Composting (/ˈkɒmpɒst/ or /ˈkɒmpst/) is organic matter that has been decomposed in a process called composting. This process recycles various organic materials - otherwise regarded as waste products - and produces a soil conditioner (the compost).

Compost is rich in nutrients. It is used for example in gardens, landscaping, horticulture, urban agriculture and organic farming. The compost itself is beneficial for the land in many ways, including as a soil conditioner, a fertilizer, addition of vital humus or humic acids, and as a natural pesticide for soil. In ecosystems, compost is useful for erosion control, land and stream reclamation, wetland construction, and as landfill cover (see compost uses). Organic ingredients intended for composting can alternatively be used to generate biogas through anaerobic digestion.

At the simplest level, the process of composting requires making a heap of wet organic matter (also called green waste, such as leaves,grass, food scraps) and waiting for the materials to break down into humus after a period of months. At the more advanced level, composting is 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 when open piles or "windrows" are used. Earthworms and fungi further break up the material. Bacteria requiring oxygen to function (aerobic bacteria) and fungi manage the chemical process by converting the inputs into heat, carbon dioxide, and ammonium. The ammonium is the form of nitrogen used by plants. When available ammonium is not used by plants it is further converted by bacteria into nitrates through the process of nitrification.


Composting is an aerobic (in the presence of air) method of recycling organic material.[1] The process involves decomposition of organic material into humus known as compost which is a good fertilizer for plants. Although the term "composting" is used worldwide with differing meanings, true composting requires the three components as mentioned above (human management, aerobic conditions, development of internal biological heat).


Home compost barrel in the Escuela Barreales, Santa Cruz, Chile

Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, water

Materials in a compost pile
Food scraps compost heap

Composting organisms require four equally important ingredients to work effectively:

  • Carbon — for energy; the microbial oxidation of carbon produces the heat, if included at suggested levels.[2]
    • High carbon materials tend to be brown and dry.
  • Nitrogen — to grow and reproduce more organisms to oxidize the carbon.
    • High nitrogen materials tend to be green (or colorful, such as fruits and vegetables) and wet.
  • Oxygen — for oxidizing the carbon, the decomposition process.
  • Water — in the right amounts to maintain activity without causing anaerobic conditions.[3]

Certain ratios of these materials will provide beneficial bacteria with the nutrients to work at a rate that will heat up the pile. In that process much water will be released as vapor ("steam").

The most efficient composting occurs with an optimal carbon:nitrogen ratio of about 25:1.[4] Rapid composting is favored by having a C/N ratio of ~30 or less. Theoretical analysis is confirmed by field tests that above 30 the substrate is nitrogen starved, below 15 it is likely to outgas a portion of nitrogen as ammonia.[5]

Nearly all plant and animal materials have both carbon and nitrogen, but amounts vary widely, with characteristics noted above (dry/wet, brown/green).[6] Fresh grass clippings have an average ratio of about 15:1 and dry autumn leaves about 50:1 depending on 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[7] as a pile is built over time, can quickly achieve a workable technique for the individual situation.


With the proper mixture of water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, micro-organisms are able to break down organic matter to produce compost.[8][9] The composting process is dependent on micro-organisms to break down organic matter into compost. There are many types of microorganisms found in active compost of which the most common are:[10]

  • Bacteria- The most numerous of all the microorganisms found in compost. Depending on the phase of composting, mesophilic or thermophilic bacteria may predominate.
  • Actinobacteria- Necessary for breaking down paper products such as newspaper, bark, etc.
  • Fungi- molds and yeast help break down materials that bacteria cannot, especially lignin in woody material.
  • Protozoa- Help consume bacteria, fungi and micro organic particulates.
  • Rotifers- Rotifers help control populations of bacteria and small protozoans.

In addition, earthworms not only ingest partly composted material, but also continually re-create aeration and drainage tunnels as they move through the compost.

A lack of a healthy micro-organism community is the main reason why composting processes are slow in landfills with environmental factors such as lack of oxygen, nutrients or water being the cause of the depleted biological community.[10]

Phases of composting

Under ideal conditions, composting proceeds through three major phases:[10]

  • An initial, mesophilic phase, in which the decomposition is carried out under moderate temperatures by mesophilic microorganisms.
  • As the temperature rises, a second, thermophilic phase starts, in which the decomposition is carried out by various thermophilic bacteria under high temperatures.
  • As the supply of high-energy compounds dwindles, the temperature starts to decrease, and the mesophiles once again predominate in the maturation phase.

Slow and rapid composting

There are many proponents of rapid composting that attempt to correct some of the perceived problems associated with traditional, slow composting. Many advocate that compost can be made in 2 to 3 weeks.[11] 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. However, none of these parameters differ significantly from the early writings of compost researchers, suggesting that in fact modern composting has not made significant advances over the traditional methods that take a few months to work. For this reason and others, many scientists who deal with carbon transformations are sceptical that there is a "super-charged" way to get nature to make compost rapidly.[citation needed]

Both sides may be right to some extent. The bacterial activity in rapid high heat methods breaks down the material to the extent that pathogens and seeds are destroyed, and the original feedstock is unrecognizable. At this stage, the compost can be used to prepare fields or other planting areas. However, most professionals recommend that the compost be given time to cure before using in a nursery for starting seeds or growing young plants. The curing time allows fungi to continue the decomposition process and eliminating phytotoxic substances.[citation needed]

Pathogen removal

Composting can destroy pathogens or unwanted seeds. Unwanted living plants (or weeds) can be discouraged by covering with mulch/compost. The "microbial pesticides" in compost may include thermophiles and mesophiles, however certain methods of organic material decompositiondetritivores such as black soldier fly larvae and redworms, also reduce many pathogens. The first stage of bokashi preserves the ingredients in a lactic acid fermentation. The acid is a natural disinfectant, used as such in household cleaning products, so that what enters the second (digestion) stage is essentially free of microbial pathogens. Thermophilic (high-temperature) composting is well known to destroy many seeds and nearly all types of pathogens (exceptions may include prions). The sanitizing qualities of (thermophilic) composting are desirable where there is a high likelihood of pathogens, such as with manure.

Materials that can be composted

Composting is a process used for resource recovery. It can recycle an unwanted by-product from another process (a waste) into a useful new product.

Organic solid waste (green waste)

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

Composting is a process for converting decomposable organic materials into useful stable products. Therefore, valuable landfill space can be used for other wastes by composting these materials rather than dumping them on landfills. It may however be difficult to control inert and plastics contamination from municipal solid waste.

Co-composting is a technique that processes organic solid waste together with other input materials such as dewatered fecal sludge or sewage sludge.[4]

Industrial composting systems are being installed to treat organic solid waste and recycle it rather than landfilling it. It is one example of an advanced waste processing system. Mechanical sorting of mixed waste streams combined with anaerobic digestion or in-vessel composting is called mechanical biological treatment. It is increasingly being used in developed countries due to regulations controlling the amount of organic matter allowed in landfills. Treating biodegradable waste before it enters a landfill reduces global warming from fugitive methane; untreated waste breaks down anaerobically in a landfill, producing landfill gas that contains methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Animal manure and bedding

On many farms, the basic composting ingredients are animal manure generated on the farm and bedding. 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.[12]

Human excreta and sewage sludge

Human excreta can also be added as an input to the composting process since human excreta is a nitrogen-rich organic material. It can be either composted directly, in composting toilets, or after mixing with water and treatment in a sewage treatment plant, in the form of sewage sludge treatment.


People excrete far more water-soluble plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) in urine than in feces.[13] Human urine can be used directly as fertilizer or it can be put onto compost. Adding a healthy person's urine to compost usually will 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 blow flies), and it does not contain the most hardy of pathogens, such as parasitic worm eggs. Urine usually does not smell for long, particularly when it is fresh, diluted, or put on sorbents.[citation needed]


"Humanure" is a portmanteau of human and manure, designating human excrement (feces and urine) that is recycled via composting for agricultural or other purposes. The term was first used in a 1994 book by Joseph Jenkins that advocates the use of this organic soil amendment.[14] The term humanure is used by compost enthusiasts in the US but not widely used elsewhere.[4] Because the term "humanure" has no authoritative definition it is subject to various uses; news reporters occasionally fail to correctly distinguish between humanure and sewage sludge or "biosolids".[15]


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, or a porous, absorbent material that holds moisture and soluble minerals, providing the support and nutrients in which plants can flourish, although it is rarely used alone, being primarily mixed with 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.[16]

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,[17][18][19] and the possible tie up of nitrogen by incompletely decomposed lignin.[7] It is very common to see blends of 20–30% compost used for transplanting seedlings at cotyledon stage or later.

Composting technologies

A homemade compost tumbler
A compost bin constructed from plastics

Various approaches have been developed to handle different ingredients, locations, throughput and applications for the composted product.

Industrial scale composting processes

Industrial scale composting can be carried out in the form of in-vessel composting, aerated static pile composting, vermicomposting, windrow composting and takes place in most Western countries now.[citation needed]


Food waste - after three years

Vermicompost is the product or process of organic material degradation using various species of worms, usually red wigglers, white worms, and earthworms, to create a heterogeneous mixture of decomposing vegetable or food waste (excluding meat, dairy, fats, or oils), bedding materials, and vermicast. Vermicast, also known as worm castings, worm humus or worm manure, is the end-product of the breakdown of organic matter by species of earthworm.[20]

Vermicomposting (also known as vermiculture) is widely used in North America for on-site institutional processing of food scraps, such as in hospitals, universities, shopping malls, and correctional facilities.[21] Vermicomposting is used for medium-scale on-site institutional organic material recycling, such as for food scraps from universities and shopping malls. It is selected either as a more environmentally friendly choice than conventional disposal, or to reduce the cost of commercial waste removal.

Vermicomposting has gained popularity in both industrial and domestic settings because, as compared with conventional composting, it provides a way to recycle organic materials more quickly (as defined by a higher rate of carbon-to-nitrogen ratio increase). It also generates products that have lower salinity levels that are therefore more beneficial to plant mediums.[22]

Food waste with worms

The earthworm species (or composting worms) most often used are red wigglers (Eisenia fetida or Eisenia andrei), though European nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis or Dendrobaena veneta) could also be used. Red wigglers are recommended by most vermicomposting experts, as they have some of the best appetites and breed very quickly. Users refer to European nightcrawlers by a variety of other names, including dendrobaenas, dendras, Dutch nightcrawlers, and Belgian nightcrawlers.

Containing water-soluble nutrients, vermicompost is a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer and soil conditioner in a form that is relatively easy for plants to absorb.[23] Worm castings are sometimes used as an organic fertilizer. Because the earthworms grind and uniformly mix minerals in simple forms, plants need only minimal effort to obtain them. The worms' digestive systems create environments that allow certain species of microbes to thrive to help create a "living" soil environment for plants.[24] The fraction of soil which has gone through the digestive tract of earthworms is called the Drilosphere.[25]

Researchers from the Pondicherry University discovered that worm composts can also be used to clean up heavy metals. The researchers found substantial reductions in heavy metals when the worms were released into the garbage and they are effective at removing lead, zinc, cadmium, copper and manganese.[26]

Composting toilets

A composting toilet collects human excreta. These are added to a compost heap that can be located in a chamber below the toilet seat. Sawdust and straw or other carbon rich materials are usually added as well. Some composting toilets do not require water or electricity; others may. If they do not use water for flushing they fall into the category of dry toilets. Some composting toilet designs use urine diversion, others do not. When properly managed, they do not smell. The composting process in these toilets destroys pathogens to some extent. The amount of pathogen destruction depends on the temperature (mesophilic or thermophilic conditions) and composting time.[27]

Composting toilets with a large composting container (of the type Clivus Multrum and derivations of it) are popular in United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden. They are available as commercial products, as designs for self builders or as "design derivatives" which are marketed under various names.

Black soldier fly larvae

Black Soldier Fly (Hermetia illucens) larvae are able to rapidly consume large amounts of organic material when kept at around 30 °C.[28][29] Black Soldier Fly larvae can reduce the dry matter of the organic waste by 73 % and convert 16-22 % of the dry matter in the waste to biomass.[30][31] The resulting compost still contains nutrients and can be used for biogas production, or further traditional composting or vermicomposting [32] The larvae are rich in fat and protein, and can be used as for example animal feed or biodiesel production. [33] Enthusiasts have experimented with a large number of different waste products.[34] Some even sell starter kits to the public.[35] There exists also larger-scale facilities.

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.

The practice of making raised garden beds or mounds filled with rotting wood is also called "Hügelkultur" in German.[36][37] 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.[36][38] Buried wood becomes 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.[36][39]


Inside a recently started bokashi bin. The aerated base is just visible through the food scraps and bokashi bran.

Bokashi is a method that uses a mix of microorganisms to cover food scraps or wilted plants to decrease smell, reduce the risk of attracting pests and increase the speed of decomposition. Bokashi (ぼかし) is Japanese for "shading off" or "gradation." It derives from the practice of Japanese farmers centuries ago of covering food scraps with rich, local soil that contained the microorganisms that would ferment the material.[citation needed]

The technique relies on effective microorganisms. These essential microbes are typically added to the food scraps using an inoculated bokashi bran.[40]

Newspaper fermented in a lactobacillus culture can be substituted for bokashi bran for a successful bokashi bucket.[citation needed]

Compost tea

Compost teas are defined as water extracts brewed from composted materials and can be derived from aerobic processes.[41] Compost teas are generally produced from adding one volume of compost to 4-10 volumes of water, but there has also been debate about the benefits of aerating the mixture.[41] 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.[41] They have also been shown to have an effect on plant pathogens.[42]

Related technologies

Anaerobic digestion is process for converting organic material into biogas. The residual material, sometimes in combination with sewage sludge can be followed by an aerobic composting process before selling or giving away the compost.[citation needed]


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.[43]

The USA is the only Western country that does not distinguish sludge-source compost from green-composts, and by default in the USA 50% of states expect composts to comply in some manner with the federal EPA 503 rule promulgated in 1984 for sludge products.[44]

Compost is regulated in Canada[45] and Australia[46] as well.

Many countries such as Wales[47][48] and some individual cities such as Seattle and San Francisco require food and yard materials to be sorted for composting (San Francisco Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance).[49][50]


Edmonton Composting Facility

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

  • The world's largest municipal co-composter (MSW) is the Edmonton Composting Facility in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, which turns 220,000 tonnes of residential organic material and 22,500 dry tonnes of biosolids per year into 80,000 tonnes of compost. The facility is 38,690 m2 (416,500 sq.ft.) in area, equivalent to 4½ Canadian football fields, and the operating structure is the largest stainless steel building in North America, the size of 14 NHL rinks.
  • In 2006, Qatar awarded Keppel Seghers Singapore, a subsidiary of Keppel Corporation, a contract to begin construction on a 275,000 tonne/year anaerobic digestion and composting plant licensed by Kompogas Switzerland. This plant, with 15 independent anaerobic digesters, will be the world's largest composting facility once fully operational in early 2011 and forms part of Qatar's Domestic Solid Waste Management Centre, the largest integrated waste management complex in the Middle East.
  • Another large MSW composter is the Lahore Composting Facility in Lahore, Pakistan, which has a capacity to convert 1,000 tonnes of MSW per day into compost. It also has a capacity to convert substantial portion of the intake into refuse-derived fuel (RDF) materials for further combustion use in several energy consuming industries across Pakistan, for example in cement manufacturing companies where it is used to heat cement kilns. This project has also been approved by the Executive Board of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for reducing methane emissions, and has been registered with a capacity of reducing 108,686 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent per annum.[51]
  • Kew Gardens in London has one of the biggest non-commercial compost heaps in Europe.[citation needed]
  • Compost is used as a soil amendment in organic farming.


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.[52] 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.

Composting was somewhat modernized beginning in the 1920s in Europe as a tool for organic farming.[53] The first industrial station for the transformation of urban organic materials into compost was set up in Wels, Austria in the year 1921.[54] 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.[55]

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.

See also

Related lists


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  54. ^ Welser Anzeiger vom 05. Januar 1921, 67. Jahrgang, Nr. 2, S. 4
  55. ^ Laws, Bill (2014-06-19). A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools. University of Chicago Press. p. 86. ISBN 9780226139937.