The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
View E-Paper

The Benefits of composting at home

Malta Independent Saturday, 29 April 2006, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

We continue our series of articles on how you can contribute to a better environment with these tips from WasteServ

You will have heard of the three Rs by now – reduce, re-use, recycle. Applying these three Rs can effectively cut down on the waste disposed of at landfills, which fill up so quickly because we possibly unnecessarily discard so much waste that can be put to further use.

Householders can do their own recycling, to an extent – and save money in the process – by composting waste in their home. It is calculated that 45 per cent of the contents of the average bag of rubbish can be composted.

Composting is one of the easiest, most effective and environmentally-friendly ways of recycling organic rubbish – the kind created in the kitchen and garden. Plant lovers should know that home composting produces a rich, nutritious soil conditioner that gives plants ideal growing conditions. It also improves the structure and texture of soil, with the added bonus that it is free.

WasteServ sells compost bins at the subsidised price of Lm19 (VAT included). They can be bought at WasteServ’s offices, Phoenix Building, Old Railway Track, Santa Venera.

It is helpful for householders to know that composting is a natural process which converts organic rubbish by means of bacteria and micro-organisms, supported by larvae, wood lice, beetles and worms. They all have a part in the natural breaking down process, together with moisture and oxygen.

There are many benefits from home composting. These include improving garden soil and the environment, saving money, helping retain soil moisture, reducing the waste sent to landfills and reducing reliance on toxic chemicals and pesticides.

So, having bought a compost bin, what can you compost?

Apart from garden waste, such as lawn cuttings and leaves in small quantities, a lot can come from the kitchen: fruit scraps and vegetable peelings, tea bags, coffee grounds and crushed egg shells, for instance. Sawdust and soaked hay and straw can be added, and to help the composting process the droppings of vegetarian pets (hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits) can also be included.

It would be preferable not to add meat and fish scraps, as these may attract vermin, or dog and cat pooh, for fear of disease. Likewise, nappies, used tissues, dairy products and cooked or baked food are not good for the pile either. Paper and cards may be thrown in, but they must be torn up and not in very large amounts.

Compost takes some months to mature. To help the process, place the compost bin in the sun, to raise the temperature inside. Ensure a good circulation of air in the bin by layering twigs, cut flowers or the remains of houseplants at the bottom of the unit.

Some householders sometimes report problems in the process. If there is an unpleasant smell, it is because no air is getting through the bin. The solution is to aerate the compost by turning it with a fork. If the compost is wet and smelly, it means that too much green material, such as grass, has been used. Put in less green material. If you have lots of it to use, let it dry out first, or mix it with brown materials, such as straw or sawdust.

If the compost material is not breaking down, it may be that the compost bin needs a better place, so move it to a sunny position, preferably on bare soil for drainage. If the compost heap dries out, as it may in summer, add water until it is moist. To avoid flies you can cover the pile with paper or a layer of soil or sand.

Compost is ready to use when the materials placed in the bin have broken down to produce a dark brown, crumbly mixture. Dig that mixture into planting areas to improve the health of the soil. Compost helps to loosen heavy clay soils by improving aeration and drainage, working compost into sandy soils will enable more water to be retained.

Coarse compost may be used as mulch. Putting three to five centimetres on top of the soil around plants, rather than digging it into the soil, will help retain moisture and also suppress weeds, reducing the need for chemical herbicides. Mulching also increases the populations of soil organisms such as earthworms, which will help to break down the compost and work it into the soil.

Get the right mix

You need to get the right mix of greens and browns – too much green can lead to overheating, compaction and loss of oxygen, while too much brown can really slow down the composting process. An ideal mix is one to two parts green and one part brown (or five centimetres of brown for each 10 centimetres of green), in alternating layers.

Chop or blend

If you want to speed up the composting process, you should ensure that material going into the compost is chopped up.

Keep it moist

You need to keep your compost moist. It should be like a damp sponge – too much water may result in a smelly, slimy mess, while not enough water will impede the breaking down process.

If your greens are not very soggy, it is a good idea to moisten the browns as you add them.

If you are not using a purchased compost bin with a lid, you should cover your compost with carpet, sacking, corrugated iron or polythene. This keeps in the heat generated by the breaking down process and helps to prevent rain getting in or moisture evaporating away.

Turn, turn, turn

You should try and turn your compost regularly, if you can, as this ensures that there is an adequate supply of oxygen to aid the breaking down process. If you can’t turn the compost, you can:

put a pipe with holes in it through the middle of the compost to let air in, and

add twigs and branches as you build your pile.

Look after yourself when working with


Compost and soil contain various living organisms that have, on rare occasions, been associated with illness and allergies in humans (usually people with compromised immune systems or respiratory

illness). For this reason, it is important to take the following precautions when working with compost:

• wash your hands after handling soil or compost

• protect broken skin by wearing gloves

• avoid confined spaces for handling soil or


• keep compost moist to prevent spores and dust problems.

Tips about what can and can’t be composted:

• Shredded paper can be composted.

• Paper cannot be recycled if it is contaminated with food, but it can be composted. Next time you have pizza, don’t dump the box in the rubbish bin – soak it, break it into pieces and add it to your compost bin instead.

• Packed lunches can be wrapped in paper instead of cling wrap. The used paper can go in the compost.

• Vacuum cleaner bags can be emptied onto the compost heap.

• Compostable cat litter takes longer to break down than regular compost. Put the cat litter into a separate compost bin and add an equal amount of soil every time you add more.

• If the prunings from plants and shrubs are small enough, they can be run over with the lawn mower and put on the compost heap.

• Don’t compost pumpkin seeds. They often don’t work very well in the compost – being too hard for worms and they sprout – but they can be cleaned off and saved for salads and lunches.

General composting tips:

• Buy two bins for the kitchen: one for rubbish, the other for compost. This will remove the need to separate compostable waste from non-compostable waste later on.

• A compost bucket can get messy and smelly. An easy way to keep a bucket clean is to put water in it before adding scraps. (The water can be emptied on to pot plants.)

• If you have too much material for your compost bin, stick it in a thin, black plastic household rubbish bag, loosely twist off the opening, and store it at the side of the compost bin. A few weeks later, the volume of material in the bag will have reduced and you should find worms have made their way in to the bag and started breaking the waste down. The waste can be added to the compost bin when there is room.

• You can compost directly into the garden itself. The vegetables will love you for it, and the compost will attract the worms to that area and the soil benefits directly.

• If your compost bin starts to smell unpleasant, give it a turn – odour can be a sign of a lack of aeration.

• Contribute your organic matter to a neighbour’s compost if you don’t have a compost heap, or invest in a worm farm.

  • don't miss