What do you think of when you think of trash? A smelly, yucky garbage bin? A weekly chore? Litter that ruins the beauty of the world around you?

All those things can be true. But did you realize that trash can also be useful? It's true! When you gather together certain types of trash in a compost pile or bin, you can turn it into something that your garden will love!

Did you realize that about 30% of all garbage in the United States consists of food and yard waste? From coffee grounds and orange peels to grass clippings and egg shells, much of what we throw into the trash that ends up in landfills could actually be turned into something beneficial.

Composting is a fantastic way to recycle these types of waste. Composting is a process that takes advantage of the fact that microscopic organisms that live in the soil will break down organic materials, such as old plant and animal tissues, and turn them into new soil called compost.

You can think of composting as an example of the natural life cycle of organic things. They grow, die, decay and eventually return to the Earth as new soil that helps other things grow. In addition to tiny microorganisms, earthworms also help speed this process along by feeding on some of the organic materials in soil.

Although composting is a natural process, you can help it along by creating special compost piles — sometimes called heaps — in your yard or by using compost bins you can build or buy at the store. To create the ideal conditions for composting, you'll need just a few things: organic waste, soil, water and air.

The soil provides the microorganisms that will eat the organic waste. The air provides oxygen and the water helps to speed the process along. Organic waste can take many forms, including leaves, newspaper, fruits, grass clippings, egg shells, vegetables, coffee grounds and woody materials.

When you start a compost pile, you need a mixture of both carbon and nitrogen. Carbon is found in organic materials like leaves, straw, newspaper and woody materials. Nitrogen is found in things like fruit and vegetable waste, grass clippings and coffee grounds. Healthy compost contains about one-quarter nitrogen and three-quarters carbon.

As microorganisms break down these materials, they release carbon dioxide and heat. A good compost pile will get quite warm (as high as 100-150° F!). To keep the process moving along as quickly as possible, it's necessary to keep it active by turning it and watering it frequently. This allows needed oxygen to be circulated throughout the pile.

Although you can compost many things, there are certain things to avoid. Meat and dairy products contain a lot of fat, which can cause your compost pile to emit a very unpleasant odor if these items are added. You should also avoid human and animal waste, since they can contain diseases and parasites.

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