homogenized pieces in the compost, controlling carbon to nitrogen ratio (C:N) at 30 to 1 or less, and monitoring the moisture level more carefully.

Cold composting is a slower process that can take up to a year to complete.[13] It results from smaller piles, including many residential compost piles that receive small amounts of kitchen and garden waster over extended periods. Piles smaller than approximately a cubic meter have trouble reaching and maintaining high temperature.[14] Turning is not necessary with cold composting, however, there is a risk that parts of the pile may go anaerobic as they get compacted or water-logged.

Pathogen removal

Composting can destroy some pathogens or unwanted seeds, those that are destroyed by temperatures above 50 °C (122 °F).[15] Dealing with stabilized compost - i.e. composting material that has gone through the phases where micro-organisms are digesting the organic matter and the temperature inside the composting pile has reached temperature up to 50-70 °C - poses very little risk as these temperatures kill pathogens and even make oocysts unviable. People turning the compost should wear gloves and a breathing mask as that material contains pathogens that can make humans sick.[16] The temperature at which a pathogen dies depends on the pathogen, how long the temperature is maintained (it can take seconds to weeks), and even pH.[17]

Compost products like compost tea and compost extracts have been found to have an inhibitory effect on Fusarium oxysporum, Rhizoctonia sp., and Pythium debaryanum, plant pathogens that can cause crop diseases.[18] Since the inhibitory effects of compost products are a result of their microbial population and its diversity and stability, aerated compost teas are more effective than compost extracts.[18] The microbiota, or the community of microbes, and enzymes present in compost extracts also have a suppressive effect on fungal plant pathogens.[19] Compost is a good source of biocontrol agents like B. subtilis, B. licheniformis, and P. chrysogenum that fight plant pathogens.[18] However, sterilizing compost, compost tea, or compost extracts have a reduced effect on pathogen suppression.[18]

Diseases that can be contracted from handling compost

People turning the compost when it has not gone through its phases where temperatures of +50 °C are reached, must wear a mouth mask and gloves to protect themselves from diseases that can be contracted from handling compost, s.a.[20]

Oocytes are made unviable thanks to the phase where the temperature reaches temperatures of +50 °C.[16]

Materials that can be Composted

Potential sources of compostable materials, or feedstocks, include residential, agricultural and commercial waste streams. There is not a linear relationship between the source of a given feedstock and the method that it is composted. For example, residential food or yard waste can be composted at home, or collected for inclusion in a large-scale municipal composting facility. In some regions, it could also be included in a local or neighborhood composting project.[21]

Organic solid waste

Main article: Biodegradable waste

A large compost pile that is steaming with the heat generated by thermophilic microorganisms.
A large compost pile that is steaming with the heat generated by thermophilic microorganisms.

There are two broad categories of organic solid waste: green waste and brown waste. Green waste is generally considered a source of nitrogen and includes pre- and post-consumer food waste, grass clippings, garden trimmings and fresh leaves. Animal carcasses, roadkill and butcher residue can also be composted and these are considered nitrogen sources.[22] Brown waste is a carbon source; typical examples are dried vegetation and woody material such as fallen leaves, straw, woodchips, limbs, logs, pine needles, sawdust and wood ash (not charcoal ash).[23] Products derived from wood such as paper and plain cardboard are also considered carbon sources.

Food waste can be an important feedstock depending on the region. For example, residential food waste is collected as a separate waste stream in some municipalities, and will then be included in large municipal recycling facilities. In other areas, food waste may be part of the regular waste stream and the only option for composting will be backyard or community programs.[24]

Animal manure and bedding

On many farms, the basic composting ingredients are animal manure generated on the farm as a nitrogen source, and bedding as the carbon source. Straw and sawdust are common bedding materials. Non-traditional bedding materials are also used, including newspaper and chopped cardboard. The amount of manure composted on a livestock farm is often determined by cleaning schedules, land availability, and weather conditions. Each type of manure has its own physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. Cattle and horse manures, when mixed with bedding, possess good qualities for composting. Swine manure, which is very wet and usually not mixed with bedding material, must be mixed with straw or similar raw materials. Poultry manure also must be blended with carbonaceous materials - those low in nitrogen preferred, such as sawdust or straw.[25]

Human excreta

Further information: Reuse of excreta

Human excreta can be added as an input to the composting process since it is a nitrogen-rich organic material. It can be either composted directly in composting toilets, or indirectly in the form of sewage sludge after it has undergone treatment in a sewage treatment plant. Both processes require capable design as there are potential health risks that need to be managed. In the case of home composting, a wide range of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses and parasitic worms can be present in feces, and improper processing can pose significant health risks.[26] In the case of large sewage treatment facilities that collect wastewater from a range of residential, commercial and industrial sources, there are additional considerations. The composted sewage sludge, referred to as biosolids, can be contaminated with a variety of metals and pharmaceutical compounds.[27][28] Insufficient processing of biosolids can also lead to problems when the material is applied to land.[29]

Urine can be put on compost piles or directly used as fertilizer.[30] Adding urine to compost can increase temperatures and therefore increase its ability to destroy pathogens and unwanted seeds. Unlike feces, urine does not attract disease-spreading flies (such as houseflies or blowflies), and it does not contain the most hardy of pathogens, such as parasitic worm eggs.[citation needed]


Main article: Uses of compost

Compost can be used as an additive to soil, or other matrices such as coir and peat, as a tilth improver, supplying humus and nutrients. It provides a rich growing medium as absorbent material (porous). This material contains moisture and soluble minerals, which provides support and nutrients. Although it is rarely used alone, plants can flourish from mixed soil, sand, grit, bark chips, vermiculite, perlite, or clay granules to produce loam. Compost can be tilled directly into the soil or growing medium to boost the level of organic matter and the overall fertility of the soil. Compost that is ready to be used as an additive is dark brown or even black with an earthy smell.[31]

Generally, direct seeding into a compost is not recommended due to the speed with which it may dry and the possible presence of phytotoxins in immature compost that may inhibit germination,[32][33][34] and the possible tie up of nitrogen by incompletely decomposed lignin.[35] It is very common to see blends of 20–30% compost used for transplanting seedlings at cotyledon stage or later.

Compost can be used to increase plant immunity to diseases and pests.[36]

Compost tea

Compost tea is made up of extracts of fermented water leached from composted materials.[37] Composts can be either aerated or non-aerated depending on its fermentation process.[38] Compost teas are generally produced from adding one volume of compost with four to ten volumes of water, and occasional stirring to release microbes.[38] There has been debate about the benefits of aerating the mixture.[37] Non-aerated compost tea is cheaper and less labor intensive, but it has been associated with phytotoxicity and human pathogen regrowth, though further studies have refuted those findings.[38] Aerated compost tea brews faster and generates more microbes, but has potential for human pathogen regrowth.[38] Field studies have shown the benefits of adding compost teas to crops due to the adding of organic matter, increased nutrient availability and increased microbial activity.[37] They have also been shown to have a suppressive effect on plant pathogens.[39] Compost tea is also found useful in suppressing soil-borne diseases, but its efficacy is influenced by a number of factors, such as the preparation process and the environmental conditions where the compost tea is brewed and used.[38] The disease-suppressing qualities of compost tea depend on how long it is fermented, which differs according to the different types of source compost and the method of fermenting used.[38] Adding nutrients to compost tea can be beneficial for disease suppression, although it can trigger the regrowth of human pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella.[38]

Compost Extract

Compost extracts are unfermented or non-brewed extracts of leached compost contents dissolved in any solvent, including water.[38] Compost extracts are easily made and can even be brought forth with no mechanical intervention. Bubbling can be used to separate the microbes from the compost or a simple massaging technique.[citation needed]

Heat source

The temperatures generated by compost can be used to heat greenhouses, such as by being placed around the outside edges.[40]

Commercial sale

The term "compost" can also refer to potting mixes which are bagged up and sold commercially in garden centers and other outlets.[41] This may include composted materials such as manure and peat, but is also likely to contain loam, fertilizers, sand, grit, etc. Varieties include multi-purpose composts designed for most aspects of planting, John Innes formulations,[41] growbags, designed to have crops such as tomatoes directly planted into them. There are also a range of specialist composts available, e.g. for vegetables, orchids, houseplants, hanging baskets, roses, ericaceous plants, seedlings, potting on etc.[citation needed]


Further information: Uses of compost § Regulation and voluntary standards

There are process and product guidelines in Europe that date to the early 1980s (Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland) and only more recently in the UK and the US. In both these countries, private trade associations within the industry have established loose standards, some say as a stop-gap measure to discourage independent government agencies from establishing tougher consumer-friendly standards.[42] Compost is regulated in Canada[43] and Australia[44] as well.

Many countries such as Wales[45][46] and some individual cities such as Seattle and San Francisco require food and yard waste to be sorted for composting (San Francisco Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance).[47][48]

The USA is the only Western country that does not distinguish sludge-source compost from green-composts, and by default 50% of US states expect composts to comply in some manner with the federal EPA 503 rule promulgated in 1984 for sludge products.[49]

Composting technologies

Backyard composter
Backyard composter


In-vessel composting

In-vessel composting generally describes a group of methods that confine the composting materials within a building, container, or vessel.[50] In-vessel composting systems can consist of metal or plastic tanks or concrete bunkers in which air flow and temperature can be controlled, using the principles of a "bioreactor". Generally the air circulation is metered in via buried tubes that allow fresh air to be injected under pressure, with the exhaust being extracted through a biofilter, with temperature and moisture conditions monitored using probes in the mass to allow maintenance of optimum aerobic decomposition conditions.

This technique is generally used for municipal scale organic waste processing, including final treatment of sewage biosolids, to a safe stable state for reclamation as a soil amendment. In-vessel composting can also refer to aerated static pile composting with the addition of removable covers that enclose the piles, as with the system in extensive use by farmer groups in Thailand, supported by the National Science and Technology Development Agency there.[51]

Offensive odors are caused by putrefaction (anaerobic decomposition) of nitrogenous animal and vegetable matter gassing off as ammonia. This is controlled with a higher carbon to nitrogen ratio, or increased aeration by ventilation, and use of a coarser grade of carbon material to allow better air circulation. Prevention and capture of any gases naturally occurring (volatile organic compounds) during the hot aerobic composting involved is the objective of the biofilter, and as the filtering material saturates over time, it can be used in the composting process and replaced with fresh material.

Aerated static pile composting

Channeled concrete floor of a composting pad for perforated piping that delivers oxygen to the composting mass
Channeled concrete floor of a composting pad for perforated piping that delivers oxygen to the composting mass

Aerated Static Pile (ASP) composting, refers to any of a number of systems used to biodegrade organic material without physical manipulation during primary composting. The blended admixture is usually placed on perforated piping, providing air circulation for controlled aeration . It may be in windrows, open or covered, or in closed containers. With regard to complexity and cost, aerated systems are most commonly used by larger, professionally managed composting facilities, although the technique may range from very small, simple systems to very large, capital intensive, industrial installations.[52]

Aerated static piles offer process control for rapid biodegradation, and work well for facilities processing wet materials and large volumes of feedstocks. ASP facilities can be under roof or outdoor windrow composting operations, or totally enclosed in-vessel composting, sometimes referred to tunnel composting.

Windrow composting

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Windrow turner used on maturing piles at a biosolids composting facility in Canada.
Windrow turner used on maturing piles at a biosolids composting facility in Canada.
Maturing windrows at an in-vessel composting facility.
Maturing windrows at an in-vessel composting facility.

In agriculture, windrow composting is the production of compost by piling organic matter or biodegradable waste, such as animal manure and crop residues, in long rows (windrows). This method is suited to producing large volumes of compost. These rows are generally turned to improve porosity and oxygen content, mix in or remove moisture, and redistribute cooler and hotter portions of the pile. Windrow composting is a commonly used farm scale composting method. Composting process control parameters include the initial ratios of carbon and nitrogen rich materials, the amount of bulking agent added to assure air porosity, the pile size, moisture content, and turning frequency.

The temperature of the windrows must be measured and logged constantly to determine the optimum time to turn them for quicker compost production.


Large-scale composting systems are used by many urban areas around the world.

Other systems at household level

Hügelkultur (raised garden beds or mounds)

An almost completed Hügelkultur bed; the bed does not have soil on it yet.
An almost completed Hügelkultur bed; the bed does not have soil on it yet.

Main article: Hügelkultur

The practice of making raised garden beds or mounds filled with rotting wood is also called hügelkultur in German.[54][55] It is in effect creating a nurse log that is covered with soil.

Benefits of hügelkultur garden beds include water retention and warming of soil.[54][56] Buried wood acts like a sponge as it decomposes, able to capture water and store it for later use by crops planted on top of the hügelkultur bed.[54][57]

Composting toilets

Composting toilet at Activism Festival 2010 in the mountains outside Jerusalem
Composting toilet at Activism Festival 2010 in the mountains outside Jerusalem

A composting toilet is a type of dry toilet that treats human waste by a biological process called composting. This process leads to the decomposition of organic matter and turns human waste into compost-like material. Composting is carried out by microorganisms (mainly bacteria and fungi) under controlled aerobic conditions.[58] Most composting toilets use no water for flushing and are therefore called "dry toilets".

In many composting toilet designs, a carbon additive such as sawdust, coconut coir, or peat moss is added after each use. This practice creates air pockets in the human waste to promote aerobic decomposition. This also improves the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and reduces potential odor. Most composting toilet systems rely on mesophilic composting. Longer retention time in the composting chamber also facilitates pathogen die-off. The end product can also be moved to a secondary system – usually another composting step – to allow more time for mesophilic composting to further reduce pathogens.

Composting toilets, together with the secondary composting step, produce a humus-like end product that can be used to enrich soil if local regulations allow this. Some composting toilets have urine diversion systems in the toilet bowl to collect the urine separately and control excess moisture. A vermifilter toilet is a composting toilet with flushing water where earthworms are used to promote decomposition to compost.

Related technologies

There are other processes used to break down organic matter that do not rely on aerobic decomposition:


Compost Basket
Compost Basket

Composting as a recognized practice dates to at least the early Roman Empire, and was mentioned as early as Cato the Elder's 160 BCE piece De Agri Cultura.[64] Traditionally, composting involved piling organic materials until the next planting season, at which time the materials would have decayed enough to be ready for use in the soil. The advantage of this method is that little working time or effort is required from the composter and it fits in naturally with agricultural practices in temperate climates. Disadvantages (from the modern perspective) are that space is used for a whole year, some nutrients might be leached due to exposure to rainfall, and disease-producing organisms and insects may not be adequately controlled.[citation needed]

Composting was somewhat modernized beginning in the 1920s in Europe as a tool for organic farming.[65] The first industrial station for the transformation of urban organic materials into compost was set up in Wels, Austria in the year 1921.[66] Early frequent citations for propounding composting within farming are for the German-speaking world Rudolf Steiner, founder of a farming method called biodynamics, and Annie Francé-Harrar, who was appointed on behalf of the government in Mexico and supported the country 1950–1958 to set up a large humus organization in the fight against erosion and soil degradation.[67]

In the English-speaking world it was Sir Albert Howard who worked extensively in India on sustainable practices and Lady Eve Balfour who was a huge proponent of composting. Composting was imported to America by various followers of these early European movements by the likes of J.I. Rodale (founder of Rodale Organic Gardening), E.E. Pfeiffer (who developed scientific practices in biodynamic farming), Paul Keene (founder of Walnut Acres in Pennsylvania), and Scott and Helen Nearing (who inspired the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s). Coincidentally, some of the above met briefly in India – all were quite influential in the U.S. from the 1960s into the 1980s.[citation needed]

See also


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