We’re all being encouraged to recycle and take more responsibility when managing our waste. Some things are easier to manage than others but some people find themselves asking the question: can all food waste be composted?
All food waste can be composted. The thing to remember about food is that anything that’s food to us, will be food to something else. You only need to see what happens when something goes beyond its ‘Best before’ date. It will, without fail, show signs of deteriorating. It usually starts by displaying a colourful collection of mould patches.
The mould is a fungus and this is the first stage of many that will, ultimately, finish with compost. By the time food waste reaches the point of being finished compost, the food items in the waste will be unrecognizable and untraceable. That’s the power of composting.
Do I need to prepare food waste before composting?
No, you don’t need to prepare any food waste to become compost, it will all, eventually, break down. The only things that you may find helpful to yourself and the process generally, is to remove any plastic wrappers that may be involved. Plastic in compost won’t affect the process but you won’t want to be bothered with having to pick it out later down the road when you start using the compost that you have generated.
Another consideration is that small pieces break down much more quickly than anything large. So, be ready to take a moment with a sharp knife to cut up large items, e.g. vegetable stalks. Chopping large items will also take up less room in the kitchen caddy as well as the main composting vessel.
Does all food waste include cooked food?
Cooked food will break down into compost faster than most things. When food is cooked, it’s already, partly, broken down so that we can digest it. This makes it fully digestible to the array of mould-fungi and microorganisms that are always ready to take it to the next stage.
Does all food waste include cooked meat?
There’s often much concern about putting cooked meats in with the compost. There is a fear that it may start another plague or that the entire population of rats in your area will descend upon you to take advantage of the odd scraps of meat that may be scraped from your plates.
With the price of most meats being where they are, it’s unlikely that you, or anyone else, will be throwing away large volumes of meat. The percentages of meat waste in the compost mass, as a whole, will be very low.
There may be the absolute exception where someone thinks that it’s a good idea to attempt to dispose of a whole joint of meat or a leg of lamb by putting it in with the rest of the compost. If anyone ever feels the need to do this, then, you have to say that there are other issues that need attention.
The small quantities that the rest of us are regularly presented with can go in with the rest of the compost and there is a readily-available ingredient, that you can add, that will reduce any potential disease risk to zero.
Hydrated white lime will assist enormously with any composting regime. This is available as a fine, white powder. It’s very safe to use; it originates from naturally formed rock. You don’t need to bother with gloves because it’s rock dust. It will react with the acidity that forms in compost as materials go through the stages of rotting down.
If a compost mass is allowed to remain in an acidic state, it won’t rot down as quickly as when the acidity has been reduced or, even better, removed completely. An acidic compost pile will preserve rather than break down. This isn’t what we want when we have something in the mass which we would like to get rid of as quickly as possible e.g. cooked meats.
So, adding a dusting of hydrated white lime to your compost when you add food waste of any kind, particularly meat waste, will accelerate the process of dissolving and dispersing those things that may give cause for potential concern.
We have a post that explores the subject of hydrated white lime. You can see it at : ‘What does lime do to compost?’
Which is best for food waste, a compost bin or compost tumbler?
Either of these will work well for you. Either will be better than doing nothing at all. Using a compost bin may take longer for than a tumbler because the material will gradually build up in layers and just sit there. The rotting process will happen but you will probably have to wait for fully formed compost to form as this may take more than a year.
It is possible to intervene with stirring devices that can open up the mass to allow air to get into the mix. If you’re an enthusiast, stirring will make a difference but most people who go for the static bin option usually have more than one bin. This way, when a bin is full, you can close off the full bin and start filling another or a number of bins. This way you will have little more to do, other than gradually fill up one bin after another and wait for the eventual, inevitable outcome of some really high quality, finished compost.
As for compost tumblers, this is when you get into the fast lane. Regular turning over is more likely to happen. This will pull the maximum amount of air into the mix. Add a sprinkling of hydrated white lime as you feed more food waste and you will have, probably, the most efficient system that’s going.
The Rolypig composter is capable of turning food waste into usable compost in as little as 16 weeks. This can happen when the barrel is rolled just one or two flats at a time, every couple of weeks. You don’t need to keep rolling it over and over. Just a small amount of movement on a regular basis, is enough to open up the mass of compost inside and allow air to get in.
One of the reasons why the Rolypig system works so well is that, because it’s sat on the ground, worms can easily find their way in. The population explodes into enormous numbers because the conditions are just right. The worms break down everything very effectively. The population stay in the Rolypig even when they are disturbed by the occasional rolling over.
The adding of hydrated white lime is also recommended, for the same reasons as mentioned earlier. The worms aren’t adversely affected by the lime, in fact, they make us of it. The small particles of lime are ingested by the worms and help with their digestion.
What part can worms play when disposing of food waste?
I’ve seen just how effective worms are in the Rolypig. It’s important to know that worms can’t digest fresh food waste. They can only make use of it when food waste has rotten down enough. This may be at the point where foods have started to turn mouldy. Worms graze on the mould hairs that are generated. At this stage of the break-down they won’t be able to digest the food but they make use of the nutrients that the moulding process extracts.
After the mould fungi have finished, microbes take over and take the waste through the remaining phases of decomposition. This is when the broken down material will become fully accessible to the worms. They will digest it completely. It’s understood that they will consume the mass as a whole more than once.
It’s quite possible that the rotting food waste will go through worms over and over again until they have extracted every bit of, what is for them, nutrient value. In doing this it’s also understood that worms, and their ability to digest everything completely, can remove through digestion, any potentially harmful pathogens that may be lurking around. This is particularly interesting to know, when, as we were discussing earlier, the addition of cooked meat waste to the compost pile.
Can food waste be used as fertilizer?
Food waste can be used as fertilizer but you need to be very careful when you do it. Don’t ever be tempted to just scatter food waste on the ground and expect it to, quietly, rot down on the surface. All you will do is attract every predator, mostly vermin, from all over the district. Their visits will become a regular event.
The only way that this can be done, safely, is to bury it. This is something that you may consider doing if you are running a vegetable patch. If you’re thinking of doing this rather than making compost, there are a few things that you need to consider and be aware of.
All food waste is organic material. Here we use the term ‘organic’ as its genuine meaning, that is, carbon based and once living. When this type of material rots down in soil it tends to extract nitrates from the soil around it and release it into the atmosphere. This isn’t going to cause any sort of hazard to the environment; ⅘ of the atmosphere is already made up of nitrogen and it has no adverse effects on anything. The releasing of nitrates from your vegetable plot may not be an advantage as we often need available nitrates in the soil for the benefit of the vegetable crops that we want to grow.