Composting For Climate Change: More Important Than You Might Think

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We extensively cover electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels here at team CleanTechnica – these high-tech renewable technologies are moving us to a world beyond fossil fuels. This truly can’t come fast enough. And yet, there are some decidedly low-tech opportunities that can make a big difference for climate change, like compost and reducing food waste.

We have too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because of human actions. This carbon goes into three major carbon sinks:

  • Our plants, which sequester carbon from the atmosphere (deforestation and desertification are not helping)
  • Our oceans (not doing so great, especially this year with bleaching events around the world at unprecedented scale
  • Our soil, the thin layer of matter upon which all living things depend

The role of the atmosphere gets the most attention in the media, as the high concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is leading to devastating climatic events. The affects of excess carbon on the ocean is also frequently covered. Only recently has the media been considering the importance of soil in the climate conversation. It’s important to fix ALL of these things – this is clear. However, soil improvement needs to be a discussed more frequently as it’s something that many of us can take on in small scale literally RIGHT now, and help make a big impact.

Why Do I 💚 Compost So Much?

Once upon a time I worked on an awesome organic farm.

I’ve been thinking a lot about compost lately, as our city (Oahu island) integrated waste management plan is due for an update. The consulting group and the City have been working with local zero-waste groups and citizen activists to build a plan that includes more source reduction, improved and expanded composting, and a decreased focused on incineration, which is a small percentage of our power here on Oahu. The draft plan is better, but there are still many changes that many of us would like to see.

One of the things that was left out of the plan entirely was improved composting of both food and green waste. Most of us in the waste working groups agreed this was a huge oversight.

About 40% of the total waste on our island is green waste, and it saddens me that this usable waste product is burned at our waste-to-energy plant and not put to better use. Some of it is composted at our local compost site, but it’s only for neighborhoods with green bin pickup, and that is limited. For others, all green waste must be thrown out with trash.

Adding to that, there are also strict rules (in place via the Department of Health) about creation of compost on the island. For example, compost can’t be used or sold outside of the farm that created it. Thus, we don’t have a good local compost available for gardeners – the green bins end up at a compost facility, but as there isn’t any food waste mixed in, the resulting mixture is dry, hydrophobic, and lacking in nutrients. It was so terrible to work with I stopped buying it years ago. As we don’t have food waste composting available locally, nearly all of our food waste ends up in incineration, even though damp food waste is not a good incineration material. As a former farmer, a current gardener, and long-time food activist, I was really passionate about getting a robust local compost operation here on the island and having better compost options available to farmers and gardeners island-wide.

Why is Compost So Important for Climate Change?

Yet this compost question goes beyond our island – it’s a huge consideration for reducing the impact of climate change. While soils, compost, and food waste might not seem like a huge issue, it turns out managing these important resources can make a big impact.

Project Drawdown, one of the most comprehensive resources for carbon mitigation, lists the best ways to help our climate by drawing carbon out of our atmosphere. Two solutions for climate change that everyone can help with right now are compost and reducing food waste. Even with my farming background and knowledge of the soil web, I was pretty surprised to see these listed so high on the list: reducing food waste ranks at #3 and compost at #60 on the Project Drawdown list.

This is massively important, and I am so excited to share these solutions on our clean energy website, because I think that often these low-tech solutions get missed in broader climate discussions. Other related solutions on Project Drawdown include improving farmland with regenerative farming methods (which includes compost and more holistic farming practices) and biochar, burning green waste to lock carbon in the soil. And of course, eating a plant-based diet is key to helping the climate (it ranks as #4). It’s also the best diet for your health, but you can read about that in a separate article.

The Dirt on Helping the Climate

Building better compost is really a two-part win for the climate: first, we’re keeping food waste out of the waste stream. Food waste is one of the key parts of compost, along with green and brown waste. Food waste is incredibly nutrient dense and can enrich soils once it’s been processed into compost. This also helps reduce the amount of methane in the atmosphere, as that would be released when food is not disposed of correctly. Secondly, compost turns waste into a valuable product that helps build better soils, acting as a carbon sink for our little blue planet.

NatGeo has even said that healthy soil is ‘the best crop.’ There are so many things that soil can do when it is healthy, including filtering groundwater and helping to absorb rainwater runoff, as well as supporting a greater diversity of plants and animals, creating a healthier ecosystem overall. Research also shows that food grown in healthier soils produces healthier foods.

The soil web, as it’s often called, it so much more than dirt. Dirt is often thought of as an inert medium within which plants grow. As science is learning more about the human microbiome, we’re also learning more about the soil microbiome. This refers to the complex web of life that is sustained within soil, and encompasses how the microbes (bacteria, protozoa, and more) work in tandem with plants to create vitamins, cycle nutrients, and support growth of plants. Healthy soils are also home to mycelium, the fungal network that connects the soil web.

We need healthy soil to work remove carbon from the atmosphere, it is compost and healthy microbes that build better soil. Unfortunately, most agriculture is monocropped (one crop in the field), leading to loss of biodiversity. Monocropping leads to increased pests and less diversity of life within the soil, which reduces overall health of the soil. Unhealthy soil then requires fertilization and pesticides, which further impact the health of the soil. Weak soils lead to erosion, which leads to soil loss over time. We are losing huge amounts of soil annually, and we’re losing it faster than it can be replaced.

Simple Steps to Support Healthier Soils at Home

Most of us don’t live on big farms where we can take action to prevent this from happening on a large scale, but these principles can be applied hyperlocally, like in your backyard or on your porch. The Instagram image above is my friend Vincent’s backyard farm in Waikuku, Maui. In a small plot, he farms worms for compost, grows four types of awesome sprouts, and has the best compost ever. Even if you live in an apartment, you can help build better soils and take climate action.

1. Choose organic foods

As much as possible, choose organic foods that are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This can be helpful for fields far away from you (it’s better for farmworkers, too). Organic crops are often also monocropped too, and often use non-chemical based fertilizers to help spur growth in plants, so it’s not perfect, but it’s better. Regenerative agriculture is really the next big agricultural movement focused on smart soil-focused farming methods, but it’s not an official certification – although that might change this year.

2. Buy Local Compost

If you’re building garden boxes, planting trees, or fertilizing your lawn, buy local compost that is made from local food waste. This helps support your local compost maker and helps boost the productivity of your soil, turning your yard or garden into a tiny carbon sink – every bit helps! Most universities have an extension program that can test your soil, so if you want to get really wonky about it, get it tested and find out what it needs, or do A/B testing to see how it improves over time with the addition of compost.

3. Compost your food waste

If you have a yard, you can build a compost pile using green waste (lawn clippings) and brown waste (dried leaves, but also cardboard and paper). There are also bins available to keep compost off the ground and keep it pest-free. If you don’t want to build or create a full bin, you can use smaller compost options like worm bins or Bokashi buckets, both of which break down food waste in different ways for use in the garden or yard. There are some in-home compost machines available now, too, that process waste really quickly for use in the yard.

Alternatively, look for a local farm, community garden, or a school that can take your food waste and turn it into compost. If you have municipal green waste pickup, you may be able to put your food waste into the bins to be taken away. The compost pickup in San Francisco is a great model, and I loved living there and knowing my green waste, food waste, and compost containers were all going to California farms! And if you’re lucky enough to have some animals, they can enjoy the food waste first, like at the local farm I previously worked at, seen below.

To solve our climate situation, we need urgent actions that are both high-tech (more solar and wind, please) and low-tech (looking forward to that regenerative agriculture certification). Knowing that some of the best – and easiest, cheapest – solutions are literally under our feet is really promising, and I look forward to seeing the healthy soil movement grow in coming years.

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Andrea Bertoli

I'm a marketing and sales professional focused on mission-driven businesses. I'm a journalist, green investor, wellness educator, surfer, and yogi. Find delicious food and wellness stuff on my Instagram @VibrantWellness.

Andrea Bertoli has 119 posts and counting. See all posts by Andrea Bertoli