Electric Composters: What Are They and How Do They Work?By Sam Miller
DID YOU KNOW that food waste creates methane, and is 30 times worse for the environment than the CO2 from our car?
Everyone should be working to eliminate their waste, but not everyone has the time or space to compost. Find out if an electric composter is your answer to a greener, cleaner kitchen.
Electric Composters: What Are They?
An electric composter is an indoor compost bin which uses aeration, heat and pulverization to reduce food waste volume, emissions and odor. The average food recycler is countertop-friendly, though certain models are about the size of a large garbage bin.
Note: This article will refer to electric food recyclers as “electric composters”, “electric compost bins” and “electric compost tumblers” for simplicity’s sake, though we will explain how the food recycler differs from a traditional compost pile later in the article.
How Do They Work?
A food recycler breaks down food waste using a three-phase cycle that lasts an average of five hours (though some can last as long as 48 hours).
The three phases are:
Most hot compost piles reach an average of 120 - 170 ℉. This temperature is ideal, because it kills weed seeds, plant diseases and most pathogens.
Modeled after this naturally-occurring and optimal heat, food recyclers reach an internal temperature of approximately 160 ℉ during the initial Drying phase.
The heat and aeration is distributed through gentle “turning” by the unit’s grinding gears, so that every inch is sterilized, and methane-free. The air is then vented out of the back of the unit and pushed through carbon filters to capture any odors. The Drying process is what reduces food waste volume.
The electric composter’s Grinding phase is the tech-equivalent of turning a compost pile.
Once the food waste has been reduced in size (by up to 90% of its original volume), the unit’s internal grinding gears then turns the contents (an average of one full revolution per minute).
This further breaks down the food waste into small, oftentimes powder-like particles which can be easily mixed in with soil to release nutrients upon immediate application of the by-product.
This break-down process means that the final product created by the electric compost bin acts as a quick-release fertilizer. Once incorporated into the soil, the broken-down food waste will combine with the soil easily and release important nutrients to plant roots.
The small size of the organic fertilizer particles also means that the soil amendment (by-product) will almost immediately continue the decomposition process in the soil (similarly to regular compost) - or slow-release fertilizer - so that your plants and soil will be nourished for the week or so that it takes the dehydrated food waste to completely break down.
The Cooling phase of the electric compost tumbler is the final stage of the food recycler’s three-phase cycle.
This cycle returns the unit and the bucket contents to room temperature, for safe handling. This phase also continues the aeration and dehumidifying of the previous phases.
What’s the Science Behind It?
You may have already heard the term “NPK” before - but, just in case you need your memory jogged:
Why NPK Is Need-To-Know:
NPK stands for Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium.
Your plants’ soil requires these three macro-nutrients to reach optimal stem growth (height and weight, or “total biomass”), leaf volume and leaf number. While there are approximately seventeen nutrients involved in healthy plant growth, the most notable macro-nutrients are these three.
Now, the following graphic and paragraph is a simplification of a complex biological process, but essentially:
A higher ratio of nitrogen is used for increasing yield, and speeding plant growth. High-nitrogen mixtures are commonly used during spring growth.
Fertilizers higher in phosphorus are generally better for “bulking up” your plants, and strengthening their roots (though, on certain flowers, too much phosphorus will cause them to glut on the excess and die).
Potassium-heavy fertilizers promote general plant wellfare, including resistance to pests and disease, production of proteins, and water retention and growth.
A few studies have been done over the years on the use of this “homemade fertilizer” as a soil amendment.
During one of these studies, NPK levels were measured in the soil of test plots over the course of two weeks.
Over a two week period, NPK levels in the soil increased exponentially with the addition of the electrically composted food waste.
Compared to the soil control plot (plain old soil), nitrogen in the test plot increased by 8.1%, phosphorous by 401% and potassium by 2367%.
In a similar study, the soil that contained the electric compost fertilizer contained 47 600 ppm (parts-per-million), 15 500 ppm and 8 100 ppm of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium respectively.
All in all: similarly to synthetic fertilizers, an electric compost tumbler’s by-product has an average NPK of 4-1-1. This means that your plants will grow quickly, beautifully and without risk of glut or nitrogen burning.
Further, because this homemade fertilizer is completely organic (made of household food waste), it will also release a large amount of organic matter into the soil, similar to compost.
How Are Food Recyclers Different from Regular Compost?
Electric composters are technically not composters - not exactly. It all depends on what your municipality/county considers “compost”.
Food recyclers break down food waste quickly, using aeration and heat, much like a regular compost pile. However, the end-product is completely dry and sterile.
Compost is famous for its high bacteria count and its neutral pH. It makes a phenomenal fertilizer and topsoil. Immediately after cycling, food recycler fertilizer is completely sterile (lacking bacteria) and cannot be used as a topsoil.
This sterile “biomass” has its positives and its downsides: obviously, for the heavy-duty gardener who wants a moist, dense compost to lay on top of their garden, electric composters do not fit the bill.
However, for those who don’t want to a) wait, b) risk messing up a compost pile, c) attract pests d) but who do want a dry, odorless fertilizer that still nourishes their garden, electric compost tumblers are still a powerful composter alternative.
Can the Microbes Be Reactivated?
That’s right: all is not lost, for those mighty lil’ microbes.
While the food recycler’s by-product material is sterile immediately after the cycle, it will regain much of its microbial and bacterial properties once added to your garden soil.
The dry, sterile fertilizer will combine with your garden soil, continuing the break-down process, feeding and being fed in turn by the existing bacteria in the soil. So, while it’s sterile at first, it won’t be for long - nature is too darn greedy!
So, there’s something to be said about having your cake and eating it too: indoor composters offer fast, nutrient-rich, yet pathogen-free fertilizer, that will regain much of its bacteria once integrated into the soil.
For those who have concerns about food pathogens (such as e.coli) they can compost without fear, while still adding nearly ONE MILLION ppm of organic matter into their soil.
Note: Another added benefit of indoor compost bins: the swag. Most models offer probiotic tablets that will further enhance the growth of bacteria, spiking the growth of your plants even more.
Why Food Recyclers?
That’s the question, isn’t it? Why pay for a gadget to do something which Mother Nature does for free?
And sure: if you have the space, time, physical mobility and inclination to go out into the great outdoors and turn a compost pile, tumbler or bin, then get out there and do it! We stand behind you, 100%.
But these days, where urbanization is increasing by the minute and billions of people live in apartment complexes, condos, or suburban areas without much yard-space, a traditional compost pile can be a bit of a nightmare to maintain.
Compost piles are:
Compost piles are difficult, if not impossible, to turn in the winter. Not only that, but the long wait between warm seasons might lead to anaerobic rot in the frozen pile once thawed, and ruin the pile completely.
The average compost pile is around three feet by three feet - do you have the yard space to give up six feet cubed to a pile of food and paper scraps? Many city-dwellers don’t!
Depending on the method, compost piles can take anywhere between one month (if the pile is very small, has plenty of “browns” and is turned regularly) to over a year to turn into soil.
Let’s be real: food that is breaking down in the open air has a smell.
Humans don’t love it - but many animals and bugs just adore it. Fruit flies, house flies, possums, raccoons, rats, seagulls, crows, ravens, bears and neighbourhood pets all love a bit of stinky garbage to snack on.
Compost piles require turning regularly. This means that they need you to put in a bit of elbow grease, grab a pitchfork and start slinging dirt!
Or, if you’re more into “trench composting” - digging a hole, tossing in your food scraps, and letting nature do her work - this involves a good amount of digging.
Gardening can be a great workout, but if you have a bad back or something equally debilitating - or you’d just rather stay inside and not get your sweat on (no judgment) - than maybe traditional composting isn’t for you.
For compost piles, not all food waste is created equal. Not only do you have to pay attention to the nitrogen and carbon ratio (“greens” to “browns”), but you have to make absolutely sure that your pile does not have meat, dairy or processed foods.
If you do have these items, you will most likely run the risk of attracted critters, or of inviting pathogens and disease into your compost.
Food Recyclers Are:
Electric compost bins work indoors. Winter Is Absolutely Not Coming for these lil’ guys.
Under your sink, on top of your counter, in a corner of your garage, in a closet or pantry: as long as you have a working outlet and a few inches of ventilation space - you’re good to go!
Yeah, it’s that quick. Turn your unit on overnight, and wake up to a handful of powder. Not too shabby!
A danger with compost bins or piles is that, if managed incorrectly, they can absolutely reek, and emit climate-change promoting gasses. An electric compost tumbler eliminates all methane through the aeration process, and all odors with activated carbon filters.
If you have a working finger, you can pretty much run an indoor food recycler. You just need something that can press Start. And if you’re fingerless - try your elbow!
Meat, dairy, processed foods, even some bones - these electric digesters are hungry hungry hippos!
If you can, do. If you can’t, electric compost. Pretty simple, right?
No matter what, we all have to work on what kind of legacy we’re leaving behind. Methane is a very real danger to our beautiful environment - and, with the United Nations declaring a “climate crisis”, we really don’t have the option to just ignore what the science says.
We need to cut down our waste, period, and food waste is a pretty huge piece of that pie chart. So, if you live in small, urban space, and you’re wondering how you can help, check out electric composters.