The act of composting occurs when humans intervene in and enhance Nature’s process of decomposing organic matter such as trees, plants, and animal waste.

Compost, formally known as sterile and valuable soil amendment, is created when we mix specific kitchen food residue in a pile or a container with leaf and yard residue at home or at a commercial composting operation. All animal and plant waste will decompose or rot, and composting is a method in which we can control that breakdown to keep odors and greenhouse gases to a minimum and provide a valuable end product.

At least 30 percent of our municipal waste stream, what we humans produce from our daily activities, is organic matter. Ideally, finding a way to divert this organic part of the waste stream to better uses, such as composting, is not only a significant municipal cost-saving measure, it’s a vital part of ensuring a healthier planet for the future.

Composting at home

Let’s start with the relatively simple process of taking care of our own residential organics.

The easiest disposal for leaves and grass clippings if we have the space is to simply rake it in a pile and let nature decompose it over time.

One method to compost kitchen food scraps, such as vegetable peelings, fruit, coffee grounds, egg shells and dairy products, is to bury to scraps in a hole dug at least 12 inches deep, covering them with at least 8 inches of dirt. Within a year, these kitchen food scraps will break down into the soil.

Another simple method is to take the kitchen scraps and bury them in the middle of the pile of leaf and grass clippings, if the pile is at least a cubic yard — 3-by-3-by-3 feet — which is large enough to heat naturally as the material breaks down.

Small tree branches can be cut them into smaller pieces and piled in the woods to break down over time. Many cities and towns have pickup programs for branches, leaves and grass clippings. Many municipalities also have areas at the transfer station where these same materials can be dropped off, shredded or composted. Homeowners can pick up some good compost after the decomposition.

The best method to compost at home is with an enclosed four-sided bin, either with concrete blocks or wooden pallets, or by setting stakes in a circle and enclosing it with chicken wire.

These methods can be found online or by contacting the Maine Department of Environmental Protection or a local University of Maine Cooperative Extension Office.

We at Sustain Mid Maine Coalition recommend using recycled plastic compost bins, which are animal-resistant and often are easier to turn the compost.

They come as stationary bins, tumblers or “compost balls” that can be rolled to turn the material. They range in price from the Earth Machine, which is available at Kennebec Valley Council of Governments for $45 up to $500 for the most expensive compost tumblers. Many enclosed recycled plastic compost bins can be found online for $100-$200, many come with free shipping.

compostable materials

There are two basic types of materials: “browns” or carbon materials and “green” or nitrogen materials.

Browns include dead leaves, shredded branches, sawdust from untreated weed, wood chips, and hay or straw. Greens includes kitchen food scraps, fresh grass clippings and green plants or flowers from the garden.

“How to Compost” brochures provide ideal ratios of browns to greens in compost piles or bins. We like to keep it simple and just say about 3 to 1 browns to greens.

That is, a cubic foot of food scraps from the kitchen requires three cubic feet of leaves mixed with it.

For beginners, the best kitchen food scraps to add to the compost bin are vegetable peelings, fruit scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds and tea bags. Beginners should try to keep out meat, bones, shellfish, fish and heavy fats. Many compost brochures say keep out the dairy products, too, but I find that dairy products compost just as well if they are mixed with the browns.

For more advanced composters, fats, shellfish, meat and fish products are fine to include with a pile of between one and two cubic yards of materials, and will add good nitrogen to the compost.

Commercial Composting

Maine is well known for its fishing industry, lobsters, shellfish, blueberries, apple orchards and dairy industry, which all produce organic residuals that must be managed.

Fortunately, many commercial compost operations handle these organics. One of the closest commercial compost operations is the Rainbow Valley Bragg Family Farm in Sidney, which composts manure, food residuals and some shellfish and sells it on a commercial scale.

Living Acres in New Sharon composts farm products and shellfish. A growing operation, Coast of Maine Organics, composts Maine wild blueberry residuals, salmon waste, ground mussels and peat into a wonderful soil amendment that is bagged and sold at local nurseries.

Knox Ridge Farm in Knox composts both farm and shellfish waste and sells the finished product commercially. Several facilities Downeast compost ground crab waste with sawdust and lobster shells with barn dressing.

Compost at Fairs and Events

Maine is also known for its many summer fairs from Fort Kent to Kittery. Of course, these fairs include a lot of food vendors since eating is one of our favorite pastimes. Sadly, most of these food residuals end up in the landfill or at the incinerator.

The Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce’s Taste of Waterville, however, collects food scraps and paper plates. The event is on Aug. 6, and, for the fourth year, Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition volunteers will collect much of the food and paper products at disposal and recycling stations set up around the event. Once collected, volunteers will take the separated food and paper residuals to the Bragg Farm, where we sort through it again to remove any contaminants before it is sent the the farm’s composting facility.

For more information about composting or composting facilities in Maine, go online and search for “Composting in Maine” or contact Maine DEP or local Cooperative Extension Office.

Geoffrey Hill and Ross Nason are master composters, have worked on commercial composting projects and volunteer for Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Team, of which Nason is the chairman.

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