Compost Shaming


Compost Shaming

How much of your organic waste is being recycled?
If you are not composting, shame on you! Every scrap of potentially compostable rubbish that you carelessly toss in the trash could, instead of needlessly crowding landfills, be converted to “black gold.” Why are you not doing this? Do you not care about our planet? Does it seem like such an insignificant act, not warranting your attention? Is it merely inconvenient? Or, let us suppose ignorance; that you are really not quite sure why it is necessary, what is compostable, nor how to begin. Every one of us can set aside our organic scraps. If I can do so as an individual incarcerated in America’s burgeoning prison system you certainly can do so as well. 
I must admit that I was quite ignorant as to the reasons for and methods of composting until relatively recently. There is no reason to be ashamed of ignorance. After reading this article, however, you shall be informed and thereafter have no legitimate reason not to take appropriate steps. I have been studying such practices for a few years now and have helped enlighten many others to the importance of organics recycling.
Composting is the controlled biological decomposition process where microorganisms convert organic items into humus-like material suitable as a soil amendment. Finished compost is the most efficient and practical soil builder. It is a crumbly dark colored mass, which has reached an advanced state of decay and is optimal for growing plants and the healthiest of vegetables. All vegetable beds, perennials, shrubs, even lawns and trees should get an inch of compost every year.[1]  Yet, finished compost is highly versatile; it can be applied to any crop at any time and in any amount. 
Composting is important for a myriad of reasons. Primarily, the act of composting is a way in which every individual can take an active role in helping with ecologically sustainable practices. Diverting organic, compostable materials from the landfill not only helps preserve landfill space, but the otherwise garbage is turned into a useful substance in high demand. “But billionaires burn colossal amounts of fossil fuels,” you argue, “travelling to space or jet setting round the world…” The saving of any table scraps seems so relatively insignificant. 
Ah, but it is not insignificant. Collectively, setting aside and cycling our organic rubbish can have a tremendous impact on sustainable practices, climate change mitigation, biodiversity and ecological health, as well as a sense of community and personal accountability.

Organics recycling meets particular needs of present generations without compromising, indeed by enhancing, the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Of all sustainable practices that each of us can incorporate into our daily lives, setting aside our organic waste ranks among the top. Developing personal habits which include removing our organics from the waste stream is important if we are to become good stewards of the land and of the planet’s resources.
Traditional farming techniques have included the over-application of fertilizers, tilling and chemical usage, which has stressed the soils, caused substantial environmental harm and burned up precious resources. These practices are not sustainable and, increasingly, this is being understood by the horticulture/agriculture industries as well as American citizens.
Composting is a sustainable alternative to, and cure for, past agricultural missteps.  There are many positive benefits that composting contributes to sustainability. 

•  regenerates and restores soil and soil health;
•  is a superb way to cycle resources;
•  conserves and promotes biodiversity, especially of soil microorganisms;
•  increases soil aeration and buffers soil pH;
•  reduces need to purchase and use chemical pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides;
•  recycles energy by obtaining a yield from otherwise rubbish;
•  “…is the best choice for increasing pest and disease resistance”[1];
•  returns nutrients to the soil;
•  increases beneficial microbial activity;
•  is a great protection against floods and helps purify water runoff;
•  enhances water absorption, reducing irrigation needs and costs; and
•  reserves precious landfill space for non-organic, non-recyclable materials

Recycling organics is economically sustainable as well. Finished compost is so sought after by farmers and gardeners that they pay upwards of $60 per bag for it[2]. Consider that the next time you chuck an apple core into the trash can. Individuals, companies, schools and other entities can potentially lower landfill-, tipping- and dumpster rental-fees by setting aside their organics. Your organic waste is a resource, if you do not want it, trust me, someone else does.

Climate Change Mitigation
Both the process of composting as well as the resulting end product has significant environmental and climatic benefits. Organic material that is not composted must, inevitably, be trucked to a landfill. Composting organic materials has the potential to alleviate the effects of climate change in two major ways: Landfill Diversion-Methane Reduction and Carbon Reduction/Sequestration.
I. Landfill Diversion-Methane Reduction 
Millions of tons of organic matter is dumped into landfills each year and it is estimated that up to 65% of all solid waste that enters landfills could be composted.[3]
Around 8% of the world’s greenhouse gasses are attributable to food waste.[4] When organics decompose in landfills they produce both carbon dioxide (CO) and methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more potent than CO and municipal solid-waste landfills are the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA.[5] The USDA and EPA are working to achieve a 50% reduction in landfill organics by 2030.[6]
II. Carbon Reduction/Sequestration
The transportation to landfills of otherwise compostable material results in unnecessary vehicle emissions. Eliminating this transportation through on-site or local composting has a significant impact on fuel consumption and the subsequent effects of greenhouse gasses.
Composting ultimately improves soil health, boosting nutrient and microorganism populations by making use of what would otherwise be garbage. Enhancing soil health also alleviates the potential effects of climate change in a few ways. One is in a reduction in the resources used during the production and transportation of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, thus preventing harmful long-term effects. Soil amended with compost tends to be more tolerant of drought in the dryer months and maintains better drainage in the wet months. The decrease in irrigation needs extends to electricity by generally reducing energy consumption and preventing additional greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for potential climatic benefits, healthy soil amended with compost enables plants to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it safely in the ground. Compost helps create the conditions for plants to retain as much carbon in the ground as possible. “No other natural process steadily removes such vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as photosynthesis.”[7] Herein lies our great green hope, “with good soil practices we could reverse global warming.”[8]
Biodiversity and Ecological Health
The foundation of ecological balance begins with the soil. Due to the processes of tilling the topsoil and treating it with harsh chemicals and inorganic fertilizers, much of our soil is notoriously depleted. These destructive practices rob our soil of microbial life, upsetting the soil food web, destroying the link between plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi and depleting nutrients in produce. 

In a teaspoon of healthy soil there can exist as many as 75,000 species of bacteria, 25,000 species of fungi, 1,000 species of protozoa, and 100 species of tiny worms called nematodes.[9]  Bacteria play a major role in plant nutrition and as much as 80% of the nitrogen a plant requires comes from the waste produced by bacteria- and fungi-eating protozoa.[10] In addition to the microorganisms, the micro arthropods, ants, mites, millipedes, earthworms, beetles, slugs, voles and the like make up the soil food web. They are also the foundation of the food chain and healthy plants and animals need them.
“It is vital that we feed the soil around us the richest, most nutrient- and microbial- dense foods we can to aid in rebuilding the earth around us.”[11]

Although compost is an excellent and valuable source of basic nutrients for plant life, perhaps its chief value is as a soil inoculant. Compost stimulates greater biological activity; it boosts the population of microorganisms and their ensuing release of nutrients for healthy crops. When the soil is healthy and alive with microorganisms, it creates the foundation for the entire ecological system.

Creating and utilizing quality compost relieves the need for synthetic chemicals. These chemicals have proved over the decades to destroy and eliminate biodiversity. With soil-dwelling organisms representing 25% of all earthly species and accounting for the majority of living biomass on the planet, it is irresponsible of us to neglect it.[12]
Organics Recycling as Habit
We all wish to do the right thing, but the process needs to be convenient if we are to incorporate new habits into our daily lives. I developed the following steps to help everyone begin recycling their organic waste.

Step 1: Identify Recyclable Organic Waste
The most voluminous materials are typically yard, landscape and garden trimmings, leaves and grass clippings. (Any diseased plant matter should be disposed of and not composted.) All fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds are compostable as well as a lot of paper and cardboard. As a general rule, greasy, waxy, glossy or colored ink paper should also not be composted, nor meats as they can attract rodents. You may also consider inquiring into what is going on with the organics at local places of business, schools, etc.

Step 2: Set Aside Organic Waste
Once you have figured out what can be composted, along with the typical quantities of organic waste that you produce, you must develop a convenient system for removing it from the waste stream. Many people use a relatively small container in the kitchen to temporarily hold the material. Since it is so convenient to simply throw all waste into a trash bin, it is important that this compost container be just as convenient. Each piece of organic waste has value, over time you will develop more efficient ways to set it aside.

Step 3: Determine Compost Site
The organics recycling process should take place as locally as possible. This could be done in a small compost tumbler on the patio, a homemade bin in the back yard, or an informal pile next to a garden. Ideally, people are able to recycle their own organics on site, and it is recommended that you search out and develop methods to do so. Not everyone has the space for composting and must, therefore, hand off their organic waste to a gardening friend, community garden, or a local farmer. Composting businesses collect organics from both residential and commercial sources; they provide containers, weekly curbside pickup and will even provide finished compost at a discount for customers.[13]
Seek consumable products that are packaged in biodegradable packaging. Bring home only enough food that can be preserved and consumed so as not to waste any. (The average family of four spends $1,500 each year on food that ends up uneaten[14] and 81% of that food ends up in the landfill.[15]) Conscious consuming can have a substantial impact on how much garbage we add to the waste stream.

Increasingly, we are all awakening to the myriad ways in which humans are having a negative impact upon our own environment and future. Before we begin casting stones, we should put forth the effort to improve upon our own personal habits. I cannot possibly complain about the actions of others, which may be unsustainable, when I am not doing my part to the extent possible. Regardless what others may or may not do, I shall always set aside compostable materials and promote sustainable practices, because it is simply the right thing to do and I know it. You now

[1] Elizabeth Stell (1998), 32.
[2] The price of one cubic yard of finished compost minus shipping cost (December 2022).
[4] Chad Frischmann & Mamta Mehra, More Food Less Waste, Scientific America, Oct 2021, 76.
[7] Kristin Ohlson, The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet (2014), 14.
[8] Kristin Ohlson (2014), 17.
[9] Kristin Ohlson (2014), 28.
[10] Jeff Loenfels & Wayne Lewis, Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide To The Soil Food Web (2010), 50, 84.
[11] John Wilson, Ferment Your Compost, Mother Earth News, Oct/Nov 2021, 48.