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Breaking it Down: How Surface Area Drives Composting Performance

Composting is a remarkable process that transforms organic waste into nutrient-rich soil amendments, reducing landfill waste and benefiting your garden. However, the time it takes for composting to occur can vary widely depending on several factors. This article will delve into the significance of your compost’s surface area in accelerating the breakdown process, making composting even more accessible and efficient.

Rake, shovel, and garden hoe in gravel
The journey from kitchen scraps and yard waste to dark, crumbly compost involves a complex interplay of variables. According to the University of Illinois Extension's research on composting, the time required for composting is influenced by factors such as the size of the compost pile, the types of materials used, the frequency of turning the pile, and yes, the surface area of the compostable materials. Other factors, including moisture levels, temperature, and oxygen levels, also impact the speed of the composting process.

Optimal Pile Size for Efficient Composting

Infographic about surface area and composting performance

For optimal composting efficiency, it's recommended to maintain a compost pile that falls between 3 cubic feet and 5 cubic feet in volume, which corresponds to approximately 27-125 cubic feet. This size range promotes sufficient heating at the center of the pile, aiding in the breakdown of materials. While the size of the pile matters, an equally important aspect is the surface area of the materials within the pile.


Surface Area's Impact on Decomposition


Surface area plays a pivotal role in determining the speed of decomposition; by breaking down compostable materials into smaller fragments, whether through chopping, shredding, or mulching leaves, you effectively increase their surface area. This, in turn, exposes more particle surfaces to air and provides a larger interface for microorganisms to initiate decomposition. As microorganisms can only access the outer layer of particles, smaller particles ensure a larger proportion is accessible to them. This accelerates the decomposition process and results in quicker temperature increases within the compost heap. While it's not mandatory to maximize surface area, doing so significantly expedites the composting process.


Balancing Surface Area and Environmental Factors

While maximizing surface area is beneficial for efficient composting, it's important to strike a balance with other environmental factors. The size and shape of your compost pile also influence the composting rate and temperature. Smaller particles and larger piles encourage rapid decomposition, while larger piles aim to minimize contact with the surrounding environment, conserving heat.


Understanding the role of compost surface area in expediting the breakdown process can empower you to make the most of your composting efforts. By breaking down materials into smaller parts, you provide a conducive environment for microorganisms to thrive and generate heat. Remember, while optimizing surface area is crucial, maintaining a balance with other factors ensures an effective composting process.


Let’s Go Compost is a community-led effort to make compost bins free and accessible. We upcycle empty bulk ingredient bins into free, food-safe worm compost bins that are donated back to the community. Click here to get a free compost bin at our next pick up event.

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