Cardboard Composting

Compost piles

Compost piles

Compost happens. That’s the beauty of the wonderful way nature disposes of its dead, be it leaf, animal, the old oak tree in your front yard or you and I. It’s the best model for “zero waste” disposal, period. In nature, nothing goes to waste. It’s a perfect circle of life. The death of a mammal in the woods quickly feeds other scavenger creatures, followed by insects, fungi and bacteria, leaving the byproducts of, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, which in turn feed the soil that feeds the new plant and animal life. And all this is done in a relative nanosecond in comparison to diapers, plastic, nuclear waste and other byproducts of human existence.

As a business we strive to mimic nature. Our circle of life model started out simply enough. It included the basic composting of food scraps from our food processing kitchen and organic waste from the farm. When finished it was then returned to our soil where it nurtured the plants that were put back into our organic food products. However, some years ago, as we were assessing our environmental impact with regards to our waste stream when we had a realization. Even though we were recycling all our cardboard waste (about 5 tons/year at that time) it was not very resource efficient. Since our county does not offer recycling for businesses we hauled our cardboard to a transfer facility. That included a fifty mile round trip and a fee of $50.00 per ton to have it recycled. Considering the fuel consumed, miles driven and wear and tear on our vehicle a more sustainable path was sought.

Turning the steaming piles

Turning the steaming piles

Our current cardboard composting system started with my experiments in vermiculture and later hot composting. It has now evolved into a three-year static or passive pile process that is currently decomposing 7 tons of cardboard per year. This process was chosen for its ease of operation as well as to maintain compliance with USDA Organic standards. Because we are on a farm we have both time and space. Cardboard is layered like a giant lasagna casserole. Layers contain our food waste, leaves and other organic matter from our farm and horse manure from a nearby stable. It’s a three year process where by the we layer for an entire year with minimal turning. In the fall I roll that pile about 10 feet away and start a new one in the same spot. What we end up with is a pile of completed material that is three years old, a two year old pile that is nearly completed, the previous year’s pile and the current pile we are always adding to.

Finished piles make good playgrounds....

Finished piles make good playgrounds….

While passive composting it technically not hot, ours does get very hot as you can see from the steam rising out of the piles. That’s thanks to a discovery we made. Most will advise you to shred your cardboard. We discovered that was very expensive and labor intensive. So the lasangna process works well I suspect because layering assures good mixing of the carbon rich cardboard, the nitrogren rich manure and food scraps. Add the oxygen trapped in the corrugated cardboard you have all the right ingredients for a hot and healthy compost pile. Static pile processing is really simple if you have the time and space. Yes it takes a one to three year investment to get finished product, but once you’re there, you have a fresh batch every year. We also get lots of cool pumpkins and tomato volunteers growing out of our piles when we resist the temptation to turn them in.

Please click on “Comment” below and let me know what you think.

Further Information:

USDA Organic Definition of Compost:

“Compost: Organic matter of plant and/or animal origin managed to promote aerobic decomposition and an increase in temperature to enhance its physical and nutritive properties as a soil amendment while minimizing pathogenic organisms.”

19 Responses to “Cardboard Composting”

  1. Rhett Adams March 7, 2008 at 5:28 pm #

    I do composting at work and in interested in more details about the process. Is the end product able to be certified organic? Nice job by the way. Good local use for cardboard.

  2. Jack (uncle) Engelhart March 7, 2008 at 7:14 pm #

    I think you are very wise to compost for the reasons given. As an ex farmer, I learned some worthwhile composting methods from you,many thanks.
    Uncle Jack

  3. Timothy Young March 8, 2008 at 7:40 am #

    Rhett:
    Our compost does pass organic certification. During our farm inspection our records are audited and it is approved for use on our crops and the crops of our neighbor farmers that grow ingredients for us.

    The record keeping is the important part. If you’d like more information, feel free to call or email me.

  4. catherine valovick March 8, 2008 at 5:07 pm #

    I learned about sheet composting from Jayne Leatherman at the Eco Learning Center. You are staying true to your commitment to all organic goods used in your products. Thank you!

  5. Kathy Wolf March 24, 2008 at 9:11 pm #

    Do like this newsletter – great!
    Cardboard composting is another great idea, but can we use it for small home use? What about boxes (ie:cereal or pasta) with color and writing; does that break down?
    Can’t wait to visit your farm, heard such wonderful things from your sister Barb.

  6. Daniel Van Der Beek April 26, 2008 at 11:23 pm #

    It’s refreshing, inspiring, and uncommonly rich to happen upon such a well grounded perspective on the merits of recycling on the scale that you’ve adopted. I’ve been a ("Vegan") chef/inventor for thirty years, and always found the two careers to be totally synergistic, however rarely combined. Obviously you’ve combined them, even if you don’t think of it that way. I’m quite certain your food is thought through, and prepared with every bit as much ingenuity. From one veteran chef to another, I’m impressed, congratulations, keep up the good work, I look forward to hearing from you in future blogs. Soon I’ll have a live journal available through a site of my own, & we’ll have a "forum" for communication of sorts. Be Well Tim

  7. AlexM August 13, 2008 at 5:23 pm #

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  8. len ogonowski August 19, 2008 at 1:03 pm #

    cardboard composting is a new venture for me.I HELP MY SON’S BIKE SHOP BY RECYCLING AND NOW COMPOSTING THE BIKE BOXES(SOME OF TOTAL. I AM A MASTER COMPOSTER HAVING TAKEN THE COURSES& FIELD WORK OF IFAS.

  9. len ogonowski August 19, 2008 at 1:03 pm #

    cardboard composting is a new venture for me.I HELP MY SON’S BIKE SHOP BY RECYCLING AND NOW COMPOSTING THE BIKE BOXES(SOME OF TOTAL. I AM A MASTER COMPOSTER HAVING TAKEN THE COURSES& FIELD WORK OF IFAS.

  10. Kevin April 6, 2009 at 5:58 am #

    I love your cardboard composting. I live is Ireland, which I imagine is much wetter than where you live! We produce loads of waste cardboard and also live on a farm. May I ask you a few questions?
    a) do you sell Organic Compost? It seems a good idea to me.
    b) Do you cover your piles or just leave them open to the elements?
    c) You put food waste in – does this attract rats/vermin of all decsriptions?
    e) How tall is the pile at the begining?
    thank you!
    Kevin

  11. suraj Rajbhandari July 23, 2010 at 5:22 am #

    cardboard composting means aerobic decomposition of organic mattter inside the cardboard box not decomposing the cardbard itself.

  12. Michael September 7, 2010 at 8:30 pm #

    Hi there
    I wonder if your vermicomposting process is organic certified according to OMRI standards.
    Regards
    Michael

  13. Kevin September 8, 2010 at 6:35 am #

    Michael:
    I’m not certified by OMRI, however, my organic certifier, OCIA inspects our process annually. I’m not familiar with OMRI standards, but if we were to ever sell our compost, it may be worth looking at. Currently it is all used on site.

  14. Subodh Regmi March 9, 2011 at 2:25 am #

    Cardboard composting is a better way for solid waste management. I am a worker for Ghorahi municipality office in Nepal south Asia. We’ve done little practice for the management of municipal waste. But we aren’t satisfy. I want to apply this cardboard technic to our community in this municipality. Do you have any program for technical assist to under developed country in third world.

  15. Subodh Regmi March 9, 2011 at 6:08 am #

    Subodh:
    I don’t have any systems in place. I have space and time so I simply let nature run it’s course. If course cardboard alone doesn’t compost very fast. My piles heat up a lost fast because I’m able to introduce hot material such as food waste from our processing facility and horse manure from a nearby farm. I don’t turn them much either…only a few times a year. If I turned them more, they would break down much faster. I wish you well with this project.

  16. Charlie Krumholz March 10, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    Great Job! What would it take to compost a large amount of cardboard each year…say 30 tons? It seems like this might be a good business to start. It would take a lot of room, horse manure, or other waste stream and time…anything else?

  17. Terry April 16, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

    Are you composting waxed cardboard too? We are a farm with a farm store so order lots of stuff from other farms that usually comes in waxed cardboard. We are are sometimes able to reuse but most just goes to the landfill. I just hate hauling it all to the landfill but I see no reason why it wouldn’t compost too, just more slowly. Layering it with other hot stuff, compost, even sprinkle good soil between layers, all sorts of other compostable materials from the farm should help it compost.

  18. Terry April 18, 2011 at 7:42 am #

    Terry:
    I do not compost waxed cardboard. I don’t accumulate that much, however, I’ve been told that not only will it not break down, it is normally a petroleum based product and therefore toxic. I have not done the research because I just don’t get that much. I also avoid colored or heavily printed cardboard as well.

  19. DeLayne April 30, 2011 at 12:15 am #

    You mention avoiding wax, coloured, and heavily printed boxes. What do you suspect is in the ink? Are there any contaminents that may be part of the cardboard itself from the manufacturing, even on plain boxes? Thanks, it’s exciting to find more sources to balance compost like cardboard, which seems ever plentiful in our current context!

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