Monday, July 31, 2017

Building Compost Bins

 Last week, July 24th, I set out on a project of building a sturdy compost bin to replace the composting system that I inherited. While the compost was indeed composting, the structure was rather rickety, with spindly wooden posts holding up a plastic netting that was secured to the posts with twist ties that you might find on a bag of bread. It was not exactly built to last, but it definitely did its job for however long it was there. Below, you'll see the old "bin" in its final moments of glory.

Compost bins need love too!
In order to prepare for the construction project, I picked up 5 sturdy pallets (made in Canada) from a local business, and picked up some joints and screws from home depot. All the materials fell into place nicely, I brought the tools I would need for the project from my house, and when I arrived at the Learning Garden, I was ready to build!

Bringing the pallets into the garden with the help of my trusty Subaru
The materials

The materials I needed were somewhat contained, though some things did get added part way through the process. I needed 5 pallets, 12 ninety degree corner joints, a box of screws, the right drill bit to match the screws, a few pieces of scrap wood to sink screws into, a saw to cut them to size, and a little bit of patience for the whole process.

The first corner complete, a few more to go.
Things got off to a good start, with the first two pallets coming together quite easily, but even with the quick progress I knew that things might not be as simple as they seemed. I noticed that the screws were poking through the wood after securing the joints in the corner, and I knew that I needed to fix that.
Sharp metal object hazard!!
Even though the screws were poking into the inside of the pallet, meaning that someone would have to intentionally reach inside the pallet in order to be in danger of getting cut by these screws, I didn't want to take shortcuts. I know that I have cut myself many times on random sharp objects poking out of strange places, and I wanted to limit the chance of that happening to some unknown person in the future.
Splinter hazard, yes, but no pokey metal things in sight!
After working out my little fix for the problem I identified, I figured that things would come together quite quickly, but as so often happens, that was not the case. It was considerably difficult to get the wood blocks back behind the pallets that form the back wall of the bins, and, even though I knew people weren't likely to stick their hands back there to get cut, I figured I'd err on the side of caution. The last thing I want to do is leave sharp things exposed, have someone get hurt, then find out 10 years down the road that SMU had to pay out half a million dollars because someone sued them after they got tetanus while turning the compost pile. It's not likely, but boy is it good to avoid things like that far in advance, whenever possible.

Unexpected surprises found in the compost
As I continued to move the compost around to create space to work in, I kept finding Keurig cups, the disposable coffee pods made for the Keurig machine. I'm not sure if they are actually rated as compostable or biodegradable, but someone in the past thought that they were compostable, and threw them into the pile. Unfortunately, many of the "biodegradable" or "compostable" consumer plastics still have a ways to go before they will actually break down in home compost piles. They are typically rated as compostable only in industrial composting facilities, where compost temperatures routinely stay over 100 degrees, and microbial and bacterial activity is super strong. The coffee inside of the plastic casing was clearly composting though, and there were even a few that had become homes to earthworms and were still moist and rich. I did what I could to empty the coffee out without wasting too much time on the process.

Almost complete!
Another addition that I decided to make at the last minute was adding some metal chicken wire type stuff (I can't think of the technical term) to the back pallets to limit how much compost would be lost through the slats in the pallets. You may be able to see the chicken wire sitting flat against the back pallets, held on with a number of horseshoe nails and a strip of wood at the top and the bottom. The chicken wire was already at the learning garden, and I figured it was a good way to use it. Had I found more lying around, I likely would have done it to all the insides of the bins, but I only had enough for two pallets, and decided the back wall was the most important part to reinforce. Some compost might still escape, but that is inevitable.

Bins completed, compost reloaded, and employee worn out.
All in all, this was a full day project. Between research, getting supplies from various places, revising things on the fly, and trying to take the time necessary to make things strong enough to last, I easily spent upwards of 10 hours on the project. Could it have been done in less time? Definitely. Will I be able to do it in less time the next time around? Hopefully. What I am quite proud of is that this compost bin could last up to 10 years if all goes well. Many times I have made the mistake of taking shortcuts, and, more often than not, I find myself going back to fix the stuff I didn't do right the first time. I still have some learning to do in the realm of construction, but I'd say that this project was a success, and should hold up for some time.

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