Resource Use

What should you do with garden waste during lockdown?

It would be an understatement to say that this year’s International Compost Awareness Week (3-9 May) arrives in difficult times.

An image of compost

If writing a year ago, with life on full speed, composting could be something we are keen to fit in but a task we may leave out.

But with the Covid-19 outbreak sending the country into lockdown and greatly affecting waste services – 44 per cent of garden waste services in England are experiencing disruption and 28 per cent remain suspended – many councils are asking residents to start home composting to relieve the strain on garden waste collections across the UK.

Authorities such as Cardiff Council and Somerset Waste Partnership have encouraged residents to home compost to deal with their excess grass cuttings and hedge trimmings following the suspension of normal garden waste collections.

Other councils have been making it easier for residents to acquire compost bins: Calderdale Council has been offering residents a special rate for composting bins on, while Lambeth Council is offering 30 free compost bins to residents as part of an initiative with waste management company Veolia for International Compost Awareness Week.

Craig Stephens, Campaign Manager at Recycle Now, says: “Local authorities across the UK are working hard to provide the best possible service during the Covid-19 crisis. Every bit of rubbish, recycling, garden and food waste we can reduce will make a real difference to maintaining a good service for everyone.”

Clearly, reducing waste through composting or cutting down on food waste is a key part of council strategies for keeping waste and recycling collections going and preventing waste pile-ups.

But home composting also brings a wealth of personal and environmental benefits. As our daily lives have warped into a new reality during the Covid-19 pandemic, people have been seeking spaces in nature in which to ground themselves, whether this be our gardens, parks or countryside, tapping into nature’s natural rhythm as spring now moves towards summer. 

Composting in these times is not just a positive habit to create going forward, but it also allows us to take an active role within a natural process, rethinking what we class as waste by seeing it evolve into a valuable and nutrient-rich soil to use on our gardens.

Not only this but it also holds a great environmental benefit, boosting soil health and reducing pesticides, artificial fertilisers and methane emissions from landfills, which are 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide emissions.

As the wealth of information on composting can be daunting when first getting started, Resource has gathered some ideas and created some steps on how to make a start.

Step 1: The compost bin

Starting composting doesn’t need to come with a hefty price tag. It can in fact be free. David Garrett, Head of Knowledge Transfer at Garden Organic, says: "Setting up a compost bin is easy and can be done without any expenditure by simply creating a heap or building a bay with old pallets.”

If buying a compost bin, Garden Organic suggests a compost bin should be frost-, rain- and sun-proof. A wood or recycled plastic bin should be bought whenever possible in order to maintain the heat insulation and breathing capacity, creating the right conditions for decomposition. Find out more about Garden Organic’s guidance on buying a bin and how to make your own wooden compost bin on its website.

When the right conditions are cultivated microorganisms thrive leading to the decomposition of organic materials. Conditions for successful composting are not just down to the type of bin structure you use but also where the bin is placed. Recycle Now outlines guidelines on how to set up your bin, principally in a sunny spot and on bare soil, keeping it aerated and allowing for drainage.

Step 2: What to put in

Having created a suitable bin and found a perfect location for it to go, then consideration ultimately goes to the next key step – what to put in it. What will compost?

Garden Organic suggests that around 40 per cent of the average dustbin contents are suitable for home composting. Garrett comments that following the spell of good spring weather, where we have got out working in our gardens, we must not simply fill the bin with grass clippings. “For a successful composting outcome it’s important you balance these green materials with a good quantity of browns such as toilet roll tubes, cereal boxes, and egg boxes. Don’t worry about tearing the dry materials up, throw them in as they are and they will keep air in the bin and soak up moisture.”

Advice points to keeping a balanced mixture of green nitrogen-rich ingredients (such as grass cuttings, young weeds, uncooked fruit and vegetable peelings) and brown carbon-rich ingredients (such as waste paper and junk mail and paper towels). Meat, fish, dairy products and cooked food must not be composted as they can attract vermin. To find an extensive list of ingredients for compost see Garden Organic’s 'What can I compost?' list.

Step 3: Keep on turning

Producing quality compost is an exercise in biding your time with quality compost taking anything between 9-18 months to mature. However, whilst the process is ongoing, turning over your compost is important to speed up decomposition, keeping the heap aerated and therefore supplying the microbes at work.

Step 4: Use it

After time well spent waiting, you now have some dark brown earthy-smelling material that resembles soil, indicating the process is complete. It is then best left for a month or two to 'mature' before it is used in your garden.

Step 5: Join the online community

Due to Covid-19, many home composting initiatives are moving online. These can be a great resource for learning more about composting and joining a community.

International Compost Awareness Week organisers have produced a set of ideas on spreading knowledge surrounding composting. The great team of Master Composters volunteers at Garden Organic is set on spreading the word about composting and supporting fellow composters or those starting out despite not being able to attend physical events during the pandemic.