Composting can benefit the environment if done right. Here’s how

Some people think that composting is done without a second thought. For others, it’s a messy process that doesn’t seem worth the hassle.

Composting is one of the many ways people can reduce their negative impact on the planet, but is it worth the effort?

In short, yes, but only if you do it right.

Food waste produces harmful greenhouse gases in a landfill and little in a compost pile, Gunders said.

Food waste accounted for 24% of the waste sent to landfills; this volume is greater than any other material waste on a daily basis, according to a 2018 report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

There will always be food scraps like banana peels, so you can avoid losing nutrients to the landfill by composting and using soil from your backyard, Gunders said. When you compost, the nutrients are returned to the soil for further use. When it goes to a landfill, the nutrients get trapped in the trash and don’t help anything grow.

“When you add up that waste from all over the country, it’s a lot of material,” he said.

What is composting?

The art of composting involves mixing the correct proportions of organic matter like food and garden waste with nitrogen, carbon, moisture (like water) and air to speed up the decomposition of unwanted waste. That’s Sally Brown, a research associate at the School of Forest Resources at the University of Washington in Seattle.

This environment allows microbes to quickly eat the contents of the compost, making it very fertile soil, he said.

It takes four to six months to decompose the matter. A compost pile needs to be heated to about 131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Celsius) to properly decompose, so it takes less time to break down in warmer climates like Florida than in colder climates like Seattle, according to Brown.

Soil can be used to grow new plants or feed plants that are already growing, which completes the food cycle, he said.

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In her garden, she often uses home compost to feed her vegetable plants. “You never doubt it when you put your hands in that dirt, you see how beautiful it is, you see the worms scurry and then how productive your soil is,” Brown said.

Don’t forget the oxygen

Composting has gotten a bad reputation for smell, but it shouldn’t stink if it’s done right, according to Brown. When a compost pile isn’t properly aerated, it’s because it’s anaerobic, meaning oxygen isn’t getting to the pile, he said.

The same phenomenon occurs with something everyone knows: farts. “Your intestinal tract is generally anaerobic, and the gases that come out when you fart are no different than the gases in a compost pile,” he said.

If the compost pile is anaerobic, there are more serious consequences than stench.

When a pile lacks oxygen, it releases methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, according to the United States Composting Council.
This is one of the reasons why landfills damage the environment. Landfill waste is stored in anaerobic conditions, because the garbage is so compacted with little room for oxygen, so the organic material in it produces a lot of gases, half of which is methane, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Methane is an incredibly powerful greenhouse, with 80 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide in the first decades of the atmosphere. And it is responsible for a third of the climate crisis, according to the United Nations Environment Program. U.S. landfills released about 109.3 million metric tons of the carbon dioxide equivalent of methane in 2020, or about 16.8 percent of human-caused U.S. methane emissions, according to the EPA.
U.S. landfills released about 109.3 million metric tons of the carbon dioxide equivalent of methane in 2020, or about 16.8 percent of human-caused U.S. methane emissions, according to the EPA.
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Fortunately, it’s easy to prevent compost from producing methane. When a stack is aerated, meaning exposed to oxygen, methane-producing microbes are inactive, so methane is not produced, according to the Western Australian Government’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.
Composters need to turn a pile every two to five weeks to keep it aerated, according to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Brown materials such as dead plants help aerate the mix, so having enough in the pile can also help, said Nena Shaw, acting director of the Division of Resource Conservation and Sustainability in the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management. .

Commercial home composting vs

There are multiple composting methods, such as backyard composting, according to the EPA.

Compost bins should be placed in a dry, shaded area, the environmental agency said. Then add a combination of brown material, such as dead leaves, and green material, such as grass clippings, and moisten them as they go into the container.

Cover the top of the pile to lock in moisture and turn the pile when needed until the bottom material is dark, which means it’s ready to be used as soil.

“I love gardening, so I think it’s the ability to have food in the garden,” Gunders said.

Composting also brings awareness to the environment and the natural cycle of food growing and waste, he said.

Gunders recommended that when learning to compost, invest in a compost bin. The container rotates like a washing machine for easy ventilation.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac offers a composting guide, including how to set up a pile and what can and cannot be composted.
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If the do-it-yourself method seems too difficult, many cities offer composting services that take people’s organic waste and compost it at a commercial facility.

If you’re concerned about the footprint of such services, vehicles emit a variety of gases, but most are carbon dioxide, according to the Green Vehicle Guide. And because methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a vehicle picking up compost material is nowhere near the amount of methane that the same material would produce in a landfill, Brown said.

“Basically, you can move compost from California to Oklahoma and still come out ahead,” he said.

Commercial composting can also handle more types of waste that a backyard composter can’t, Shaw said.

The higher temperatures of commercial composters can compost meat, bones and dairy products, which wouldn’t work well in a home composter, he said.

However, back composting is great for recycling produce scraps and yard waste that become usable soil for home gardens, Shaw added.

Why try composting?

Commercial nitrogen fertilizers are energy-intensive to manufacture and expensive, said Joseph Heckman, extension specialist in soil fertility in plant biology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Composted soil helps alleviate the need for commercial fertilizers, improves soil health, and makes crops and soils more drought-resistant.

Nutrient-rich soil can be used in gardens, parks, or anywhere people have plants. For those who don’t need the land, it can be given to farmers who produce crops, Heckman said. Compost must meet certain regulations to be used on a farm, he added.
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In addition to creating rich soil, composting reduces the amount of waste a person creates, said Tara Scully, associate professor of biology and director of sustainability in the biological sciences department at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

He grew up composting with his family and has been doing it himself for the last 20 years after moving to a house with enough space for it. Since composting at her home, Scully noticed that much of her landfill waste was diverted to the home compost pile.

“It’s reduced our garbage every week so much, I didn’t realize how much waste we threw away,” Scully said.