Composting and the Environment

Compost Dirt

An example of compost dirt

When it comes to protecting the environment and stopping climate change, most people view it as a large scale problem that can only be solved on a large scale.  Such as limiting the greenhouse gas emissions of power plants, and improving the emissions on our vehicles.  These strategies can be greatly effective, but there are ways that individuals can take action to lower the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted by their waste by composting.  Composting is a simple process in which you can use wasted food scraps and basically anything that is biodegradable to create a nutrient rich soil that can be used for gardening.  Technically, composting is the process of aerobic decomposition of organic materials into a black soil that is beneficial as a soil conditioner, and a fertilizer. For composting to work effectively it requires four components, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and water.  By composting, there is less waste going into landfills, which produce high levels of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) through anaerobic decomposition.  In addition, since this process creates useful soil and fertilizer, it reduces the need for individuals with gardens to buy energy intensive fertilizers.

Tumbling compost bin

Example of a closed container compost

Open compost bin

Example of an open compost bin

Composting can be done on a large or small scale with equal effectiveness, whether in a backyard or an apartment.  For homeowners with a backyard, a compost pile can be created by simply sectioning off part of the yard with chicken wire.  To begin a simple compost pile, start by layering between dry leaves and grass clippings, also known as “brown matter,” and food scraps.  This will help speed up the decomposition process.  Finally, the compost needs to be turned and raked with some sort of rake or pitch fork periodically, and in a few months there should be usable compost soil.  This describes an open bin composting method.  Closed containers can also be used for creating compost.  A popular variety is a rotating drum compost container.  It effectively works the same as the open bin concept except water has to be added to the container, and instead of raking the pile it just needs to be turned periodically.  An advantage of using a closed container method is that it can be used in an apartment setting where there is no yard space available.  Therefore, anyone can compost no matter the size of their home.

As can be seen, it is possible for everyone to compost their leftover food and waste into a useful product, but there is also great potential for composting on an industrial scale.  Inevitably there is always going to be people who aren’t willing to put forth the time and effort it takes to manage a compost pile.  Therefore, composting on a large industrial scale would allow the waste created by all of society, including those who are uninterested in composting at home, to be composted into something useful.  There are several well established methods for composting on large scales, and it is a great alternative to allowing biodegradable waste to decompose into methane in landfills.  For this to be effective, waste management companies could offer a composting service similar to the recycling services that exist already, and all the customers would have to do is keep their food scraps and other biodegradable waste in a separate container and place it outside on the designated pickup days.  It would be the same as separating the recyclables from the trash, and would take a minimal amount of effort on the consumer end.  As a result, everyone could be a part of  composting their waste to help lower the levels of greenhouse gas emissions and create a useful byproduct, whether they want to do it on their own or not.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Composting and the Environment

  1. pcc396

    While composting is a good use of waste food or scraps, who is a candidate to compost in their apartment? Living in an apartment currently, I would not want to have a compost pile or bucket in my unit because it will attract insects. Also, what will I do with the compost since I cannot have a garden in my apartment? For industrial scale composting, I see a big barrier being the smell and insect attraction that a pile of biodegradable stuff will be in a garage. The pre-compost waste will not be a welcome item in the garage five days from now before the garbage company comes for pick-up. Composting is better geared for homeowners who can utilize it and keep it away from the home.

  2. It’s a very interesting article about how sustainable organic agricultural practices can help mitigate Green house gas emissions. Though initially skeptical about the quantum of change in emissions that can be brought about by composting, I came across figures which are not only highly encouraging but demand immediate action in combating climate change. According to California Air Resources Board, California could reduce its GHG emissions by one million MTCO2E by composting just 30% of the foodwaste that is currently disposed. This is equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 26 million tree seedlings grown for 10 years. Compost can significantly reduce the agricultural energy demand since plants grown in compost rich soil require less irrigation and fertilizers. Thus reducing the green house gas emissions for producing the petroleum based fertilizers. Composting could also benefit farmers economically if carbon credits are rolled out for these initiatives. In this view, composting represents a multi-targeted and multi-functional strategy for combating climate change.

  3. kylemcgaa

    The prospect of gardening has always intrigued me. There’s at least 3, definitely 4, probably even more ‘types’ of worlds we live in, and depending on your environment, composting may or may not be your thing.

    Dense urbanites probably wouldn’t see much good in a composter if you live several floors above the earth, and pcc396 makes a good point about bugs in the living quarters. Cement dwelling bugs can be a special blend for sure.

    Suburbanites tend to have lawns, if not a patch of 15’x15′ you can call your own, and the composter could help you save bills on herbs, berries, or attract animals, if you like animals. Animals just like to eat like us, and sacrificing a bit of your garden, which you’re just borrowing anyway, is less sacrifice than you might imagine considering the habitat destruction we’ve been causing lately (more like a back due bill). Besides, giving a bit of your garden over to the species that would like to naturally live there (and enhancing it with nutrients- composter) will more than pay for itself, especially when the habitat you’re in is strong enough to start taking your organic ‘waste’ for you without even composting.

    As a matter of fact, I just moved into a place that has a wicked, grapes of wrath style backyard- I don’t dare call it a lawn- with weeds that were so high and thick that it was really a special little habitat. I have a habit of throwing organic ‘waste’ into the bushy areas of my residence (I always have), for I don’t even know why, but I just habitually do it. I haven’t lived in places with the ‘English lawn’ in many years, this is not England anyway, but the grasses and weedy areas tend to support enough little bugs for the possums or raccoons to snack on, and something tends to decompose it. If you didn’t have a strong natural habitat, the little tiny bugs most likely couldn’t eat it fast enough, just like you can’t light a log on fire with a match (you’ve got to work your way up), and that’s when you have a stinky garden and have to pay some stranger an extra couple bucks every week to take away your filth. At least that’s one perspective.

    Moving to the country, you might want to think about complimenting that composter with a full-on composting toilet (don’t even ask, just buy it). These require some maintenance, but work much like a garden composter by treating your organic matter as the hummus rich goodness you know it really is (I mean that). If you’re mono-cropping, you’ll definitely need all the help you can get, but going back to the natural habitat idea from before, the bio-diversity that you allow in actually helps you very much in the end.

    Take the European honey bee dilemma for example (CBC link below). Californian and Canadian honey keepers are reporting a particularly acute die off of bees AGAIN this year (4th year in a row), and the article below did not delve into one of the explanations I read about years ago (and conveniently can’t find the source for).

    While there are many theories, a more plausible one has to do with:
    bee species diversity;
    overworking of the un-acclimated honey bee that often travels around the country in semi-trucks (bees never drove semi-trucks back in the day);
    a tiny gene pool of only a few hundred queen bees that have been bred by man to yield more honey (rather than survive diverse weather patterns or have a taste for local native polins in case a late freeze kills the over planted mono-crops for example);
    the adverse effects of endless mono-cropping has on limiting a balanced diet of polins, allowing certain species (like bacteria and viruses) to thrive that other animals are not very used to, pesticides, and decades of abuse pollinating on the road like a vagabond.

    One of the most important things that article mentioned was how beneficial it could be to farmers if they just ‘sacrificed’ (back paid) some of the lands they borrowed from the animals for a very, very long time and who would like to make homes there again, thank you very much. Especially native bees in this case, including the local flowers they like to visit. Composting could help in this process, especially the composting toilet. Are we strong enough to give back to the earth, or do we need to keep taking as if we are sick and can’t support others? Giving is a sign of wealth amongst certain people. Giving your organic ‘trash’ seems like the simplest gift you could give, especially if you have a decent spread.

    http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2010/03/24/tech-bee-colony-collapse.html

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