Nearly everyone has probably heard the word “compost.” It is a way to recycle organic matter, including food waste, that has become increasingly popular over the last few years. New York City started the GrowNYC Compost Program in 2011, at-home composting is taking off, and colleges such as the University of Iowa have ways for their students to compost in and out of the dorms. California even has a composting law that was enacted in 2021. But throughout this rise in composting, one question arises: why compost? What does composting do and why is it good for the environment? That is what we are here to explain.
What is Composting?
To know why you should compost, you have to know what composting is. Composting is taking old food and turning it into a soil enhancer that helps plants thrive; farmers will often call it “black gold.” The food is turned into compost through small microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. In order for these microorganisms to thrive, they need air, food (food scraps, and dry, woody materials such as leaves), water, and shelter. The dry materials are referred to as “browns” and there should be twice as many browns as food scraps in a compost pile. The browns are high in carbon and bulkier; they create space for oxygen to help the microorganisms decompose the food. Compost piles also need to be damp (not soaking wet) and warm in order for the microorganisms to properly break down the food scraps.
Benefits of Composting
Even though you know what compost is, the question still remains: why compost? Composting has a lot of benefits for the environment. While it does rank relatively lower on the Food Recovery Hierarchy since you've already expended the energy and resources to produce and transport the food, it still reduces waste going to landfills. Yes, food will eventually decompose in landfills, but it takes a ridiculously long time. By making the effort to compost, not only is there less waste going to the landfills, but your waste goes toward something useful. One of the primary climate benefits is that it reduces the methane emissions that occur in landfills when food decomposes in such an unsuitable environment. Methane has 80 times the planet warming impact over a 20 year period compared to CO2. Compost also improves soil structure and health by increasing its ability to retain moisture. It gives the soil more nutrients and microorganisms which helps with healthy plant growth and increases the soil’s overall fertility. Because of this, it reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. There is a reason farmer’s call compost black gold! While farmers can use compost in their fields, anyone can use compost for their personal gardens as well. It helps foster plant growth and makes sure all the money you spend on food doesn’t go to waste.
Types of Composting
While many people think that composting is only something individuals do in their backyard for their own garden, there are also municipal and private programs in many cities. This includes curbside programs that will pick up your food scraps—just like your trash and recycling—or drop-off programs. Different programs have different regulations and fees, while of course backyard composting is fortunately fee-free. There are also different methods to compost in your backyard. Open air composting is one of the more common types; it is simply your compost sitting in your backyard! You should still have it in a bin, but it doesn’t need any type of lid. There is also the option of direct composting where you put your food scraps directly into the soil. While this is one of the oldest methods of composting, it can take a long time to decompose and you should only bury fruit or vegetables to try and avoid animals digging them up. The most common way of backyard composting is to have a worm farm. This is also called vermicomposting. Vermicomposting is a process that utilizes worms to decompose your organic waste. The worms digest the waste and break it down; their excrement results in valuable compost!
Composting at home versus composting through a larger service dictate what can be put in the compost pile. When composting at home, only food scraps that are rich in nitrogen should be included. This means fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, paper filters, paper tea bags, and crushed eggshells. Other food scraps can be included but meat, fish, bones, large amounts of cooked food, and dairy products should be avoided as they can bring in many pests. These materials often also can’t break down in backyard composting piles, as they do not reach high enough temperatures. Even compostable bags should be avoided in backyard composting because they take a lot of heat to break down. For a more extensive list of what can and cannot compost in a backyard composting pile, read this article from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. If you decide to compost through a municipal program, most of the previously mentioned food items can be composted as they compost in large piles or even silos, which can break down a wider range of input materials. It is still important to check with your local municipality as different cities have different regulations.
So, Why Compost?
Composting provides benefits all the way from waste diversion and recycling to methane emission reduction. It helps create a closed-loop system where food waste is transformed into a valuable resource, minimizing the need for external inputs. The use of compost enriches the soil with organic matter, enhancing its long-term fertility and reducing erosion. Furthermore, composting promotes sustainable gardening practices, as it supports healthier plants and reduces reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. By embracing composting, individuals contribute to a more sustainable future, where organic waste is seen as a valuable asset rather than a burden. So, why compost? The answer lies in the positive impact it has on the environment, soil health, and personal gardens, making it a worthwhile endeavor for individuals and communities alike.