Home composting

Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

Let the grubs break down your grub

When we throw away food, we waste money and create landfill gas. Why not make compost instead - you could even grow your own tasty fruit and veg in it.

Sending food to landfill is a loser all round. For one, it creates methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2 (and today's pungent landfills emit 40% of the UK's methane emissions). For another, a council lorry has to burn fossil fuels to come and fetch it.

With very little effort, you could soon be treating your garden to a nutritious diet of homemade compost, a climate-friendly alternative to store-bought, peat-based composts.

Read more below
Photo: Home composting

Saves 88kg of CO2 a year

1302 Bloomers are doing this

CO2 reduction 1 out of 5

Cheapness 4 out of 5

Popularity 5 out of 5

Cost 0

About these ratings

In this article:

How does it work?

Compost forms as a result of the natural breakdown of organic material by bacteria, fungi, insects and other animals in the soil. If your compost becomes starved of oxygen, then it starts to produce greenhouse gases - so it's important to get air into your compost heap, for example by turning it regularly.

Back to top

How will it make a difference?

Pub Fact

  • Every year in the UK, we landfill enough garden waste to fill the Royal Albert Hall 70 times over
  • At least six out of ten of us end up throwing food away because it has passed its 'use by' date, according to WRAP
  • Each household could save up to 400 a year by buying only as much food as it can eat
  • High food wasters are more likely to be younger working people (aged 16-34) and families with school-age children
  • 35% of UK households with gardens now home compost, according to WRAP
  • In 1994 a meal took us on average 30 minutes to prepare; in 2004 we took just 19 minutes

The first benefit of composting that you'll notice is a flourishing garden or windowbox. Compost improves the nutrient levels of your garden's soil. It also improves the soil's 'posture', reducing erosion and increasing the soil's water retaining capacity. And because homemade compost has so many uses in your garden (see Recycle Now), it will reduce your dependency on commercially-available products, which can be expensive and deplete valuable, carbon-storing peat bogs.

In terms of emissions, more composting means less landfill, and less landfill means less of the potent greenhouse gas methane. It's hard to quantify how much methane our scraps produce in landfill, but Chris Goodall, author of How to Live a Low Carbon Life, estimates that the average Brit's food scraps could annually give rise to twice as much greenhouse gas as the best green electricity tariff could save.

Yet, WRAP estimates that we could compost about half of the 6.7m tonnes of food we waste every year.

Of course, the surest way to reduce landfill-related methane is to waste less food and money in the first place:

  • Each year we Brits throw away about one third of all the food we buy and at least half of this is food that could have been eaten
  • Halting food waste would save as much CO2 as taking one in five cars off UK roads
  • Food is so energy intensive to make that it accounts for a fifth of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, producing, packaging, transporting and delivering food to our homes produces an amount of CO2 equivalent in weight to 71 billion hamburgers
  • For every three bags of food shopping we buy, one ends up in the bin according to WRAP
  • The average UK household throws away about 325 of edible food every year, and about 20,000 worth in a lifetime

Back to top

What's the debate?

Badly managed compost heaps may be doing as much harm as good, warn critics. If compost can't "breathe" the process becomes anaerobic and produces the very greenhouse gas (methane) that composting is supposed to be reducing.

Wormeries don't quite wriggle off the hook when it comes to emissions either, scientists say, because worms emit greenhouse gases during digestion. Worms produce nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 296 times more powerful than landfill methane. While the research focused on large-scale commercial worm beds, it may be that the process can occur to a lesser extent in domestic bins.

Back to top

What's stopping me?

"I don't have a garden"

Not a problem. You don't need to have a garden to make and use your own compost these days. Composting technology has caught up with modern, compact living: today's bins and wormeries are totally sealed and come in a range of sizes. Once the composting stage is over, you can add the mix to a windowbox or give it to a neighbour who does have a garden.

"It sounds gross. I just don't want to get my hands dirty"

Then let your local authority do it for you. Check whether they have a doorstep collection scheme for food waste. (See DirectGov.)

Back to top

How do I do it?

A good rule of thumb is that if it rots, it can compost.

  • Buy a sealable compost bin. Your local authority should sell them at a discount, or you can buy them from a DIY centre. (Check Recycle Now for discount bin offers in your area)
  • Choose a level site that drains well - preferably on a soil base
  • Add a mix of 'greens' - moist, nitrogen-rich materials like vegetable peelings and other raw food scraps, grass cuttings, nettles and so on - and smaller quantities of 'browns' - drier, carbon-rich material, like woody stems, straw, cardboard and fallen leaves. Read more about it on Waste Online's Compost Recycling Information Sheet
  • If the mix is too wet (you'll know by the pong) add some 'browns'. If the mix is too dry (you'll know by the ant, bee or wasp infestation) then don't skimp on the 'greens' - you can even add water to the mix
  • Unless you plump for a Bokashi system, you can't compost meat and other cooked foods (see table, below)
  • To speed things up, chop big pieces of waste into smaller, more degradable chunks, or mix in finished compost and soil. If you're a real free-spirit, urine can also help, as one leading Conservative politician attests , reported in the Guardian
  • Make sure your heap can 'breathe' (so that it doesn't produce methane). Adding scrunched up bits of cardboard is a simple way to create air pockets and you should try to dig it over regularly
  • Alternatively, if you have room, build a timber frame for your compost heap and cover it with old carpet or plastic sheeting to retain the moisture and heat - a bigger, more open heap can be easier to turn
  • Dig the compost out of confinement after six to nine months, when it has formed a rich, almost black, soil-like layer
  • Still unsure? See the BBC's How to Make Compost website - where you can play a game on how to make your own compost heap

For an adventurous alternative to the compost bin, you could try:

  • Wormeries, which speed up the composting process
  • Japanese Bokashi systems, which can use meat and other cooked foods - claim to reduce the smells

And for the particularly motivated, there are composting toilets and even a 'composting funeral'. (Read Ethical Man's blog on this cheery topic.)

Do compostDon't compost
Fruit and vegCat or dog excrement - contain dangerous organisms that won't be killed by the decomposition process
Tea bags and coffee groundsMeat - attracts vermin and flies - unless you're using a Bokashi system
Crushed egg shellsDairy produce - attracts vermin and flies
Grass cuttings, leavesFish - attracts vermin and flies
Shredded paper and soft cardboardDisposable nappies - attract vermin and flies
Human and animal hair Shiny card - because of the chemicals used in the printing process
Vacuum dust (only from woollen carpets)Hard objects like fruit stones

Back to top

or

If you like this action send it to a friend

Share this

Back to top

Comments

Anonymous 2009-06-24

Very easy to do and keep up with and has meant our bins emptied by the council are now only just half full!

Annie, Midlands 2009-03-21

I have set up a compost bin on my decking. (I inherited a garden completley decked when I bought the house!)
I made a square out of recycled planks and put down some old pond liner.

Anonymous 2009-02-24

Your website is correct, composting has been 'modernized'. But its not just through plastic bins in your garden and saving a few tea bags from going to landfill either.

Invessel composting is being pushed forward as the number one solution by many schools, community sites, business, large apartment blocks, and many more.

Only a few companies offer this kind of solution and the results have been very impressive. Some composting food waste (including meat) in just 14 days.

Anonymous 2009-02-18

Your website is correct, composting has been 'modernized'. But its not just through plastic bins in your garden and saving a few tea bags from going to landfill either.

Invessel composting is being pushed forward as the number one solution by many schools, community sites, business, large apartment blocks, and many more.

Only a few companies offer this kind of solution and the results have been very impressive. Some composting food waste (including meat) in just 14 days.

Baz, Shrewsbury 2009-02-11

I started my first compost bin in a big blue pastic barrel, I cut off the bottom, fitted an old hinge to it so it could be opened easily and turned the bin upside down. Its amazing how quickly it fills with the rubbish form food prep like veggie peelings and teabags.
I have a small watsebin (2Lts) at the side of the sink with some newspapaer in the bottom. This is used to collect the waste scraps and is emptied into the compost bin along with the newspaper. I have taken no compost out yet, these thngs take time.

24 volt, Black Country 2009-01-30

I have 2 large compost bins that I bought from the council very cheap and I also use a kitchen composter that uses buckashi and will take all the kitchen scraps including meat and dairy it's brilliant and good for the garden soil too.

Hungerford89, Flintshire 2009-01-21

There's loads of advice out there about what do do/ how to set up. The book I'd recommend - especially if you fancy building your own compost bin - is 'Compost' by Clare Foster. Bag a cheap copy from www.thebookdepository.co.uk - cheaper than Amazon.

A different simon, derbyshire 2009-01-16

I've had two plastic bins for a couple of years. Dead easy to fill and we have a plastic caddy that we empty every couple of days - even our toddler knows to put bits of fruit in. Plus it saves going inside for a wee on those (rare) summer evenings when you sit outside drinking wine till late! Just wait till it goes dark though.

simon, manchester 2008-06-10

I set a compost bin up March 07 and have been using it ever since - just keep a plastic box in the kitchen for all the teabags and veggie peelings and empty once a day! Now the the compost at the bottom of the bin is ready to use (June 08) - lovely black crumbly goodstuff - and it's cut down on how much rubbish goes to the bin as well - simple action to do

Flower representing the 'Home composting' action

People using this site

20% of Bloomers are doing this action

9% of men in their 20s are doing this action.

Top 3 popular actions that males aged 20-29 are doing

More about actions by people of this age and gender.

Latest actions on Bloom

Latest related BBC News stories

RSS icon | News feeds | View all stories

Latest related BBC audio and video clips

View all clips

Related links

Elsewhere on bbc.co.uk

Elsewhere on the web

Related links open in a new window. The BBC is not responsible for content on external sites.

Browse all actions

Glossary terms used on this page
Biodegradable
Organic matter that can break down or decompose rapidly under natural conditions and processes is referred to as biodegradable. Garden and food waste, animal waste, and most paper products, as well as plastics derived from vegetable content, will biodegrade, but not plastic carrier bags and polystyrene cups, for example.
CO2
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Carbon
Carbon is the fourth most common chemical element in the universe, and carbon compounds - in other words, carbon chemically combined with other elements - are the basis of all known life forms on earth. Pure carbon appears in many apparently diverse forms, from diamond to graphite to charcoal, but it is much more commonly found in substances such as coal, oil, natural gas, wood and peat that we use for fuel. When we burn these substances to provide energy - either directly in our homes as heat, or in power stations to produce electricity - the combustion process produces 'oxides' of carbon, including the gas CO2.
Eco-friendly
Eco-friendly, or environmentally friendly, is a term applied to goods, services, processes or people deemed to do minimal harm to the environment. The term is shorthand for 'ecologically friendly', ecology being the study of the relationships between living organisms and their environment.
Emissions
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Energy intensive
An energy-intensive process uses a great deal of energy - and therefore produces high emissions - relative to its useful output. As an example, beef production, has recently been cited as an especially energy-intensive industry, while tumble dryers are energy-intensive appliances. Products that are manufactured in an energy-intensive way are also said to be 'emissions heavy'.
Fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are the deposits of crude oil, natural gas and coal formed by the decay, over millions of years, of organic material (plants, trees animals and bacteria). Because the combustion of fossil fuels releases carbon that has been out of the natural carbon cycle for so long (unlike with living or more recently dead organic matter, known as biomass) it affects the balance between stored carbon and carbon present in the atmosphere as CO2, a greenhouse gas.
Greenhouse gases
Greenhouse gases raise the earth's temperature through the greenhouse effect. There are six main examples. As well as carbon dioxide, they include: water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and CFCs (which include sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs). Of these, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs are controlled under the Kyoto Protocol to limit their concentration in the atmosphere. The heat warming capacity of each gas is measured by its 'global warming potential': how much heat it traps depends on its chemical make-up and how long it stays in the atmosphere.
Landfill
Landfill is disposal of rubbish by burying it under the ground.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Nitrogen oxides
Nitrogen oxides are compounds of nitrogen and oxygen, two elements that do not normally react with each other but will do so during high temperature combustion – such as in a car engine. Examples include nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which contribute to air pollution, and nitrous oxide (N2O), which is a major greenhouse gas. Although its warming effect is far less than CO2, it persists in the atmosphere for far longer, so measured over 100 years its impact is 298 times greater.

bbc.co.uk navigation

BBC © MMXI

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.