Help your garden and the planet by composting
Turning food waste into fertilizer reduces greenhouse gas emissions and can help your garden
This issue of The Green Dispatch is another “news you can use”, meant to help you to lower your carbon footprint or to otherwise lead a more environmentally sound lifestyle.
Back in February, in a “news you can use” issue of The Green Dispatch I covered the environmental benefits of reducing food waste, one of the best ways that you can reduce your carbon footprint, free up farmland for the conservation of wildlife, and save some money to boot. But even if you plan meals, make sure to refrigerate and use leftovers, and really, really cut down on your wasted food, there are still banana peels, coffee grounds, apple cores, and other organic waste from our homes.
The problem with tossing out food waste is that once it goes to the landfill it rots, producing methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is about 28 to 36 times more powerful at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. So every bit of methane that you can avoid contributing to the atmosphere, all the better.
I am not going to give a tutorial on composting. There are plenty of resources out there that can help you get started. If you can take a class in composting, I highly recommend it. Colleges and universities offer composting classes as part of their extended studies programs. It really helps to be there, in person, and have experienced instructors walk you through the process. It can make the difference between your first batch of compost turning out to be a big pile of stinking goo or a rich, fertile humus. The zoo where I work offers composting classes, six-week courses that cover everything compost. Even though I had been composting for a few years, I still wound up learning a few things from this class. If a class isn’t convenient, there are a lot of online resources and books. And there are lots and lots of youtube videos on the subject.
There is one thing that I’ve learned about composting on my own. Use a plastic bag and store your food scraps in the refrigerator until you’re ready to throw them in your compost bin. This works out better for my wife and me than having a compost bucket to collect food on its way to the compost bin. Unless you clean out the bucket every day or every other day, the organic material starts to rot and gets gooey and smelly. You don’t want that. I’ve kept peels and food scraps in the refrigerator for a week before putting them in my bin to compost, and it works out fine. We put the food waste into plastic bags, the kind that you bag up produce at the grocery store, and keep them in one of the storage bins in the refrigerator
The other thing that I do that I’ve not run across in any composting book or video is that I compost old clothes. I tend not to take old clothes to secondhand shops, preferring to wear things out till the bitter end. (I know I look like a bum half the time, but, well… OK, so I look like a bum.) Even some ardent composters have given me funny looks when I tell them that I compost clothes, but I compost my old clothes.
I’ve only composted cotton, as I have few wool clothes and have managed to keep them in wearable condition. When I compost an old shirt or pair of pants, I cut out all the heavy stitching, the weaving that holds the different pieces of cloth together. These threads are sometimes made of plastic and won’t break down in a compost pile. Cotton breaks down more slowly than table scraps, so I wind up recycling the cloth into the next pile when I harvest a batch of compost.
Why you should compost, what the science says
Except for a few forward-thinking cities that have municipal composting facilities, in which they take all the thrown out organic waste and compost it on a grand scale, all food waste that is thrown out winds up in landfill. When food waste is thrown into a big pile, like a landfill, it is initially broken down by aerobic microorganisms, with little methane production. Over time, the material starts to be broken down by anaerobic microorganisms, which produce methane as a byproduct.
We make a lot of methane with our landfills. Just one big city landfill can produce the equivalent of 180,000 metric tons of CO2 (Greenhouse gases are often interpreted as their CO2 equivalent.), the same amount of emissions produced by 40,000 cars in one year. And we have a lot of landfills. Just about every city has one. All these landfills comprise the third largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the U.S. In 2020, the methane produced from U.S. landfills roughly equalled the yearly emissions from 20.3 million cars or the yearly emissions from the energy used in 11.9 million homes.
There has been some research and even some commercial development of capturing and using the methane that is produced by landfills. From what I’ve read, however, this is still getting off the ground, so presently we’re better off if we compost. A well-made compost pile controls the breakdown of food waste, keeping anaerobic breakdown from occurring or at least keeping it to a minimum. Composting, even just a little bit, helps.
There is new research that new approaches to farm composting could increase crop production. Called precision compost strategy, the compost is supplemented with with nutrients in accordance with the needs of soils and crops. Almost a third of the world’s agricultural soils have become degraded, composting these soils can help restore them, resulting in more water retention, better root growth, and foster organisms that are part of soil health.
If this form of composting can be fostered among American farmers, it could contribute a great deal to reducing this country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Large amounts of energy are used to produce commercial fertilizers, and their use accounts for 40% of the energy used in American agriculture.
Do you compost? Have any suggestions? If you don’t compost, what would it take to get you started? Let me know by clicking the comment button.
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