By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Styrofoam was once a common packaging for food but has been banned in most food services today. It is still widely used as a packing material for shipping and one large purchase may contain huge pieces of the lightweight stuff. If you don’t have a handy facility nearby that deals with the packing material, what can you do with it? Can you compost styrofoam?
Styrofoam is not recyclable in city waste programs. There are sometimes special facilities that will repurpose the material but not every municipality has one nearby. Styrofoam will not break down like organic items.
It is made of polystyrene and is 98% air, which gives it the light texture and buoyancy characteristic of the product. It is also a possible human carcinogen, which has led to its being banned in many states. If you are wondering how to compost styrofoam, think twice since it can be potentially hazardous to living organisms.
Styrofoam is simply fluffed up plastic. Plastic is a petroleum product and is not compostable; therefore, composting styrofoam is not possible. However, some gardeners are putting styrofoam in compost to increase air circulation and moisture percolation. This is a disputed practice since the material may be dangerous in large amounts and food crops can potentially be contaminated by its various components.
Additionally, it will remain in soil indefinitely. A very tiny amount of styrofoam can be used in compost but larger pieces should be sent to a special treatment facility. Styrofoam that is exposed to heat will give off gas and release the toxic chemical Styrene, which has been linked to a host of health problems, so using it in your garden is really up to you.
If you’ve decided to go ahead and add to compost, then any styrofoam used to aerate compost should be broken up into tiny pieces, no bigger than a pea. The amount you use should be proportionally minute with a ratio of 1 to 50 or more of compost. The product really isn’t more beneficial than other good sources of texture in soil such as pebbles, sticks and twigs, sand, commercial vermiculite or ground pumice.
If you just want to get rid of styrofoam, consider repurposing it. The stuff makes a great insulation for greenhouses and cold frames. If you have a school nearby, take clean styrofoam there for use in craft projects. It is also useful as a float for fishing or trapping crabs. Many boatyards use stryofoam for a host of applications.
In order to keep potentially dangerous chemicals out of your garden, it might just be best to get rid of the material another way. Many waste management facilities have styrofoam recycling facilities. You can also send it to the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers where it will be cleaned and reused. More drop off locations can be found at foamfacts.com.
There is a study out that states that mealworms can be fed a diet of styrofoam and their resulting castings are safe for garden use. Should you find yourself in possession of a lot of mealworms, this method seems safer and more beneficial than simply breaking up pieces of styrofoam and mixing them into your compost.
Petroleum products are very damaging to the environment and using these potentially hazardous items in your garden just doesn’t seem like it is worth the risk.
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Read more about Compost Ingredients
Did you know you can compost hair, dryer lint and nail clippings along with your kitchen scraps? It’s not gross, it helps amp up the quality of your garden soil.
Rich soil? Yes. Less waste? Yes-Yes. Environmental benefits? Yes-Yes-Yes! Next time you’re taking out the trash, consider whether you’re wasting space in that bag with items that could have been composted. In all likelihood, yes.
Composting can be a fun, exciting process. Just like it’s a good idea to slow down and plan a garden bed before rushing out to buy your plants, it’s also smart to do a little planning before starting a compost heap. Taking a little extra time to plan ahead can save a headache or simply make composting a little easier later on.
Compost organic scraps, and immediately cut back on the volume left to rot in landfills. Improving your habits will have a direct effect on the environment, as the organic materials we throw away undergo anaerobic decomposition (rotting without oxygen) and produce methane gas, which is among the most dangerous of the greenhouse gases. In turn, transferring your scraps into a compost pile is advantageous for eco-enthusiasts and gardeners of all levels, because the items discarded are rotting in an open space undergoing aerobic decomposition (with oxygen), and producing carbon dioxide instead of methane.
If you’re just starting your own at-home compost (maybe even made a container to accessorize your kitchen), or even if you think you’re doing a fair job at composting food scraps instead of putting them through the disposal, remember that nice balance of green and brown organic materials is important to generating a good pile of compost.
by Debbie Carlson, AARP, August 14, 2020 | Comments: 0
A bin of wriggling worms is not a sight everyone enjoys, but a smart gardener knows that squirming mass represents the possibility of richer dirt and a more productive growing season.
Worms are the workhorses of good soil health, creating compost — known as vermiculture — that contributes to nutrient-rich soil and vigorous plant growth. Creating your own worm farm, which can also cut down on food waste, is easy and relatively inexpensive.
Ann Barklow, 67, a horticulturist for the city of Greenwood, S.C., says worm compost brings more vitality to the red clay soils of her state. She uses the compost in her vegetable garden to boost plant production. When she harvests her vegetables, she chops up the unusable parts to dump in her worm bin.
"My worms make another beautiful compost from the scraps,” she says. “I put the compost back into the garden and it just closes the circle.”
Sam Angima says worm compost can eliminate the need for fertilizers.
Vermiculture contains higher levels of readily available nitrogen than traditional compost so plants can use it instantly, eliminating the need for artificial fertilizers, says Sam Angima, 54, associate dean for extension and a professor at the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University.
The most common worms are red wigglers, the same type of worm used for fishing bait, and are a different species from garden worms. If you can't find a free source of red wigglers, they are available online by searching for vermiculture or worm composting.
Though some might consider these worms gross, aficionados get attached to them. And it's an unusual project to do with kids, who may not be so squeamish about the wigglers, says Barklow, who has created worm bin projects with children. “It was a lot of fun,” she says. “You're going to be the coolest mom or the coolest grandma or grandpa to do something like this with them."
Unlike traditional composting, which requires a backyard and space, even apartment dwellers can have a worm bin to use with household plants, says Angima. “It can be very small scale. All you need is a plastic bin that's one cubic foot in volume,” he says.
Even if you just have a few potted plants on a porch or houseplants, you can create a worm bin and use the compost. “Your plants are going to have a lot more vibrancy because you're feeding the soil,” says Jamiah Hargins, founder of Crop Swap LA.
Follow these five steps to create your own worm bin and start creating vermiculture that will boost your garden soil.
A worm bin can be as simple as a Styrofoam cooler or an opaque plastic utility bin with a tight-fitting lid, says Barklow. Some websites sell elaborate systems of several bins with screens in between to sort the finished compost, but low-cost items can work just as well. Use an opaque bin as worms feel most comfortable in the dark. Drill or punch holes on the upper sides and top for aeration.
Before getting worms, fill up to 50 percent of the bin with a bedding of shredded newspaper, cardboard, dried leaves or similar carbon-based material, plus a few scoops of garden soil, Barklow says. “It's like you're bringing home a new baby. You want to get the nursery ready,” she says.
Barklow uses a stacking system of several bins with screens on the bottom. She can move the bins of finished compost to the top and put food in lower bins, letting the worms migrate.
Greg Schultz, main steward at the Thomas Street Community Garden in Chicago, recommends keeping worms in the basement where temperatures are steady. “Worms shouldn't be kept outside. The temperature range gets a little too hot in summer and too cold in winter,” he says.
If you don't have a basement, look for a place that's cool and dark with few temperature fluctuations, such as under a kitchen sink, says Rick Carr, farm director and compost specialist for Rodale Institute. Barklow keeps them in her garage, which is heated and air conditioned to keep the air temperature stable.
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Start by feeding worms a cup or two of chopped up raw fruit and vegetable scraps buried under the bedding in one quarter of the bin. Coffee grounds (including the filter) are also good, but avoid meat and dairy, along with citrus, which is too acidic, says Angima. Experts say you can feed worms weekly, but check to make sure they ate at least half of their previous meal to avoid overfeeding. Put new scraps in another quarter to encourage migration from finished compost.
Ann Barklow says worms bring vitality to her clay soil.
Worms create useable compost in three to four months. When the bin is full, dump it into a pile on a tarp or plastic sheeting and scrape off the top layer, Schultz says. The worms will migrate to the center as they are sensitive to light. Once the pile is reduced to mostly just worms, put in fresh bedding and return them to the bin. If a few get into the garden with the worm compost that's OK, Carr says.
Hargins recommends incorporating worm compost into the ground, targeting the plant's roots, rather than spread at the surface. “Put it in the spots you want to plant and cover it with mulch so it stays moist and allows the microbial activity to get into the soil,” Hargins says.
A healthy worm bin smells like the earth, Barklow says, and off odors are a sign of problems. Common issues include too much or too little moisture. Add more paper if the bin is too wet and a little water if it's too dry. And it's OK if you make mistakes. “ You don't become a master composter,” Carr says, “without killing a few thousand worms."
During the gift giving season, think recycling or composting, when the subject turns to packing peanuts.
Packing peanuts are the small, light, foamy materials added to shipping boxes for product protection. Technically they go by the name Expanded polystyrene (EPS) and are a combination of air and the #6 plastic called polystyrene. Their success as a packaging material means recipients face disposal dilemmas. What does one do with them?
Because they consist of around ninety-nine percent air, packing peanut bulkiness creates storage problems for those choosing the storage option.
Disposing of packing peanuts generally translates into landfill waste. Peanut manufacturers recognized this dilemma and now offer two additional disposal options, recycling or composting.
Recycling is the option of choice for peanuts made from polystyrene, a plastics polymer often called styrofoam. Fortunately the problem had an answer waiting. The growth of the shipping industry associated with the growth in online shopping made it economically feasible to organize recycling efforts.
The The EPS Industry Alliance Council, created in 2012, maintains an on line data base consisting of over 1,100 places in the United States that accept packing peanuts for recycling.
Concerns about the environmental costs associated with the oil-based, non-degradable characteristics of polystyrene peanuts led to the development of biodegradable starch based peanuts. They keep products safe during shipping and easily dissolved in water without creating chemical residues.
Biodegradable peanuts fit comfortably in most compost piles, making for their easy, earth-friendly, disposal. (Please note, peanuts that do not dissolve in water, should not be placed on the compost pile.)
Both the biodegradable and non-biodegradable packing peanuts provide environmental benefits and costs. The environmental production and shipping costs associated with starched based peanuts, make for difficult comparisons between the two products.
For example, it might be difficult to argue that the environmental costs associated with polystyrene peanuts, that are recycled and used on ten separate occasions, are greater than the environmental costs associated with the production and shipping of starch based peanuts that are disposed of after one use.
Consumer choice will eventually answer the question. Since biodegradable packing peanuts cost at least twice as much as their polystyrene counterparts, consumers will choose between biodegradable peanuts that add to up-front shipping costs and non-biodegradable peanuts that add a back-end transportation cost of a trip to the recycling center.
Until then, when the subject turns to packing peanuts, think recycle or compost.
I like to call these neutral instead of green or brown, but it's an unconventional idea. No matter what you call them, they are a great addition to your compost:
Saves money on your trash bill — less stuff going into your trash bins means fewer tips and more dollars in your pocket.
It also helps extend the life of landfills since 26% of the waste stream is yard waste and food scraps that can be composted (EPA, 2009).
When you throw organic material into a landfill, it is not given the proper amount of oxygen to decompose. These materials start breaking down though an oxygen-less process and in turn release methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change (more below).
Creates free high quality fertilizer for the garden
With the way landfills are created, there are plastic layers and sheeting that covers the different “cells” or sections of the landfill to prevent that trash from polluting the environment — land, air, and water. When that plastic layer is put in place when a cell or landfill reaches capacity, it closes off oxygen from reaching any organic materials switching the rotting or breakdown process from aerobic (with oxygen) to anaerobic (without oxygen). Not only is this the anaerobic breakdown process much slower than it’s counter process (aerobic), it produces a different gas entirely because different microbes are supported by a low or no oxygen living space.
Typically, your compost pile would produce CO2, otherwise known as carbon dioxide, as the organic materials rot and decay since the compost pile is exposed to oxygen (depending on how often your turned your pile). We know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (meaning it holds heat in our Earth’s atmosphere) too however when we compare it to anaerobic breakdown, we can see a big difference! Food waste and other organic materials that are trapped in our landfill aren’t exposed to oxygen, meaning that breakdown anaerobically (without oxygen) producing CH4, methane, instead of carbon dioxide. Methane is also a greenhouse gas that holds heat in the Earth’s atmosphere HOWEVER when comparing the two gases, methane holds about 25 times as much heat as carbon dioxide .
And while we do have a methane gas collection system at our landfill, methane gas collection system are only so efficient BUT it will never capture all the methane that is being generated by the breakdown of organic matter in the landfill (under anaerobic conditions). Furthermore, a basic methane capture system collects the landfill gas and is then flared (burned) or is converted for energy use by removing all contaminants. The US EPA Landfill Methane Outreach Program estimates that 60%-90% of the methane emitted from landfills can be captured dependent upon the system and its effectiveness. But if we recall, methane is 25 times worse than carbon dioxide and you need to collect about 95% of the landfill gas to simply break even in terms of detriment to the Earth.
What can you do? The idea of reducing food waste and wasted food first at the source is always best. Composting or other organics processing will remain a higher and better use with less environmental damage than collecting landfill gas for its energy potential.
If you have curbside or industrial compost services that you’ve subscribed to, be sure to check with your curbside compost provider as they will have the correct list of what is and what is not acceptable to place in your compost bin depending on the type of breakdown process they use (aerobic, anaerobic, windrow, pile, digestion, etc.).
Below is a general list of what is should and should not be placed in your compost:
You’ll notice that the materials are broken into two categories “browns” and “greens” — “greens” are high in nitrogen and “browns” are high in carbon. Composting requires the proper ratio of “brown” and “green” materials in order for the microorganisms breaking down those materials into compost to be happy, productive, and energetic. As a general rule, you want to have approximately four parts “brown” to one part “green”. This is an approximation, usually too much “green” is the problem as it is difficult to have too much “brown”. You can find more information via The Basics Of Composting (EPA, 2010)
Leave Out/Reason Why
Composting involves combining brown materials, green materials, moisture, and heat. The ratios of green to brown matter are really important. Most experts recommend a ratio of 25-30 parts brown (carbon) to 1 part green (nitrogen).
If you have too much green and not enough brown, your compost will stink. On the other hand, if you have too much brown matter and not enough green, it will take a long, long time to decompose.
If you want a small amount of compost, a compost tumbler is a great investment. Tumblers make it so easy to turn and aerate your compost. Here is a good article on making a DIY compost tumbler.
Another good setup for composting is the 3-bin compost system. It is basically 3 bins (often made of pallets or chicken wire around a frame) that separates the compost into stages. The first bin will be basically raw material. The second will be partially decomposed. And the third bin will be beautiful, finished compost.
I need a lot of compost to amend my garden, and I have a lot of manure to deal with. So I just do a basic compost pile. Throughout the year, I gather manure, straw, wood chips, etc. and just put it all into a pile. This pile is usually easy enough for me to move, as long as I do it fairly frequently.
Green matter is the nitrogen-rich additions that help break down the browns. Green material is fresh green leaves, grass clippings, manure, used coffee grounds, and kitchen scraps. Brown matter is the carbon base. This can be wood shavings or chips, straw, hay, shredded paper, or dried leaves.
You want your compost materials to be pretty fine. Think wood shavings, chopped leaves, and grass clippings. If you put big chunks of bark or branches in the compost, it will take a very long time to break down.
Run over the leaves with a lawn mower, put branches through a wood chipper, and raise the blades of your mower so you take less length off with each mow.
When adding kitchen scraps, think small here too. Chop up banana peels into small chunks, cut up carrots into small pieces, and shred your lettuce.
My first attempt at composting was a bunch of poopy, spoiled straw from cleaning out the barn. This pile was so very heavy to move. And it took FOREVER to decompose! Moral of the story: The smaller the material, the better.
When adding material to the compost pile, make sure you use small layers. Start by putting down a 2-3 inch layer of wood shavings or other brown material. Then add about an inch of manure. Then another layer of wood shavings, and another layer of manure. Alternate the browns and greens in layers if possible. After every 2 layers or so, spray the pile with some water to keep it moist throughout.
It is totally fine if your materials are already mixed when you add them to the compost pile. Just don’t add them in a big mat. We’ve used a lot of straw in the barns that get really compacted and clumpy. When I put these in the compost pile, I just break them up.
Ideally, you want your compost pile to be about 3 feet tall, by about 4 feet wide. This will allow for the best decomposition, and keep the pile manageable.
I like to turn my pile at least once a week. If I need my compost sooner, I turn it more often. In order to get the compost going, it needs to stay damp like a wrung-out sponge. So if it hasn’t rained since I last turned the compost pile, I add some water. You don’t want the compost too wet, though, as it will smell and won’t decompose properly. So if you live in a very wet climate, you might want to cover with a tarp.
When I turn my pile, I like to use a hoe or shovel (I prefer a hoe), and just pull the material from the top down, moving it about a foot in one direction or the other. The material at the top becomes the bottom material, and it all gets fluffed up nicely.
I don’t personally use one, but you can certainly use a compost thermometer. In order to kill all bad bacteria and weed seeds, you want your compost pile to heat up to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit. In the Berkley method, they say that compost can be ready in as little as 18 days if you do true hot composting.
You don’t want your compost pile to get too hot, as this can result in spontaneous combustion. But a nice, steady heat will help the decomposition process along nicely.
Call me weird, but in the winter, I just love seeing the steam rolling off of my compost pile. It lets me know that I’m on the right track to have a beautiful, productive garden in the spring.
Once the material is dark brown and fluffy, and you can’t identify the individual components in the compost, it is ready for use in the garden. Good, finished compost will smell and look like really rich soil.
Green mould has stained the inside of the polystyrene box.
The DIY worm farm is working well. It’s not as active and efficient as my Can O Worms however. The worms don’t seem to be eating as much and the worm population has not increased as fast as I would have liked.
I like how DIY worm bins are cheap to scale. I decided to create a second DIY worm farm using polystyrene boxes. This one is a bit wider which is better. A greater surface area adds more oxygen and also makes it easier to spread food scraps.
A plant has sprouted and punctured a hole through the sides of one of my DIY worm farms made using polystyne boxes.
A plant has surprisingly punctured it’s way through the side of one of the boxes. Some green mould has stained the insides as well. Polystyrene is a fragile material. Some small pieces have broken off when handling the boxes. The longevity of DIY polystyrene worm bins comes into question. I can’t see it lasting more than 1-2 years.
Harvesting is not very practical. Every time I want to access the worm tea, I have to move the top box which is heavy to lift and awkward to maneuver. Commercial worm bins are less work to harvest the worm castings.