What You Need To Know About Composting

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Methane is a major source of potent greenhouse (GHG) emissions that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. A new report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, argues that the EPA must impose regulations that mandate more gas-collection systems at landfills. It must require more monitoring and accurate reporting of methane emissions. And, in addition to the 3R’s — recycling, reusing, repurposing — it must encourage more composting in the waste stream by consumers.

Ah, composting. That action of the environmentally enlightened.

There is a heightened awareness that’s emerging of the large impact of landfill-generated methane emissions. Partially, it’s because the global community has ramped up efforts to mitigate and prevent the consequences of global climate change.

The US Composting Council is firmly opposed to landfilling yard trimmings, food residuals, and other source-separated organics when viable alternatives are available. They say that landfilling is an inefficient way to use our organic feedstocks: wasting resources, reducing recycling, and increasing GHG emissions. Composting — a kind of environmentally enlightened climate action — is the way to go.

Are You Environmentally Enlightened about Composting?

Diverting organic waste from landfills can have outsized effects in terms of fighting climate change. Composting, in particular, has many environmental benefits in addition to reducing GHGs. Want to do a self-check to see how environmentally enlightened you are about composting? Answer the following questions, giving yourself 1 point for each correct answer. Afterward, you’ll be able to compare how fully engaged you are with the science and practice of composting.

Lomi indoor composter looking out over the ocean. Photo by Carolyn Fortuna | CleanTechnica.

Name one benefit of composting.

Composting has many benefits for the climate, ecosystems, and communities. The EPA outlines how the composting process creates nutrient-rich soil that reduces erosion and stormwater pollution and sequesters carbon. By composting wasted food and other organics, methane emissions are significantly reduced, as are the need for chemical fertilizers. Compost promotes higher yields of agricultural crops. It can help aid reforestation, wetlands restoration, and habitat revitalization efforts by improving contaminated, compacted, and marginal soils. Compost can be used to remediate soils contaminated by hazardous waste in a cost-effective manner. Compost enhances water retention in soils.

Do organic wastes contain methane? Yes or No.

Organic wastes do not contain methane. It is only when they are placed in an anaerobic environment that methane is produced. They will generate very little, if any methane, if they are recycled through composting. Methane emissions from landfills can be reduced by recycling or composting waste.

Which is more deadly: Carbon dioxide or methane?

Methane is 25 times more harmful as a GHG than carbon dioxide. Organic wastes decomposing in landfills account for 37% of human-made methane. Organic waste is the driver behind landfill methane emissions. Composting and improved pollution controls are solutions to the problem of landfill methane.

How much of a difference can composting have in comparison to landfilling: 35%, 55%, 75%, or 95%?

The EPA has estimated that composting and anaerobic digestion can each achieve a 95% methane reduction efficiency when compared to landfilling organic waste.

What’s preferable: composting of discarded organic materials or anaerobically digesting (AD) those materials?

The Zero Waste International Alliance says, in general, composting should be considered as a priority option over AD to return discarded organic materials back to soils due to its intrinsic robustness. Composting is also scalable, meaning that it’s suitable for small-sized, low-tech, or temporary approaches in communities, businesses, and institutions.

Name 3 items that it’s okay to compost.

You can compost a variety of materials, including food scraps like vegetable and fruit peels, eggshells, coffee grounds, and tea bags. Yard waste like grass clippings, leaves, and branches can be composted. Paper products such as newspaper, cardboard, and paper towels can be composted. You can even compost cotton and wool fabric, hair, and pet fur.

Name 3 items that it’s not okay to compost.

Please don’t compost meat, fish, dairy products, diseased plants, weeds with seeds, or synthetic materials. These materials do not break down or can contaminate your compost.

Is it okay to discard food waste in public recycling containers?

To minimize the amount of waste that gets sent to a landfill, public municipalities rely on you to separate recyclable and compostable materials from trash. In fact, some compostable products such as flatware, drinkware, and bags actually may be very difficult for a facility to successfully compost, depending on what they are made from. For example, to minimize the amount of waste that gets sent to a landfill, Penn State relies on the campus population to separate recyclable and compostable materials from trash. The university is moving to a “food waste only” approach with University Park’s compost collection.

Does any of the recent US federal climate legislation offer incentives about composting? Yes or No.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law channels $275 million to EPA’s Solid Waste Infrastructure for Recycling Program, which is intended to improve management and disposal post-consumer waste materials and includes infrastructure for recycling, which includes composting and other “recycling” of organics. The Inflation Reduction Act offers a series of incentives for nature-based climate solutions.

Is composting a luxury associated with the upper classes?

Well, with increasing interest in sustainability, shoppers have become enraptured with artisanal fertilizer. Compost makers are rising to the level of wine growers. The WSJ chronicled how Flamingo Estate, a private garden that offers such products as honey from the homes of celebrities Julianne Moore and Will Ferrell, now sells 9-pound bags of its own composted manure for $75. The product, called the Good Shit, sold out over the holidays after Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop put it on its Christmas gift guide. The Six Senses Ibiza, a resort in Spain where rooms start at around $769 a night, composts its food waste from its restaurants and uses the material on the hotel’s farm. But composting doesn’t have to be about high-end appliances like those gadgets at the trade show CES or chichi resorts. You, too, can compost!

How Well Did You Do on Our Quiz?

There were 10 total items on the quiz, so give yourself 10 points each for each correct item.

9-10 correct responses: You’re definitely environmentally enlightened! You are in a good place to mentor others about how composting can become a daily practice, just like washing the dishes or sweeping the kitchen floor.

7-8 correct responses: You’re becoming environmentally enlightened. Keep reading about best practices for climate action. Ask others how they handle food waste in their homes — learning is social, and we make the strongest meaning when we learn from each other.

5-6 responses: You’ve shown a solid interest in becoming environmentally enlightened just by taking this quiz. Learn about Composting Day, which is coming up — on May 29. You can add to your repertoire of composting strategies.

Final Thoughts about Being Environmentally Enlightened through Composting

Composting is a process that allows organic waste to decompose in the presence of oxygen, which minimizes methane production. The GHG reductions that can be obtained by composting rather than landfilling organic waste largely depend on how effectively the method of composting avoids anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions, which produce methane. However, composting in general is a particularly effective way of largely avoiding methane emissions.

More emphasis should be placed on preventing organic waste from being thrown into the trash and dumped into landfills in the first place. Instead of landfilling organic waste, consumers and municipal governments can use composting to prevent most of the methane from being produced, in addition to other environmental and economic benefits. Officials and decision-makers at all levels should include organics diversion in plans for addressing climate change. Consumers and businesses should also be encouraged to reduce their food waste and recycle organic materials like paper and cardboard more.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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