Composting 101

Composting is easy! Let's break it all down.

Why Compost

As Charleston County continues to grow, the social, economic, and environmental impacts of excessive wastefulness are becoming increasingly evident.  Local communities have the potential to contribute an enormous amount to our country’s carbon footprint, or on the contrary – the potential to reduce it.  In the face of rising seas and a changing climate, we should be making every possible effort to reduce our carbon emissions and increase our resilience.  One strategy that helps to achieve both is to increase traditional recycling and incorporate food waste composting into local waste management operations.

Food is the number one item Americans throw away.  Every year up to 40% of the food supply in the U.S. is never consumed.  Most of this wasted food ends up in the landfill.  Organic waste such as food breaks down naturally in an open-air environment, but in a landfill without access to oxygen anaerobic decomposition occurs.  Methane gas is produced as a result which is released into the atmosphere.  Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas and a leading contributor to global climate change.

By composting at home you are:

  • Helping to grow food, not landfills
  • Returning valuable nutrients back to the soil
  • Reducing reliance on chemical fertilizers that pollute our environment and waterways
  • Reducing heat trapping gases from landfills (methane) that contribute to climate change
  • Improving soil health and structure.
    • Healthy soil increases water retention – or the ability for soils to absorb water, acting like a sponge
      • This reduces the need for irrigation and helps to combat flooding


DIY Compost Bin

There are a number of different methods to create a successful backyard pile. Follow the tips below for an easy DIY compost tumbler.

You’ll need:

  • A plastic cylindrical bin (Brute, Rubbermaid, etc) with a snap on lid, 35-55 gallons in size
  • A power drill and a ¼” bit
  • Shovel or sturdy stick to turn and aerate the pile

Follow these steps to get started: 

1.) Drill 1/4″ holes around the sides and base of the bin (this allows for oxygen to flow)

2.) Create a small base layer on the bottom of the bin with sticks, shells, or rocks for drainage and aeration.

3.) Add a carbon layer (brown material) things like dried leaves work well. Also wood chips, sawdust, torn up newspaper, cardboard- dry, brown organic material to balance the wet, green food waste material.

4.) Add a nitrogen (green) layer of kitchen scraps (food waste). Fresh yard trimmings also work for the nitrogen component.

5.) Layer more dry brown carbon material on top. You want three pars carbon to one part nitrogen. A 3:1 brown to green ratio. More dry brown leaves than wet food waste.

6.) Snap on the lid to keep critters out.

7.) After a few days, turn the material to aerate it.

  • With the lid on tight, you can gently lay your bin sideways on the ground and roll slowly back and forth to turn the material.
  • You can also use a shovel, a large stick or a broad fork to turn the material around in the bin and mix it up really well, pushing the food waste down and adding more brown carbon material on top

8.) You can store the food waste you are collecting in your kitchen in a paper bag and keep it in the freezer. This helps prevent odor and fruit flies that could occur if you store it in a countertop bin in the kitchen.

9.) When the bag is full, take it outside to empty it into your compost bin. Give it a good stir, and cover well with brown carbon material.  Keep in mind that an active pile needs to be left alone long enough for the bacteria to heat up and expedite the decomposition process.  If you are constantly turning or adding to the pile, this natural process does not have an opportunity to begin.

Your pile needs is 4 ingredients to start working:

  • Browns (carbon material)
  • Greens (nitrogen material)
  • Air (turn the pile and let oxygen flow throughout)
  • Water (keep the pile moist like a wet rag.  In the humidity of South Carolina, this happens naturally)

When the food waste in your pile starts to rot, the fungi, bacteria and invertebrates come in and start to break down and digest the organic matter.  The material they leave behind are the nutrients that fertilize the soil.


What you can compost

As a general rule of thumb, if you can eat it, you can compost it.  If it comes from the earth, it can go back to the earth.  Certain materials break down more easily than others, so consider these tips when it’s time to compost any of the following:

  • Meat
  • Whole pieces of produce
  • Dairy
  • Processed foods
  • Bones
  • Seafood shells/bodies
  • Large pieces of paper or cardboard

Cut the materials into small, manageable pieces before tossing in your compost bin for more rapid and effective decomposition.  Turn the pile and move these materials towards the heat at the center of the pile for faster decomposition.  Crush bones with a mallet. Blend shellfish bodies in a processor.  Maintaining a careful balance of carbon to nitrogen (3:1) will help offset odors that would occur from nitrogenous material left uncovered.

Troubleshooting Your Pile

Is your pile too dry? Is your pile too wet? 

Do the crumble test: grab a handful of compost and give it a squeeze.  It should crumble and have the dampness of a wrung out sponge with no dripping or braking into dust.

Is the food waste not breaking down after weeks?  Is there an odor issue?  These common issues can be mitigated with one of a few solutions:

  • Add more more carbon material like dried leaves
  • Turn and aerate the pile
  • Add water to the pile if it is too dry

Once the bin is full, stop adding food waste and let it cure.  After a few weeks, a full bin should break down to about 3/4 full of finished compost.  Check to ensure the material is no longer hot in the center, passes the crumble test, and smells like fresh wet earth.



Use the finished compost to amend your soil.  Let it age an extra week or two before putting it around delicate plants or using it as a potting medium.  Add to your garden beds or apply compost around the base of your trees for a nutritious boost.

Don’t have a garden or any potted plants?  Consider reaching out to a local community garden or non profit group such as the The Green Heart Project to see about donating your compost for use in their garden beds.

Don’t want to be bothered by tending to a backyard pile?  You can sign up to have our friends at Compost Now do the dirty work for you and pickup your food waste from the curb every week.

Charleston County Compost

Charleston County has an award winning compost facility which was designed to maximize space, allow for fast turnaround of organic material, and produce a high quality value added finished product. Charleston County started composting yard waste in 1993, and banned yard waste from being sent to the landfill altogether in 2009. Shortly thereafter, the County enacted a yard waste plastic bag ban to protect the quality of the finished compost.  In 2011, the Charleston County compost facility became the first commercial food waste composting program in the State to be permitted by DHEC.  In 2013, the Charleston County compost program earned the US Composting Council’s seal of testing assurance since the finished compost consistently meets high quality standards of the program.  Charleston County compost is certified usable for organic farming by Clemson University, and many local farmers rely on the superior finished product to grow their crops.  Unfortunately, the demand far outweighs the supply.  The County has all of the existing infrastructure to expand the composting program, but there has been very little traction or political will to do so since the initial success of the facility getting underway.

Schools, hotels, restaurants and factories generate a huge amount of food waste every day that is sent to the landfill.  Business owners have the option to contract with private haulers that collect food waste and take it to Bee’s Ferry for processing, but many companies perceive this as an added effort and extra cost. It would be in the County’s best interest to encourage more businesses to compost through financial incentives like offering compost collection at free or reduced rates, and charging more for landfill tipping fees to offset costs.

Become a compost champion and encourage your friends and neighbors to start composting at home.  Call or email Betsy La Force at [email protected] or at 843-723-8035 for more information. 

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