The Potential Disadvantages of Composting

Composting has become an increasingly popular practice for managing food scraps and yard waste in an environmentally friendly way. When done correctly, composting offers many benefits – it recycles nutrients, improves soil health, reduces methane from landfills, and more. However, composting does come with some potential drawbacks that should be considered before starting a compost system at home or on a larger scale. Being aware of these challenges can help composters take steps to minimize any negatives and have the best experience possible.

Initial Investment Can Be High

One of the biggest barriers to composting is the initial investment required to get an effective system set up. While basic backyard composting can be done for very little money using makeshift bins, quality composting systems and equipment usually require more significant upfront costs.

Compost Bins and Tumblers Carry Costs

Purchasing compost bins made of plastic, wood, or wire mesh can cost anywhere from $50 to $300 depending on size and features. More complex compost tumblers, which make turning compost easier, are priced from $100 to as much as $900. Even DIY bins built out of pallets or fencing require purchasing materials. For homeowners composting on a small scale, these costs may not be too prohibitive. But for larger operations or commercial compost facilities, the expenses add up quickly.

Site Preparation Adds Up

Beyond basic equipment, preparing a site for large-scale composting requires significant investment. The composting site needs to be graded and leveled, often with a concrete pad or asphalt foundation to prevent contaminants from leaching into the soil. Proper drainage and containment features are vital. Close access to water sources and electricity for any monitoring equipment is also key. These site considerations, as well as permits and professional consultation, mean that starting a commercial composting endeavor requires major financial backing.

Cost-Benefit Balance Over Long Term

The good news is that once the initial investments in quality composting equipment and site preparation are made, the ongoing costs are relatively low. The inputs for compost like yard waste and food scraps have little to no cost. And the end product of nutrient-rich compost can be used or sold to recoup some funds. With proper maintenance and management, a compost system can provide benefits for many years. But breaking through that initial cost barrier is key.

For individuals and communities passionate about composting, there are ways to reduce startup costs. Grants or government incentives may be available. Nonprofits sometimes provide discounted group rates on bins. And DIY approaches with recycled materials are always an option too. Being creative and frugal with compost systems helps maximize value from the practice.

Process Takes Significant Time

Another potential drawback of composting is that it takes time. Cold or hot composting methods both require several months for organic materials to break down and transform into finished compost. Those interested in composting need patience and understanding of this slow process.

Hot Composting Speeds Things Up

There are two main approaches to composting – hot and cold methods. Hot composting involves maintaining high temperatures in the compost pile, around 130-160°F, to speed decomposition by heat-loving bacteria. Food scraps and yard waste can be broken down into usable compost in as little as 4-6 weeks with the hot method. But this requires close monitoring and turning of the pile to keep temperatures elevated, adding to the labor involved.

Cold Composting Takes Many Months

With cold composting, piles are left unturned and temperatures remain low. This passive approach takes 6 months to 2 years to fully break down materials. Cold composting requires less effort but patience is key. Some discouragement can set in after adding to a compost pile for many months with little seeming result. But given enough time, cold composting does work.

System Maturation Ongoing

It’s important to understand that even after the initial composting period ends, the microbial ecosystem in the pile continues developing. Finished compost can take 6-12 months to fully mature. Compost in commercial systems may go through a lengthy curing phase too. So the timeline for quality compost measured in seasons or years should be expected when starting out.

Maintenance is Critical

Composting isn’t a “set it and forget it” practice. To create ideal conditions for decomposition, compost piles need regular maintenance and monitoring. This hands-on aspect can become labor intensive or slip through the cracks over time.

Water and Aeration Key for Fast Process

Proper moisture and aeration are essential for fast composting by microorganisms. Piles need to be turned or mixed to introduce oxygen. The moisture level should be maintained like a wrung-out sponge. Too much or too little water slows the process. This requires checking and adjusting the pile frequently.

Food Scraps Attract More Pests

When food waste like fruits, vegetables, eggshells and coffee grounds are composted, more care is required. Meat, fish, dairy and fatty foods should be avoided altogether to prevent odors and pests. But even plant-based food scraps need frequent coverage with leaves or yard clippings to minimize smells and flies. Monitoring food compost piles is crucial.

Troubleshooting Issues Takes Time

Issues inevitably arise with composting needing troubleshooting. If odors, pests or insufficient decomposition occur, the cause must be diagnosed through trial and error. Composting is a dynamic process requiring adaptability and vigilance. Hands-off approaches lead to failure.

Risk of Unpleasant Odors

When organic waste decomposes anaerobically without oxygen, it creates powerful odors. Even with ideal conditions, composting can result in some unpleasant smells. This is a natural part of the process but needs management.

Ammonia and Volatile Acids Release Stink

Anaerobic digestion of nitrogen-rich materials like food and grass clippings creates ammonia gas which smells strongly of urine. Volatile organic acids can also form, which give a sour, acidic odor. Turning piles to oxygenate them helps combat this. But some smell is inherent.

Food Scraps Increase Odor Risk

Composting food waste significantly increases odor potential. Meat, fish, grease and dairy are the worst. Even fruit and vegetable scraps can turn foul and must be covered promptly. For urban or indoor composting, odor control is difficult.

Wind Direction Important for Siting

Outdoor compost piles should be sited with wind direction in mind. Prevailing winds can carry scents to neighbors. Compost odors near windows or patios creates nuisance. Sometimes covering piles can constrain smells. But avoiding any whiff takes vigilance.

Space Constraints an Obstacle

Composting requires having adequate space for the system set up. For backyard composters with small yards, limited room for piles can be an obstacle. Urban areas and apartments have little to no room to compost. Lack of space limits this practice.

Multiple Bins Help With Space Limitations

Backyard composters can opt for smaller multi-bin systems to save space while composting continuously. A 3-bin turning system allows materials to be shifted through the batches efficiently. Elevated or underground compost bins also have smaller footprints. But yards under a quarter acre are still constrained.

Shared Community Systems an Option

For urban areas and apartments, group composting systems are one solution. A network of collection bins allows more households to compost food waste together, which is then maintained at a shared site. Some cities offer this for residents lacking space. But not all urban dwellers have access yet.

Adequate Space Key for Commercial Operations

Space constraints are a huge barrier to large-scale composting. Commercial facilities need several acres to spread and turn large compost piles with equipment and vehicles. With rising land costs, these big sites are limited. Urban composting operations are especially short on adequate space.

Managing Leachate Runoff

Leachate is the liquid runoff generated as water percolates through compost piles. This nutrient-rich effluent needs proper management to avoid contamination issues. Preventing uncontrolled leachate is a challenge.

Nutrients and Contaminants in Leachate

Compost leachate contains high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and organic matter which can negatively impact water bodies. It may also contain salts, pathogens, trace metals and other pollutants if the feedstock has contaminants. Runoff must be controlled.

Outdoor Pads and Covered Piles Help

Outdoor compost sites should be established on sealed concrete pads or asphalt to prevent soil infiltration. Covering piles helps reduce volume. Establishing drainage channels, collection ponds, and storage tanks may be necessary to control leachate.

Regulations on Discharge Vary

Commercial composting operations are often prohibited from discharging leachate to waterways or sewer systems. Onsite treatment through constructed wetlands, aeration, and filtration may be required. Rules vary regionally so legal compliance is critical.

Risk of Compost Contaminants

The quality of finished compost depends heavily on keeping contaminants out of the feedstocks. Even with efforts to filter inputs, compost can contain glass, plastics and other hazards. These unwanted compounds can limit uses for the final product.

Plastics Persist Through Process

Plastic bags, wrappings, and containers often end up in municipal green waste used for compost. While composting helps break plastics down into smaller pieces, total degradation is rare. Plastic bits and residue remain risks in finished compost and digestate.

Glass and Metals Don’t Decompose

Glass bottles, ceramics and metal objects may be accidentally or intentionally tossed in compost piles. Unlike organics, these materials won’t break down and can shard or leach chemicals. Quality control is needed to remove inorganics.

Treated Wood, Paint Contribute Toxins

Pressure-treated lumber, painted wood debris, and construction materials often get into compost meant for gardens. These can leach arsenic, chromium and lead into the final product. Such toxins have no place in compost.

Permitting Can Be Difficult

Depending on the scale of operations, composting systems may be subject to permitting, regulations and siting restrictions that complicate setup. Navigating the legal requirements can be a significant hurdle.

Backyard Composting Unregulated

There are generally no permits or rules needed for small-scale residential backyard composting for personal use. But some homeowners associations prohibit compost piles for aesthetic reasons. Most urban areas allow low-impact home systems.

Commercial Systems Face More Oversight

Once composting operations accept material from off-site or engage in wholesale distribution of compost, they fall under environmental regulations. Site restrictions, operating permits, and testing requirements apply to prevent nuisance and hazards.

State & Local Laws Vary

Composting rules are established at state and local levels, leading to complex variations across regions. Laws cover air emissions, water discharges, storage times, feedstock materials, end product quality, and more. Commercial operations must comply to stay open.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

Composting has clear environmental benefits and is a sustainable practice overall. But like any activity, it has inherent drawbacks that should be considered honestly. Investing time to research local regulations, troubleshoot issues, and balance costs will help composters be prepared and successful in applying this philosophy. With realistic expectations of the challenges involved, the composting process can be perfected to maximize rewards.