Composting 101: Home vs. Industrial Composting

Want to start composting your waste, but are a little confused by all the terminology and types of composting? We're here to break it down for you.

Let's start with the basics. What is composting? Composting is the process of breaking down organic matter (including food scraps, yard waste, and certain packaging) into a soil amendment that can be inserted back into the ecosystem by supporting new plant growth. Composting is a great way to reduce the amount of waste we send to landfills. As a bonus, composting also helps avoid the greenhouse gases that would've been emitted by organic matter rotting in a landfill for years.

Now, let's talk about the difference between home composting and industrial composting. Home composting is when individuals or households compost their own food and yard waste using a bin or pile in their backyard. Anyone can start a home compost pile and turn their individual food waste into garden fertilizer. Industrial composting, on the other hand, is when larger-scale operations (like farms or commercial composting facilities) process high volumes of organic waste. For those of us with green or brown bins at our curb that collect compost, these usually go to an industrial composting facility. 

What are the key differences between these two types of composting? Let's take a closer look.

  1. Scale: One of the biggest differences between home composting and industrial composting is scale. Home composting is typically done on a small scale of around one cubic yard or one cubic meter in an household backyard*. Industrial composting, on the other hand, is done on a much larger scale, with facilities processing tons of organic waste every day.
  1. Temperature: Another key difference between home composting and industrial composting is temperature. In order for organic matter to break down efficiently and effectively, it needs to reach a certain temperature (typically around 90-140°F or 32-60ºC)**. Backyard home composting systems may not generate enough heat to reach this temperature, which can result in slower decomposition and the potential for odors or pests. Select countertop composting devices are starting to offer more controlled temperature conditions to home composters, but still these devices are small scale and can only compost around 0.8 gallons or 3 liters at a time***. Industrial composting facilities, on the other hand, are designed to generate and maintain the high temperatures needed for efficient composting. 
  1. Input Materials: The types of input materials used in home composting versus industrial composting can also differ. Home composting systems typically accept a wide variety of organic waste, including food scraps, yard waste, and even paper products. In fact, a good balance of high-nitrogen food waste and high-carbon yard and garden materials is crucial for a successful home compost pile*. Many backyard composters may also use worms to aid the process, which is also known as vermicomposting*. However, some materials (like meat, dairy products, or compostable packaging) may not be suitable for home composting due to the potential for odor or the need for more controlled conditions. For example, while some uncoated paper packaging may be suitable for backyard composting, other compostable containers such as cutlery, jars, and bottles need to go in your curbside industrial composting bin.
  1. Process Time: Because of the differences in scale and input materials, the process time for home composting versus industrial composting can also differ. Home composting can take several months to a year to produce usable compost, depending on the size of the compost pile and the efficiency of the composting process*. Industrial composting, on the other hand, is typically much faster, with large-scale facilities able to produce usable compost in a matter of weeks. Compostable packaging in particular must be tested against standardized methods such as ASTM D6400 or  ISO 17088 to ensure that the packaging can degrade in an industrial composting setting within 90 days.
  1. End Product: Finally, the end product of home composting versus industrial composting can also differ. Home composting typically produces a high-quality compost that is great for backyard gardens and small-scale landscaping projects. Industrial composting facilities, on the other hand, may produce different types of compost products (like soil amendments for agriculture or landscaping) that are designed to meet specific needs and requirements.

So, which type of composting is right for you? That depends on a variety of factors, including the amount of organic waste you generate, the space you have available, and the material you are trying to compost. If you're just getting started with composting and mostly want to dispose of kitchen food scraps, home composting in the backyard or with a countertop device may be the way to go. If you're trying to compost store-bought packaging, be sure to check with the manufacturer on disposal instructions in your area and deposit accordingly into your industrial composting bin (or the trash bin if your area doesn't offer curbside composting). Be sure to check whether your product is recyclable or compostable, as packaging is often only one or the other.

One note of advice on composting store-bought products--just because something is "biodegradable" doesn't mean it's compostable. A biodegradable item is anything that eventually breaks down in the environment, with no definition on how long it takes or whether it's toxic after decomposing. In contrast, compostable products have undergone defined testing to verify that they decompose within a specific time frame in a compost environment. When shopping for compostable products and packaging, make sure to check that your manufacturer has 3rd party testing or certification to prove compostability and that the resulting compost is non-toxic to the environment and plant growth. 

 Citations: *, **Cornell , ***Lomi