Corn cobs in compost

Measuring biodegradability

In nature, different materials biodegrade at different rates. If you throw your apple core into the bushes along with a steel toy car, your apple core will have disappeared in a few months and your toy car will be rusty but still recognisable. It may take many years before the toy car disappears entirely.

To be able to work effectively, most microorganisms that assist the biodegradation need light, water and oxygen. Temperature is also an important factor in determining the rate of biodegradation. This is because microorganisms tend to reproduce faster in warmer conditions.

Many products that are biodegradable in soil – such as tree trimmings, food wastes and paper – will not biodegrade when we place them in landfills, because the artificial landfill environment lacks the light, water and bacterial activity required for the decay process to begin.

The Garbage Project is a study of waste conducted by a group at the University of Arizona, USA. The project has unearthed from landfill hot dogs, corn cobs and grapes that were 25 years old and still recognisable, as well as newspapers dating back to 1952 that were still easily readable!

How fast do things biodegrade?

This table shows how long some common items will take to break down if left in the environment.

Vegetables

5 days –1 month

Paper

2–5 months

Cotton T-shirt

6 months

Orange peels

6 months

Tree leaves

1 year

Wool socks

1–5 years

Plastic-coated paper milk cartons

5 years

Leather shoes

25–40 years

Nylon fabric

30–40 years

Tin cans

50–100 years

Aluminium cans

80–100 years

Glass bottles

1 million years

Styrofoam cup

500 years to forever

Plastic bags

500 years to forever

How do we measure biodegradability?

Plastic bags have only been around for about 50 years, so how do the scientists know how long they take to degrade?

To make long-term estimates, scientists often use respirometry tests. The experimenters place a solid waste sample – like a newspaper, banana peel or plastic bag – in a container with microorganisms and soil, and then they aerate the mixture. Over the course of several days, microorganisms digest the sample bit by bit and produce carbon dioxide – the resulting amount of CO2 serves as an indicator of degradation.

Nature of science

Sometimes scientists use estimates to give data on biodegradability. These are usually based on known quantities and extrapolated to take account of time or other environmental factors.

Respirometry tests work well for newspapers and banana peels, but when scientists test plastic bags, nothing happens – there’s no CO2 production and no decomposition. Why? The most common type of plastic shopping bag – the kind you get at supermarkets – is made of polyethylene, a man-made polymer that microorganisms don’t recognise as food. So, if there is no CO2 production for plastic in respirometry tests, where does the 500-year estimate come from? Although polyethylene bags don’t biodegrade, they do photodegrade. When exposed to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, polyethylene’s polymer chains become brittle and start to crack. This suggests that plastic bags will eventually fragment into microscopic granules. As of yet, however, scientists aren’t sure how many centuries it takes for the sun to work its magic. That’s why some people give a 500 year estimate, while others prefer a more conservative 1000 year lifespan. According to some plastics experts, all these figures are just another way of saying ‘a really, really long time’.

Useful link

Find out more about backyard composting on this website.

by ARIANA MARISOL

Learn how to compost corn husks and cobs and watch as they do wonders for your compost pile.

Corn husks form the outer layer that protects the developing corn. They are normally discarded when peeled away to expose the corn kernels. Instead of tossing them into the trash, toss them into your compost pile.

Can corn cobs go in compost?

Although composting a corn cob takes longer than composting corn husks, the cobs serve an additional purpose even before they decompose into usable compost. If left intact, corn cobs provide air pockets in a compost pile. These air pockets can help speed up the decomposition process, allowing for a quicker use of compost. Piles that are oxygen-deprived usually take much longer to decompose.

So how do you compost corn plants?

You can use an open compost pile or you can build a frame to keep the contents enclosed when composting corn. The frame can be made out of a variety of material, but it is important to keep the bottom open so the compost drains well.

Keep a 4:1 ratio of “brown” to “green” ingredients so your compost pile does not become soggy. When composting corn cobs and husks, the “greener” the ingredients, the most moisture they will contribute. “brown” includes dried plant parts, and “green” refers to the still-moist and freshly cut or shucked parts. The moisture content of your compost pile should be around 40%.

The larger the pieces, the longer they take to degrade into compost. Corn cob will decompose more rapidly if it is cut into smaller pieces. Shred corn husks can be shred into smaller pieces or they can be put into the compost pile whole.

Is the compost ready yet?

Compost that is ready to use is a dark brown with a crumbly consistency. It should not have a foul odor at this point. There should be no recognizable pieces of organic matter inside compost that is ready to be used. Since composting corn cobs does take longer than composting other parts of the corn plant, you may still see some bits of cobs left after the other organic matter has sufficiently broken down. You can remove these cobs, and use the finished compost. Toss these cobs back into the compost pile until they completely decompose.

Ariana Marisol is a contributing staff writer for REALfarmacy.com. She is an avid nature enthusiast, gardener, photographer, writer, hiker, dreamer, and lover of all things sustainable, wild, and free. Ariana strives to bring people closer to their true source, Mother Nature. She is currently finishing her last year at The Evergreen State College getting her undergraduate degree in Sustainable Design and Environmental Science. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

Photo Credit:
liz west/flickr

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Corn Husks – Not Just for Tamales

We’re all used to throwing corn husks into the trash or compost bin, but did you know that corn husks have lots of uses? Whether you’re looking to explore new culinary adventures, reduce waste, or create some seasonal crafts, we have some alternate ideas for those corn husks.

Try Something New with Corn Husks

  1. Grill fish Use your fresh husk to wrap fish, like en papillote, and throw the whole thing on the grill. The husk helps keep the fish from drying out, which often happens when you grill more delicate fish. The end result is a smoky, tender fillet. (See below for our recipe.)
  2. Wrap sticky rice or Laulau Fresh husks make great wrappers for sticky rice, Chicken Laulau, or other Pacific Island dishes. Use them in place of Ti leaves or banana leaves, which aren’t always easy to find.
  3. Create harvest-style crafts Fall is a perfect time for adding more texture and richness into your surroundings. Create chic-for-the-season crafts with inexpensive dried corn husks. They’re easy to trim and shape for simple autumnal decor. (See ideas below.)
  4. Add to stocks, soups, and chowders You can add washed, fresh corn husks to your stock pot for an extra-woody flavor–a nice addition in Mexican tortilla soup or corn chowder. (Remove husks before serving.)
  5. Use as fire tinder Corn husks burn easily when exposed to an open flame, so they are a great option for starting a campfire or a fire in a backyard fire pit fireplace. You can dry and store them in a plastic bag to bring on your next camping adventure.
  6. Add to your compost Corn husks break down to produce a rich, moist compost. The fresh husks supply the same green material as grass clippings, fresh leaves, pea pods, manure, and fruit and vegetable waste that compost needs. They all supply nitrogen to the composting process and create a fast-decaying compost pile.

Corn-striped pumpkins

Clean fresh corn husks and pat dry. Slice husks in half lengthwise. Starting with the bottom of the pumpkin, attach the slightly damp corn-husk strips at the stem and base with clear-drying gel glue or hot glue. Glue dots work great for holding in place while you glue. Trim at the stems for a nice clean edge.

Corn husk grilled fish

Preheat your grill to medium. Rinse and pat dry fresh husks. Place husks on a flat plate or rectangular dish, and rub olive oil over the leaves (any type of cooking oil will do). Season your fish with salt and pepper, and any other seasoning you’d like to add. Drizzle more olive oil and gently rub into on both sides of husk.

For small pieces of fish, wrap each piece in individual husks, starting with the fish on one end, then rolling the husk over itself and the fish until you reach the other end. Place the fish seam-side down on the grill (or grill pan). For larger pieces of fish, use overlapping layers of husks to make the bed for the fish, and tie the wrapped fish with string to hold it together.

Cover the grill and cook the fish until it is firm to the touch, about 8 to 10 minutes for the small fish pieces and 12 to 15 minutes for the larger filet. To keep the corn husks from burning, use a water spray bottle to spritz them every once in a while.

Serve the still-wrapped fish in the corn husks, letting your guests unwrap their dinner surprise.

You can also use this wrapping method for steaming fish. A bamboo steamer works great with small pieces of fish.

Corn husk luminaries

Find clear jars and votive candles of various sizes.. Cut straight across the bottoms of clean, dried fresh husks so that about ¼ to ½ of the tips extend past the tops of jars or votives. You may also want to trim along the top edge. Slightly moisten the husks, then wrap each votive with 3-4 overlapping husks so that the bottoms of the husks line up with the bottom of the votive. (Secure with a rubber band to hold them in place while you wrap raffia ribbon around them several times.) Tie raffia or other natural string around the corn husks in a knot. Tuck a spotted guinea fowl feather or fall leaf between the husk and the raffia to add a flourish. Drop in your tea light candle and you are all set.

Working with dried corn husks: Buy packs of dried corn husks in the international foods section of a grocery store. Soak husks in water until they are pliable, then pat dry and shape.

Cornbread flowers with pancetta

These little cornbread muffins look like cheerful corn flowers using corn husks to make the petals. These muffins are so easy to make because you can use your favorite cornbread mix, like Jiffy or Marie Calendars, or make it from scratch with your favorite recipe.

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin.

Place four ounces of diced pancetta in a small sauté pan over medium heat and brown until crisp, about 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

Before mixing the batter, press a strips of corn husk into a muffin tin with tips sticking out 2-3 inches, until you have lined 12 cups. Be sure to press and crease in the corners to make sure the husks don’t pop out.

Mix batter according to package directions or recipe. Add 1/2 – 1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese, depending on how much batter you’re making. Fill tin 2/3 full and sprinkle pancetta on top.

Bake until firm, about 20 minutes. Use a narrow silicone spatula or dinner knife to remove the muffins from the pan and serve immediately, or slightly warm.

Composting might not be as cool as making smoothies and creating new vegan dishes, but it is a trend worth catching onto if you haven’t already. Composting isn’t some hippie style of gardening – it’s a fantastic way to use something you’d normally trash and re-purpose it to enhance your garden, soil, or your plants if you have any. The idea of composting is to essentially let the items disintegrate, which will help them nourish the soil due to the nutrients that form as they disintegrate.

The 411 on Composting

Composting is really pretty easy, too. All you need to get started is either a composting pail or an old container such as black compost bin (which will help it last through the winter). Or, you can use an old pail with drainage holes that has a lid. Some other household bins you have at home may even work, too, or you can buy a smaller composting pail or crock if you don’t compost a lot at one time.

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But first, you may be wondering – what can you actually compost with and how long do they last before you need to use them? First, you’ll be glad to know most all vegan foods make great compost material, along with some forms of household trash.

Items like banana peels, any pieces of unused or veggies or fruits, and most any plant-based food scraps make great compost material, but many of us know that. What about the other stuff you might be unnecessarily throwing away? Here are some other uncommon items you can use for your composting that might not have thought of, but will give you rockin’ soil to grow some seriously awesome plants and flowers all year round!

Coffee Grounds

Coffee grounds are something I always throw away, but they’re actually one of the best items to compost with. They’re acidic and as a result, they react with the pH in the soil and help enhance the minerals that grow in the soil as a result. You may want to go with organic coffee though, since you don’t want to be putting pesticide-laden coffee into your body (or the earth!) Speaking of which, here are 5 Reasons You Should Only Buy Fair-Trade Organic Coffee if you don’t already!

Coffee Filters

Don’t just use the coffee grounds in your compost either- use the filter too! What a better way to clean up after making a delicious cup of coffee (healthfully of course) than to toss the filter and grounds in your compost bin? Just a personal note: I like using all natural, eco-friendly coffee filters which are pretty cheap, and they’re better for the soil and you since they’re unbleached and recycled.

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Algae

That’s right – algae isn’t just good for you, but also good for the earth (not surprising since it’s pretty much one of the most awesome foods ever.) All seaweeds and algae make great compost, so feel free to add some dulse, wakame, nori, or even a touch of spirulina to your compost. Algae is rich in minerals and has the perfect pH to help neutralize the soil. Blue green algae is also great for the brain and awesome to use in smoothies or you could add a pill-based supplement to your compost.

Peanut Shells

Peanuts aren’t just tasty- they’re also extremely rich in nutrients that the soil loves! Peanuts are good for you since they’re high in protein, B vitamins, and magnesium (so long as you aren’t allergic, of course). Just don’t toss those shells- they’re fantastic compost material! Avoid using peanut butter in the soil, however, since it doesn’t break down as easily as the shells do.

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Corn Stalks

Corn stalks also make great compost material due to their specific mineral content. Buying corn in the stalk is also usually cheaper so it’s a great way to make use out of this healthful veggie-like grain. Always buy organic corn when you can, however, since it’s one of the most genetically modified crops.

Dryer Lint

Yes, you read that right- you can actually do your laundry and use that annoying lint left in the dryer filter when you’re done. This might help you remember to clean out the filter too (which I seem to have a problem with myself!) Dryer lint provides natural carbon to the soil and makes great composting material. Try not to use highly toxic dryer sheets that are filled with chemicals and go for more natural sources instead.

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Tea Leaves

Brewing a hot cup of tea? Save those tea leaves and if you’re using tea bags, save those too! Tea makes a great compost material since it’s full of nitrogen. Try to buy organic tea free of pesticides if you do though (these also taste much better anyway.)

Other Composting Tips

  • Do not use conventional fruit and veggie scraps (especially the peels) since they are filled with pesticides you don’t want to add to your soil.
  • Avoid using pet manure, rotted vegetables, or vegetables that have spots of mold (which will kill the soil.)
  • If you don’t want to purchase a special compost pail you can also use an ice cream pail but it may leave an odor as it sits.
  • Compost decomposes faster at a temperature of 120-160 degrees Fahrenheit, so if you want to speed up the process, put it in a special compost bin outside and place it in the sun.
  • Chop and shred larger items such as lawn clippings, newspaper scraps, coffee filters, etc. into smaller pieces. This will help them decompose faster.
  • Be sure to turn your compost over every day or so to help speed up the process. This also helps the soil aerate faster so things don’t stink as badly.
  • Continue to add organic food scraps to your compost every few days. It acts as fuel to your compost and will help speed up the process. Juice pulp is PERFECT compost material!

For more details on how to start a compost, visit Planet Natural for a Composting 101 Guide or check out Earth Easy’s step by step guide to composting as well.

Do you compost and if so, what’s your favorite items to use?

Image source: Mosman Council/ Flickr

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What are the parts of the corn plant?

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Maize plant diagram, infographic elements with the parts of corn plant, anthers, tassel, corn ears, cobs, roots, stalks.

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