Throw orange peels, banana peels and other leftover produce into the compost bin. Mix, repeat.
For some, composting is done without a second thought. For others, it’s a confusing process that may not seem worth the effort.
Composting is one of the many ways people can reduce their negative impact on the planet, but is it worth it?
In short, yes, but only if you do it right.
This food recycling process doesn’t have as big of an impact as other climate preservation measures such as throwing away less food, but it’s still an important practice, said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a non-profit organization that focuses on reducing food waste. in the USA.
Food scraps produce harmful greenhouse gases in a landfill and little to none in a compost pile, Gunders said.
According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food waste accounted for 24% of the waste sent to landfills – that volume is more than any other type of everyday waste.
There will always be food scraps like banana peels, so you can prevent nutrient loss to the landfill by composting and using soil from your garden, Gunders said. When you compost, the nutrients return to the soil for later use. When it goes to a landfill, the nutrients get trapped among the waste and don’t help anything grow.
“When you add up that trash across the country, that’s a lot of material,” she said.
The art of composting involves mixing the correct proportions of organic matter like food and yard waste with nitrogen, carbon, moisture (like water) and air to speed up decomposition unwanted waste. That’s according to Sally Brown, associate research professor 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, turning it into highly fertile soil, she said.
It takes between four and six months for the material to decompose. A compost pile needs to heat up to about 131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Celsius) to decompose properly, so in warmer climates like Florida it takes less time to decompose than in colder climates like Seattle, according to Brown.
Soil can be used to grow new plants or to feed already growing plants, which completes the food cycle, she said.
In her garden, she frequently uses homemade composted soil to feed her vegetable plants. “You never question it once you get your hands on this soil, see how beautiful it is, see the worms wiggle and then see how productive your soil is,” Brown said. .
Composting has a bad reputation for its smell, but it shouldn’t stink if done correctly, according to Brown. When a compost pile isn’t properly aerated, it’s because it’s anaerobic, meaning oxygen doesn’t reach the pile, she said.
The same phenomenon occurs with something that everyone knows: farts. “Your intestinal tract is generally anaerobic, and the gases that come out when you fart are no different from the gases in a compost pile,” she said.
If a compost pile is anaerobic, there are more serious consequences than stench.
When a pile lacks oxygen, it emits methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, according to the United States Composting Council.
This is one of the reasons why landfills harm the environment. Waste in landfills is stored under anaerobic conditions because the waste is tightly packed with little space for oxygen, so the organic matter it contains creates several gases, half of which is methane, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Methane is an incredibly powerful greenhouse that has about 80 times more warming power than carbon dioxide in its first two decades in the atmosphere. And it’s responsible for about a third of the climate crisis, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. US landfills released about 109.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent of methane in 2020, or about 16.8% of US man-made methane emissions, according to the EPA.
US landfills released about 109.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent of methane in 2020, or about 16.8% of US man-made methane emissions, according to the EPA.
Fortunately, it is easy to prevent compost from producing methane. When a pile is aerated, which means it’s exposed to oxygen, methane-producing microbes aren’t active, so methane isn’t created, according to the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development. Government of Western Australia.
Composters should turn a pile every two to five weeks to keep it airy, according to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Brown materials such as dead plants help aerate the mix, so having a sufficient amount of those in the pile can also help, said Nena Shaw, acting division director of the Resource Conservation and Sustainability Division. to the Office of Land and Emergency Management at the EPA. .
There are several composting methods such as home composting, according to the EPA.
Compost bins should be set up in a dry, shaded area, the environmental agency said. Then add a combination of brown materials such as fallen leaves and green materials such as grass clippings and moisten them as they are placed in the bin.
Cover the top of the pile to lock in moisture and turn the pile if necessary until the bottom material is dark, which means it is ready to be used as soil.
“I love gardening, so I think what drew me to it was the ability to have nutrients for the garden,” Gunders said.
Composting also raises awareness of the environment and the natural cycle of food growth and waste, she said.
When learning to compost, invest in a compost cup, recommends Gunders. The bin rotates like a washing machine, which makes it easier to ventilate.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a guide to composting that explains how to set up a pile and what can and cannot be composted.
If the DIY method seems too difficult, many cities offer composting services that pick up people’s organic waste and then compost it in a commercial facility.
If you’re concerned about the footprint of these services, vehicles emit several gases, but the majority is carbon dioxide, according to the Green Vehicle Guide. And because methane is so much more potent than carbon dioxide, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a vehicle picking up compost is far from the amount of methane the same material would produce in a landfill, Brown said.
“You could basically drive compost from California to Oklahoma and still come out on top,” she said.
Commercial composting can also handle more types of waste than a backyard compost could, Shaw said.
The higher temperatures of commercial composting make it possible to compost meat, bones and dairy products, which wouldn’t work well in a home compost, she said.
However, home composting is great for recycling leftover produce and yard waste that turns into usable soil for home gardens, Shaw added.
Commercial nitrogen fertilizers require a lot of energy to make and are expensive, said Joseph Heckman, a soil fertility extension specialist in the plant biology department at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The soil produced from composting helps reduce the need to use commercial fertilizers, boosts soil health and makes crops and soils more resilient to droughts, he said.
The nutrient-rich soil can be used in gardens, yards, or anywhere people have plants. For those who don’t need the soil, they can give it to farmers who produce crops, Heckman said. Compost must meet certain regulations in order to be used on a farm, he added.
In addition to creating rich soil, composting also reduces the amount of waste a person produces, said Tara Scully, associate professor of biology and director of the sustainability minor in the Department of Biological Sciences at George Washington University at Washington, DC.
She grew up composting with her family and has been doing it herself for 20 years after moving into a home with enough space to do so. Since composting in her own home, Scully has noticed that much of her landfill waste has been diverted to her homemade compost pile.
“It’s reduced our trash dramatically each week, I didn’t realize how much trash we were throwing away,” Scully said.