Party waste to Great British Compost: how it works...
Whether you're marking Meghan and Harry's big day with a traditional street party or simply enjoying a long al fresco lunch with friends, when people start to make those tired and happy goodbyes chances are you'll be looking around at a lot of food and drink left over.
Savvy party throwers know that most leftovers, including odd items such as crisps, can be portioned up and frozen for family meals, snacks or another event. Yet what about those half-drunk glasses of wine and juice, pineapple and melon peels, half-chewed celery stalks, apple cores and more?
Hopefully you're part of one of the many thousands of British households who save their food waste for recycling collection or compost your own at home, and all those nutrient-packed bits and bobs gain a second life several weeks later as lovely, crumbly garden compost. But did you ever take a moment to think how that happens? No, neither did we!
In honour of International Compost Awareness Week 2018, let's discover how to play perfect host to the critters that keep our compost heaps ticking over, taking us from party clean up to 'brown gold for gardeners'...
Step 1: A proper spread for composting guests
So why does our biodegradable party waste need to go on the compost heap or to the compost making facility, why can't we just dig our compostables directly into our flower bed soil and call it a day? Surely it will end up in the same place anyway?
We could do just that and, yes, eventually our compostable food waste would break down into the soil, however we'd be waiting a lot longer. Why? Composting – piling everything together – speeds the process by intensifying the natural rotting down process under ideal conditions: warm, damp and aerated.
Tip for home composters: To really please your composting guests, mix your party food waste additions ('greens') into the pile with roughly the same amount of shredded paper, cardboard and chopped woody materials ('browns').
Step 2: Sending out invitations to the heap
Now, by mixing a little ordinary soil into the heap, the microorganisms that do the dirty work of breaking down the organic materials arrive at the party: bacteria and fungi. We also invite a whole variety of beneficial beetles, bugs, worms and larvae who will keep the heap's populations healthy and in balance by feeding off the bacteria and each other.
Tip for home composters: Sprinkle a little garden soil over your heap when you add compostables to introduce your guests more quickly.
Without this 'foodweb' of bustling creatures, no compost! Our food waste would just be sitting around...
Step 3: Making sure composting guests are nicely lubricated – but not too far gone!
Keeping composting guests happy is what it's all about: not too dry, as the bacteria will start dying off from dehydration, not too wet and dense or they'll die off from lack of air.
Tip for home composters: Water's ok for moistening a heap, however leftover wine and beer are even better! Not only are they good party starters, they're also excellent compost starters. The yeast in both wine and beer quickly breaks down lignin – a tough structural material in plant stems and bark - giving the bacteria and fungi more opportunities to get stuck in.
Step 4: Make sure everyone mingles
Some very experienced gardeners argue that there's no need to turn a compost heap, provided you add a good balanced mixture of 'browns' and 'greens'.
True, yet if you want speedy results, a regular mingling aerates the compostables and ensures bacteria and fungi can work their magic across all parts of the pile.
Of course, it's a lot easier to turn a pile if you have a massive bulldozer to hand! Check out this hot pile of rapidly maturing compost at a food waste recycling facility. Why the steam? When microbes start eating all that leftover material, their digestive processes give off heat, hence the steamy atmosphere around a living compost pile.
Tip for home composters: If your compost heap gets sloppy, cold and smelly due to bacteria die off, turn out the bin and remove any usable compost from the base. Starting with a layer of woody cuttings, alternate the partially broken down goodies with layers of scrunched up paper or shredded cardboard and you should soon find things hotting up.