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The Buzz

Keep Your Compost Pile Going All Winter Long With A Few Easy Steps

(Photo by Chad Merda)

Winter may seem like an off-season for composting, but there's no reason you can't start composting — or at the very least keep your pile going — during the coldest stretch of the year. And doing so would help cut down on one of the major sources of landfill waste in the United States: food waste.

More than 30 percent of what Americans throw away is food scraps and yard waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. All that waste is then trucked to landfills, where it takes up space and releases methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. In the United States, greenhouse gas emissions from food waste are equivalent to the amount of emissions produced by more than 32 million gas-fueled cars, the World Wildlife Federation reports. We could eliminate 6% to 8% of human-caused greenhosue gas emissions if we stopped wasting food.

There are plenty of ways to cut down on or prevent food waste in your own home, including better planning before grocery shopping and making good use of leftovers, but composting is another good step. And don't let cold winter weather be a deterrent for starting a compost pile or keeping yours going all year.

Composting is still possible in winter, said Kate Caldwell, an interpretive naturalist at Plum Creek Nature Center. As long as you keep adding to the pile and turning it, the natural process of the food waste breaking down into organic material will occur.

If you've been composting awhile, you might notice that your pile isn't breaking down quite as fast in the cold as it does during the warmer months. That's normal in winter, but it won't stop decomposing completely unless your entire compost pile is frozen solid, according to the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

Even during a cold spell, it's unlikely that an active compost pile will freeze all the way through. The outside may freeze, but the center, where the microbes are busy breaking down the food, will stay warm, Caldwell said. 

If you want to keep your pile warm in winter, you can try insulating it from the cold. You can do this from either inside or outside your compost bin. On the outside, try surrounding your bin with bagged leaves or hay bales to protect it, the New Hampshire extension advises. Inside, you can surround the pile with cardboard, leaves or sawdust.

In the winter, breaking down your food waste into smaller pieces before adding it to the pile will help speed up decomposition, Caldwell said. You can do this by chopping up your fruit and vegetable waste rather than tossing it on the pile whole. When adding brown material such as newspaper or cardboard, rip or cut it up. Cutting items into smaller pieces speeds up the breakdown because it creates more surface area, which allows the decomposing organisms more area to feed on. 

It's also OK to stop turning your pile in winter, the New Hampshire extension advises. You can keep adding to it, but take the season off from regular turning. When it warms up in spring, and warmer temperatures thaw the compost, you can pick up right where you left off.

If you're still new to composting or considering whether to start a pile, you may wonder what exactly you can compost. Much of what we throw away can be composted. All your food and vegetable scraps, plus things like coffee grounds and eggshells, can be put in a compost pile, according to the University of Illinois Extension. Yard waste can be composted too, as long as it hasn't been treated with chemicals. And newspaper and cardboard can go in the pile too. 

A good compost pile needs a healthy ratio of green material and brown material. Green material, which provides the nitrogen needed for decomposition, is your food waste — all those fruit and vegetable scraps, plus yard waste like grass clippings. Brown material, which adds the carbon necessary for the breakdown, includes things like dead leaves, paper and cardboard. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises using equal parts brown material and green material.

Adding as much to your compost pile as possible is a win-win, Caldwell said. You win because the organic material you get from your compost bin is a boon to your garden and plants. And the planet wins too, because the food waste you compost will not contribute to climate change.


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