Compost (play /ˈkɒmpɒst/ or /ˈkɒmpst/) is organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled as a fertilizer and soil amendment. Compost is a key ingredient in organic farming. At its most essential, the process of composting requires simply piling up waste outdoors and waiting for the materials to break down from anywhere between 5-6 weeks or even more. Modern, methodical composting is a multi-step, closely monitored process with measured inputs of water, air and carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials. The decomposition process is aided by shredding the plant matter, adding water and ensuring proper aeration by regularly turning the mixture. Worms and fungi further break up the material. Aerobic bacteria manage the chemical process by converting the inputs into heat, carbon dioxide and ammonium. The ammonium is further converted by bacteria into plant-nourishing nitrites and nitrates through the process of nitrification.

Compost can be rich in nutrients. It is used in gardens, landscaping, horticulture, and agriculture. The compost itself is beneficial for the land in many ways, including as a soil conditioner, a fertilizer, addition of vital humus or humic acids, and as a natural pesticide for soil. In ecosystems, compost is useful for erosion control, land and stream reclamation, wetland construction, and as landfill cover (see compost uses). Organic ingredients intended for composting can alternatively be used to generate biogas through anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion is fast overtaking composting in some parts of the world including central Europe as a primary means of downcycling waste organic matter.



A modern compost bin constructed from plastics

Composting as a recognized practice dates to at least the early Roman Empire since Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79). Traditionally, composting was to pile organic materials until the next planting season, at which time the materials would have decayed enough to be ready for use in the soil. The advantage of this method is that little working time or effort is required from the composter and it fits in naturally with agricultural practices in temperate climates. Disadvantages (from the modern perspective) are that space is used for a whole year, some nutrients might be leached due to exposure to rainfall, and disease producing organisms and insects may not be adequately controlled.

Composting was somewhat modernized beginning in the 1920s in Europe as a tool for organic farming.[1] The first industrial station for the transformation of urban organic materials into compost was set up in Wels/Austria in the year 1921.[2] The early personages most cited for propounding composting within farming are for the German-speaking world Rudolf Steiner, founder of a farming method called biodynamics, and Annie Francé-Harrar, who was appointed on behalf of the government in Mexico and supported the country 1950–1958 to set up a large humus organization in the fight against erosion and soil degradation. In the English-speaking world it was Sir Albert Howard who worked extensively in India on sustainable practices and Lady Eve Balfour who was a huge proponent of composting. Composting was imported to America by various followers of these early European movements in the form of persons such as J.I. Rodale (founder of Rodale Organic Gardening), E.E. Pfeiffer (who developed scientific practices in biodynamic farming), Paul Keene (founder of Walnut Acres in Pennsylvania), and Scott and Helen Nearing (who inspired the back-to-land movement of the 1960s). Coincidentally, some of these personages met briefly in India - all were quite influential in the U.S. from the 1960s into the 1980s.

There are many modern proponents of rapid composting that attempt to correct some of the perceived problems associated with traditional, slow composting. Many advocate that compost can be made in 2 to 3 weeks.[3] Many such short processes involve a few changes to traditional methods, including smaller, more homogenized pieces in the compost, controlling carbon to nitrogen (CN) ratio at 30 to 1 or less, and monitoring the moisture level more carefully. However, none of these parameters differ significantly from early writings of Howard and Balfour, suggesting that in fact modern composting has not made significant advances over the traditional methods that take a few months to work. For this reason and others, many modern scientists who deal with carbon transformations are sceptical that there is a "super-charged" way to get nature to make compost rapidly.[1] They also point to the fact that it is the structure of the natural molecules - such as carbohydrates, proteins, and cellulose - that really dictate the rate at which microbial-mediated transformations are possible.

Some cities such as Seattle and San Francisco require food and yard waste to be sorted for composting.[4][5]


Home compost barrel in the Escuela Barreales, Chile.

Composting organisms require four equally important things to work effectively:

  • Carbon — for energy; the microbial oxidation of carbon produces the heat, if included at suggested levels [[2]].
    • High carbon materials tend to be brown and dry.
  • Nitrogen — to grow and reproduce more organisms to oxidize the carbon.
    • High nitrogen materials tend to be green (or colorful, such as fruits and vegetables) and wet.[6]
  • Oxygen — for oxidizing the carbon, the decomposition process.
  • Water — in the right amounts to maintain activity without causing anaerobic conditions.
Materials in a compost pile.

Certain ratios of these materials will provide beneficial bacteria with the nutrients to work at a rate that will heat up the pile. In that process much water will be released as vapor ("steam"), and the oxygen will be quickly depleted, explaining the need to actively manage the pile. The hotter the pile gets, the more often added air and water is necessary; the air/water balance is critical to maintaining high temperatures (135°-160° Fahrenheit) until the materials are broken down. At the same time, too much air or water also slows the process, as does too much carbon (or too little nitrogen).

The most efficient composting occurs with a carbon:nitrogen mix of about 30 to 1. Nearly all plant and animal materials have both carbon and nitrogen, but amounts vary widely, with characteristics noted above (dry/wet, brown/green).[7] Fresh grass clippings have an average ratio of about 15 to 1 and dry autumn leaves about 50 to 1 depending on species. Mixing equal parts by volume approximates the ideal C:N range. Few individual situations will provide the ideal mix of materials at any point in time. Observation of amounts, and consideration of different materials[8] as a pile is built over time, can quickly achieve a workable technique for the individual situation.


People excrete far more of certain water-soluble plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) in urine than in feces.[9] Human urine can be used directly as fertilizer or it can be put onto compost. Adding a healthy person's urine to compost usually will increase temperatures and therefore increase its ability to destroy pathogens and unwanted seeds. Urine from a person with no obvious symptoms of infection is generally much more sanitary than fresh feces. Unlike feces, urine doesn't attract disease-spreading flies (such as house flies or blow flies), and it doesn't contain the most hardy of pathogens, such as parasitic worm eggs. Urine usually does not stink for long, particularly when it is fresh, diluted, or put on sorbents.[citation needed]

Urine is primarily composed of water and urea. Although metabolites of urea are nitrogen fertilizers, it is easy to over-fertilize with urine, or to utilize urine containing pharmaceutical (or other) content, creating too much ammonia for plants to absorb, acidic conditions, or other phytotoxicity.[10]

Manure and bedding

On many farms, the basic composting ingredients are manure generated on the farm and bedding. Straw and sawdust are common bedding materials. Non-traditional bedding materials are also used, including newspaper and chopped cardboard. The amount of manure composted on a livestock farm is often determined by cleaning schedules, land availability, and weather conditions. Each type of manure has its own physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. Cattle and horse manures, when mixed with bedding, possess good qualities for composting. Swine manure, which is very wet and usually not mixed with bedding material, must be mixed with straw or similar raw materials. Poultry manure also must be blended with carbonaceous materials - those low in nitrogen preferred, such as sawdust or straw.[11]


With the proper mixture of water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, micro-organisms are allowed to break down organic matter to produce compost.[12] The composting process is dependant on micro-organisms to break down organic matter into compost. There are many types of microorganisms found in active compost of which the most common are:[13]

  • Bacteria- The most numerous of all the micro organisms found in compost.
  • Actinomycetes- Necessary for breaking down paper products such as newspaper, bark, etc.
  • Fungi- Molds and yeast help break down materials that bacteria cannot, especially lignin in woody material.
  • Protozoa- Help consume bacteria, fungi and micro organic particulates.
  • Rotifers- Rotifers help control populations of bacteria and small protozoans.

In addition, earthworms not only ingest partly-composted material, but also continually re-create aeration and drainage tunnels as they move through the compost.

A lack of a healthy micro-organism community is the main reason why composting processes are slow in landfills with environmental factors such as lack of oxygen, nutrients or water being the cause of the depleted biological community.[13]

Common items suitable for composting

These common items can likely be added to compost with no negative effect.

  • Paperboard or clean paper
  • Dried-out egg shells
  • Leaves, yard trimmings
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Coffee and tea


Compost is generally recommended as an additive to soil, or other matrices such as coir and peat, as a tilth improver, supplying humus and nutrients. It provides a rich growing medium, or a porous, absorbent material that holds moisture and soluble minerals, providing the support and nutrients in which plants can flourish, although it is rarely used alone, being primarily mixed with soil, sand, grit, bark chips, vermiculite, perlite, or clay granules to produce loam. Compost can be tilled directly into the soil or growing medium to boost the level of organic matter and the overall fertility of the soil. Compost that is ready to be used as an additive is dark brown or even black with an earthy smell.[14]

Generally, direct seeding into a compost is not recommended due to the speed with which it may dry and the possible presence of phytotoxins that may inhibit germination,[15][16][17] and the possible tie up of nitrogen by incompletely decomposed lignin.[8] It is very common to see blends of 20–30% compost used for transplanting seedlings at cotyledon stage or later.

Destroying pathogens, seeds, or unwanted plants

Composting can destroy pathogens or unwanted seeds. Unwanted living plants (or weeds) can be discouraged by covering with mulch/compost.

The "microbial pesticides" in compost may include thermophiles and mesophiles, however certain composting detritivores such as black soldier fly larvae and redworms, also reduce many pathogens. Thermophilic (high-temperature) composting is well known to destroy many seeds and nearly all types of pathogens (exceptions may include prions).

The sanitizing qualities of (thermophilic) composting are desirable where there is a high likelihood of pathogens, such as with manure. Applications include humanure composting or the deep litter technique.


In addition to the traditional compost pile, various approaches have been developed to handle different composting processes, ingredients, locations, and applications for the composted product.

Bokashi composting

Inside a recently started bokashi bin. The aerated base is just visible through the food scraps and bokashi bran.

Bokashi composting uses an aerobic or anaerobic inoculation to produce the compost. Once a starter culture is made, it can be used to extend the culture indefinitely, like yogurt culture. Since the popular introduction of effective microorganisms (EM), bokashi is commonly made with only molasses, water, EM, and wheat bran.

In home composting applications, kitchen waste is placed into a container (often known as a bokashi bin or bokashi bucket) that can be sealed with an air-tight lid. These scraps are then inoculated with a bokashi EM mix. This usually takes the form of a carrier, such as rice hulls, wheat bran, or sawdust, that has been inoculated with composting micro-organisms. The EM are natural lactic acid bacteria, yeast, and phototrophic bacteria that act as a microbe community within the kitchen scraps, fermenting and accelerating breakdown of the organic matter. The user would place alternating layers of food scraps and Bokashi mix until the container is full. Liquid "compost tea" is drained once or twice a week and can be diluted 1:100 and added to plants as fertilizer, or poured directly down drains to help clean them.[18] Once the container is full, it is left to ferment for one to two weeks in the container, and then buried under 6-8 inches of soil, in ground or in a non-reactive container. After another two weeks buried under soil, the food scraps should be broken down into rich humus.

Compost tea

Compost tea is a liquid extract or a dissolved solution but not simply a suspension of compost. It is made by steeping compost in water for 3-7 days. It was discovered in Germany and became a practice to suppress foliar fungal diseases by nature of the bacterial competition, suppression, antibiosis on the leaf surface (phyllosphere). It has also been used as a fertilizer although lab tests show it is very weak in nutrients with less than 100ppm of available nitrogen and potassium. Other salts present in the tea solution are sodium, chlorides and sulfates.[19] The extract is applied as a spray to non-edible plant parts such as seedlings, or as a soil-drench (root dip), or as a surface spray to reduce incidence of harmful phytopathogenic fungi in the phyllosphere.[20]


The practice of making raised beds filled with rotting wood.[21][22] It is in effect creating a Nurse log, however, covered with dirt. The buried decomposing wood will give off heat, as all compost does, for several years. This effect has been used by Sepp Holzer for one to allow fruit trees to survive at otherwise inhospitable temperatures and altitudes.


"Humanure" is a portmanteau neologism designating human excrement (faeces and urine) that is recycled via composting for agricultural or other purposes. The term was popularized in a 1994 book by Joseph Jenkins [23] that advocates the use of this organic soil amendment.[24]

Humanure is not traditional sewage that has been processed by waste-treatment facilities, which may include waste from industrial and other sources; rather, it is the combination of feces and urine with paper and additional carbon material (such as sawdust). A humanure system, such as a composting toilet, does not require water or electricity, and when properly managed does not smell. Because the term "humanure" has no authoritative definition it is subject to misuse; news reporters occasionally fail to correctly distinguish between humanure and "sewer sludge" or "biosolids".[25]

By disposing of feces and urine through composting, the nutrients contained in them are returned to the soil. This aids in preventing soil degradation. Human fecal matter and urine have high percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, carbon, and calcium. It is equal to many fertilizers and manures purchased in garden stores. Humanure aids in the conservation of fresh water by avoiding the usage of potable water required by the typical flush toilet. It further prevents the pollution of ground water by controlling the fecal matter decomposition before entering the system. When properly managed, there should be no ground contamination from leachate.

As a substitute for a flush water process, it reduces the energy consumption and, hence, greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation and processing of water and waste water.

Humanure may be deemed safe for humans to use on crops if handled in accordance with local health regulations, and composted properly. This means that thermophilic decomposition of the humanure must heat it sufficiently to destroy harmful pathogens, or enough time must have elapsed since fresh material was added that biological activity has killed any pathogens. To be safe for crops, a curing stage is often needed to allow a second mesophilic phase to reduce potential phytotoxins.

Humanure is different from night soil, which is raw human waste spread on crops. While aiding the return of nutrients in fecal matter to the soil, it can carry and spread a vast number of human pathogens. Humanure kills these pathogens both by the extreme heat of the composting and the extended amount of time (1 to 2 years) that it is allowed to decompose.


Rotary screen harvested worm castings

Vermicompost is the product of composting utilizing various species of worms, usually red wigglers, white worms, and earthworms to create a heterogeneous mixture of decomposing vegetable or food waste (not to include meat, dairy, fats, or oils), bedding materials, and vermicast. Vermicast, also known as worm castings, worm humus or worm manure, is the end-product of the breakdown of organic matter by species of earthworm.[26] This type of composting is sometimes suggested as a feasible indoor composting method [27]

The earthworm species (or composting worms) most often used are red wigglers (Eisenia foetida or Eisenia andrei), though European nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis) could also be used. Red wigglers are recommended by most vermiculture experts, as they have some of the best appetites and breed very quickly. Users refer to European nightcrawlers by a variety of other names, including dendrobaenas, dendras, and Belgian nightcrawlers.

Containing water-soluble nutrients, vermicompost is a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer and soil conditioner in a form that is relatively easy for plants to absorb.[28] Worm castings are sometimes used as an organic fertilizer. Because the earthworms grind and uniformly mix minerals in simple forms, plants need only minimal effort to obtain them. The worms' digestive systems also add beneficial microbes to help create a "living" soil environment for plants.[citation needed]

Vermicompost tea has been shown to cause a 173.5% increase in plant growth by mass over plants grown without castings. These results were seen with only 10% addition of castings to produce these results.[29]

Alternative to land-filling

As concern about landfill space increases, worldwide interest in recycling by means of composting is growing, since composting is a process for converting decomposable organic materials into useful stable products.[30] Industrial scale composting in the form of in-vessel composting, aerated static pile composting, and anaerobic digestion takes place in most Western countries now, and in many areas is mandated by law. There are process and product guidelines in Europe that date to the early 1980s (Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland) and only more recently in the UK and the US. In both these countries, private trade associations within the industry have established loose standards, some say as a stop-gap measure to discourage independent government agencies from establishing tougher consumer-friendly standards.[31][32] The USA is the only Western country that does not distinguish sludge-source compost from green-composts, and by default in the USA 50% of states expect composts to comply in some manner with the federal EPA 503 rule promulgated in 1984 for sludge products.[33] Compost is regulated in Canada and Australia as well.

Industrial systems

A large compost pile that is steaming with the heat generated by thermophilic microorganisms.

Industrial composting systems are increasingly being installed as a waste management alternative to landfills, along with other advanced waste processing systems. Mechanical sorting of mixed waste streams combined with anaerobic digestion or in-vessel composting is called mechanical biological treatment, and are increasingly being used in developed countries due to regulations controlling the amount of organic matter allowed in landfills. Treating biodegradable waste before it enters a landfill reduces global warming from fugitive methane; untreated waste breaks down anaerobically in a landfill, producing landfill gas that contains methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Large-scale composting systems are used by many urban areas around the world. Co-composting is a technique that combines solid waste with de-watered biosolids, although difficulties controlling inert and plastics contamination from municipal solid waste makes this approach less attractive. The world's largest MSW co-composter is the Edmonton Composting Facility in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, which turns 220,000 tonnes of residential solid waste and 22,500 dry tonnes of biosolids per year into 80,000 tonnes of compost. The facility is 38,690 meters2 (416,500 ft2), equivalent to 4½ Canadian football fields, and the operating structure is the largest stainless steel building in North America, the size of 14 NHL rinks.[34] In 2006, the State of Qatar awarded Keppel Seghers Singapore, a subsidiary of Keppel Corporation to begin construction on a 275,000 tonne/year Anaerobic Digestion and Composting Plant licensed by Kompogas Switzerland. This plant, with 15 independent anaerobic digestors will be the world's largest composting facility once fully operational in early 2011 and forms part of the Qatar Domestic Solid Waste Management Center, the largest integrated waste management complex in the Middle East.[35]

See also


  1. ^ Heckman, J. 2006. A history of organic farming: transitions from Sir Albert Howard’s War in the Soil to USDA National Organic Program. Renew. Agric. Food Syst. 21:143–150.
  2. ^ Welser Anzeiger vom 05. Januar 1921, 67. Jahrgang, Nr. 2, S. 4
  3. ^ The Rapid Compost Method by Robert Raabe, Professor of Plant Pathology, Berkeley
  4. ^ "San Francisco Signs Mandatory Recycling & Composting Laws". Retrieved 19 September 2010. 
  5. ^ Tyler, Aubin (21 March 2010). "The case for mandatory composting". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 19 September 2010. 
  6. ^ Materials for composting - University of Illinois extension, retrieval date: 3/12/2009
  7. ^ Klickitat County WA, USA Compost Mix Calculator
  8. ^ a b Effect of lignin content on bio-availability
  9. ^ Stockholm Environment Institute - EcoSanRes - Guidelines on the Use of Urine and Feces in Crop Production
  10. ^ Pharmaceutical residures in urine and potential risks related to use as fertilzer in agriculture, Martina Winker, Doctoral dissertation, 2009
  11. ^ Dougherty, Mark. (1999). Field Guide to On-Farm Composting. Ithaca, New York: Natural Resource, Agriculture, and Engineering Service.
  12. ^ "Compost Made Simple". Retrieved 21 October 2010. 
  13. ^ a b "Composting - Compost Microorganisms". Cornell University. Retrieved 6 October 2010. 
  14. ^ Healthy Soils, Healthy Landscapes
  15. ^ Morel, P. and Guillemain, G. 2004. Assessment of the possible phytotoxicity of a substrate using an easy and representative biotest. Acta Horticulture 644:417–423
  16. ^ Itävaara et al. Compost maturity - problems associated with testing. in Proceedings of Composting. Innsbruck Austria 18-21.10.2000
  17. ^ Phytotoxicity and maturation
  18. ^ "Bokashi Composting Australia". 
  19. ^ Zhang, W., Han, D. Y., Dick, W. A., Davis, K. R., and Hoitink, H. A. J. 1998. Compost and compost water extract-induced systemic acquired resistance in cucumber and Arabidopsis. Phytopathology 88:450-455.
  20. ^ Tränkner, A. 1992. Use of agricultural and municipal organic wastes to develop suppression to plant pathogens. in: Biological Control of Plant Diseases. E. C. Tjamos, G. C. Papavizas, and R. J. Cook, eds. Plenum Press, New York.
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ Joseph Jenkins
  24. ^ Jenkins, J.C. (2005). The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure. Grove City, PA: Joseph Jenkins, Inc.; 3rd edition. pp. 255. ISBN 978-0-9644258-3-5. Retrieved April 2011. 
  25. ^ Courtney Symons (13 October 2011). "'Humanure' dumping sickens homeowner". YourOttawaRegion. Metroland Media Group Ltd.. Retrieved 16 October 2011. 
  26. ^ "Paper on Invasive European Worms". Retrieved 2009-02-22. 
  27. ^ "Vermicomposting: Indoor Composting with Earthworms". Retrieved 201-06-26. 
  28. ^ Coyne, Kelly and Erik Knutzen. The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City. Port Townsend: Process Self Reliance Series, 2008.
  29. ^ Web article on worm castings effects on plant growth
  30. ^ A Brief History of Solid Waste Management
  31. ^ British Standards Institute Specifications FAQ
  32. ^
  33. ^ U.S. Government Printing Office. 1998. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Title 40, part 503. Standards for the use or disposal of sewage sludge. Available at: ecfr&tpl /ecfrbrowse/Title40/40cfr503 main 02.tpl. Retrieved 30 March 2009.
  34. ^ Edmonton composting facility
  35. ^ Keppel Seghers developing the first integrated waste management facility in the Middle East

Further reading

  • Roger Tim Haug, Practical Handbook of Compost Engineering [Hardcover]. Lewis Publishers.
  • Insam, H; Riddech, N; Klammer, S (Eds.): Microbiology of Composting,Springer Verlag, Berlin New York 2002, ISBN 978-3-540-67568-6
  • Hogg, D., J. Barth, E. Favoino, M. Centemero, V. Caimi, F. Amlinger, W. Devliegher, W. Brinton., S. Antler. 2002. Comparison of compost standards within the EU, North America, and Australasia. Waste and Resources Action Programme Committee (UK)

External links


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.


Look at other dictionaries:

  • compost — [ kɔ̃pɔst ] n. m. • fin XVIIIe; mot angl., de l anglo normand compost fin XIIIe) « engrais composé » ♦ Engrais formé par le mélange fermenté de débris organiques avec des matières minérales. ⇒ humus. ● compost nom masculin (anglais compost, de l… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • compost — COMPÓST, composturi, s.n. Îngrăşământ agricol natural, rezultat în urma fermentării lente a diferitelor resturi vegetale şi animale, amestecate cu unele substanţe minerale. – Din fr. compost. Trimis de LauraGellner, 29.07.2004. Sursa: DEX 98 … …   Dicționar Român

  • Compost — Com post (?; 277), n. [OF. compost, fr. L. compositus, p. p. See {Composite}.] 1. A mixture; a compound. [R.] [1913 Webster] A sad compost of more bitter than sweet. Hammond. [1913 Webster] 2. (Agric.) A mixture for fertilizing land; esp., a… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Compost — Com post, v. t. 1. To manure with compost. [1913 Webster] 2. To mingle, as different fertilizing substances, in a mass where they will decompose and form into a compost. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • compost — ► NOUN 1) decayed organic material used as a fertilizer for growing plants. 2) a mixture of compost with loam soil used as a growing medium. ► VERB ▪ make into or treat with compost. ORIGIN Latin composita something put together , from componere… …   English terms dictionary

  • compost — y su derivado compostaje aparecen en las noticias sobre la creación de plantas industriales destinadas a reciclar los residuos sólidos urbanos. Compost es el nombre inglés y francés de un tipo de abono parecido al que en español se conoce como… …   Diccionario español de neologismos

  • compost — ‘Humus artificial’. Es invariable en plural (→ plural, 1j): «Nunca se ha de emplear en los compost material que no esté completamente podrido» (Alonso Plantas [Esp. 1980]) …   Diccionario panhispánico de dudas

  • compost — [käm′pōst΄] n. [ME < OFr composte, condiment (> Fr compote) < VL * composita < L compositus: see COMPOSITE] 1. a mixture; compound 2. a mixture of decomposing vegetable refuse, manure, etc. for fertilizing and conditioning soil vt. to …   English World dictionary

  • Compost — (v. lat.), 1) Art Dünger, s. u. Dünger; 2) so v. w. Komßkraut …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Compost — Compost, S. Komst …   Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart

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