Troubleshooting Common Composting Issues and Solutions


Composting is a natural process that transforms organic waste into nutrient-rich soil. Composting correctly reduces waste, enriches the soil, and contributes to a more sustainable environment. However, like any natural process, composting can face its fair share of challenges. 

This article will explore common composting issues and provide practical solutions to ensure successful results. Whether you are a seasoned composter or just starting, these troubleshooting tips will help you overcome hurdles and achieve a thriving compost pile.

Compost pile not heating up

Composting relies on the activity of microorganisms that thrive in warm conditions. The compost pile must reach and maintain a specific temperature to achieve optimal composting. Warm environments are needed for microorganisms to break down organic matter quickly and safely. 

Possible reasons for a cold compost pile

If your compost pile is not heating up, it might be due to a couple of reasons:

  • Lack of nitrogen-rich materials, often referred to as “greens.”
  • Improper aeration and lack of turning could result in a cold compost pile. Improper aeration restricts the flow of oxygen necessary for microbial activity.
  • Small compost pile size; a small compost pile might not generate enough heat to sustain high temperatures.

Solutions to increase the compost pile’s temperature

How do you increase the temperature of a compost pile? Below, you’ll find a range of solutions to achieve this:

  • Add more nitrogen-rich materials such as kitchen scraps, fresh garden waste, and coffee grounds.
  • Regularly turn the compost pile to improve aeration and mix the materials. Doing so helps increase microbial activity and promotes higher temperatures.
  • Consider expanding the compost pile’s size, as larger piles tend to retain heat better.

Foul odors

If you notice a foul smell from your compost bin, it is a sign that something is not quite right in the decomposition process. Foul odors in the compost bin usually indicate an imbalance in the composting process. There are two possible types of odor from the composting process:

  • Ammonia.  If you notice a strong ammonia odor, this is a sign that your pile contains too much nitrogen. This is most likely due to the overuse of green materials.
  • Rotten eggs. If your compost smells like rotten eggs, your pile has become anaerobic and requires some oxygen.

Tips to prevent and address compost bin odor

Maintaining an odor-free compost bin is key to a harmonious composting experience. Here are some practical tips to help you prevent and address unpleasant odors:

  • Meat and fatty food wastes should be avoided as much as possible since they are the primary sources of foul odor.
  • Cover kitchen scraps with a layer of browns (e.g., dry leaves or shredded paper) to help prevent odors from escaping.
  • If you are composting in an enclosed bin, ensure proper ventilation to allow for air circulation.
  • Turn the compost pile regularly to promote aeration and prevent anaerobic conditions that lead to bad odors.

Slow decomposition

If your compost pile is experiencing an unusually slow breakdown, it could be attributed to a few factors, including an excess of carbon-rich materials, oversized composting materials, or inadequate moisture levels.

Techniques to accelerate the composting process

To expedite the breakdown process, consider employing these methods:

  • Chop or shred larger organic materials to increase their surface area, making it easier for microbes to break them down.
  • Maintain a balanced compost pile by combining greens and browns in the correct proportions.
  • Ensure the compost pile remains consistently moist but not waterlogged, as excessive dryness or wetness can slow decomposition.

Patience and expectations for compost maturity

Remember, nature operates on its own timeline, and your efforts will yield rich rewards over time. So, keep the following points in mind:

  • Timely transformation: Understand that composting takes time, and the process can vary depending on factors such as weather, compost pile size, and the types of materials used.
  • Assessing maturity: Evaluate compost maturity by observing its texture—fully composted material should have a dark, crumbly, earthy appearance.
  • Unfinished compost: If the compost is not fully matured, use it as mulch or incorporate it back into the pile to continue the decomposition process.

Pest problems

Pests may invade your compost pile, causing disturbances and potential health hazards. Common pests such as flies and rodents may be attracted to meat, fish, fats, or cooking and salad oils. Natural ways to control pests without harmful chemicals include:

  • Opting for a sealed composting system, such as a tumbler or a compost bin with a tight-fitting lid, to prevent pests from accessing the organic matter.
  • Avoiding putting meat and dairy as these food items might attract pes. Stick to vegetable scraps and plant-based materials.
  • When adding kitchen waste to the pile, bury it beneath a layer of existing compost to deter pests.

Compost too wet or too dry

Composting requires the proper moisture balance (40-60%) in the compost pile to effectively decompose organic material. Too much moisture can make the compost soggy and wet, creating a slimy, smelly, anaerobic environment.

At the same time, insufficient humidity can cause the compost to dry and slow down the decomposition. Moisture levels of compost can be adjusted for optimal decomposition through the following steps:

  • If the compost is too wet: mix in dry leaves, straw, or sawdust to absorb excess moisture and reestablish the right moisture balance. You can also turn the compost to increase evaporation.
  • If the compost is too dry: add nitrogen-rich material, such as kitchen scraps and fresh grass clippings, to introduce moisture as they break down. You can also use a lid to decrease the evaporation process. 

In conclusion 

By troubleshooting these common composting issues and applying the suggested solutions, you can ensure a smooth and successful composting process. Composting not only reduces waste sent to landfills but also provides a valuable resource to enrich your garden soil, supporting a more sustainable and eco-friendly way of living.

If you would like to see more resources on composting, check out the Household Management Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Household Management Science Labs today.household management science labs

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