The composting process is a complex interaction between the waste and the microorganisms within the waste. The microorganisms that carry out this process fall into three groups: bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes. Actinomycetes are a form of fungi-like bacteria that break down organic matter.
The first stage of the biological activity is the consumption of easily available sugars by bacteria, which causes a fast rise in temperature. The second stage involves bacteria and actinomycetes that cause cellulose breakdown. The last stage is concerned with the breakdown of the tougher lignins by fungi.
Central solutions are exemplified by low-cost composting without forced aeration, and technologically more advanced systems with forced aeration and temperature feedback. Central composting plants are capable of handling more than 100,000 tons of biodegradable waste per year, but typically the plant size is about 10,000 to 30,000 tons per year. Biodegradable wastes must be separated prior to composting: Only pure foodwaste, garden waste, wood chips, and to some extent paper are suitable for producing good-quality compost.
The composting plants consist of some or all of the following technical units: bag openers, magnetic and/or ballistic separators, screeners (sieves), shredders, mixing and homogenization equipment, turning equipment, irrigation systems, aeration systems, draining systems, bio-filters, scrubbers, control systems, and steering systems. The composting process occurs when biodegradable waste is piled together with a structure allowing for oxygen diffusion and with a dry matter content suiting microbial growth. The temperature of the biomass increases due to the microbial activity and the insulation properties of the piled material. The temperature often reaches 65 degrees C to 75 degrees C within a few days and then declines slowly. This high temperature hastens the elimination of pathogens and weed seeds.
The methodology of composting can be categorized into three major segments—anaerobic composting, aerobic composting, and vermicomposting. In anaerobic composting, the organic matter is decomposed in the absence of air. Organic matter may be collected in pits and covered with a thick layer of soil and left undisturbed six to eight months. The compost so formed may not be completely converted and may include aggregated masses.
Aerobic composting is the process by which organic wastes are converted into compost or manure in presence of air and can be of different types. The most common is the Heap Method, where organic matter needs to be divided into three different types and to be placed in a heap one over the other, covered by a thin layer of soil or dry leaves. This heap needs to be mixed every week, and it takes about three weeks for conversion to take place.
Vermicomposting involves use of earthworms as natural and versatile bioreactors for the process of conversion. It is carried out in specially designed pits where earthworm culture also needs to be done. Vermicomposting is a precision-based option and requires overseeing of work by an expert. It is also a more expensive option (O&M costs especially are high). However, unlike the above two options, it is a completely odorless process making it a preferred solution in residential areas.