Composting For Your Garden
Organic waste and recycling food into compost provides a range of environmental benefits, like soil health improvement, recycling nutrients, gas emissions reduction in greenhouse and mitigating the impact of droughts.
What Is Composting?
Composting is the natural process of recycling organic matter, such as leaves and food scraps, into a valuable fertilizer that can enrich soil and plants. Anything that grows decomposes eventually; composting simply speeds up the process by providing an ideal environment for bacteria, fungi, and other decomposing organisms (such as worms, sowbugs, and nematodes) to do their work. The resulting decomposed matter, which often ends up looking like fertile garden soil, is called compost. Fondly referred to by farmers as “black gold,” compost is rich in nutrients and can be used for gardening, horticulture, and agriculture.
Reduces Personal Food Waste
Consumers are responsible for a staggering amount of wasted food. An average American family of four throws out about $150 worth of food per month, a 50 percent increase since the 1970s. NRDC research in three U.S. cities indicated that the category of edible food most wasted by households was fruits and vegetables. According to a 2016 report in The Guardian, U.S. retailers and consumers throw away about 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually. The best way to reduce impacts from food waste is to prevent waste from occurring in the first place, so NRDC works through its Save the Food campaign and other tools to educate consumers on how to shop for, prepare, and store food to minimize waste. However, even if we do everything possible to decrease food waste, there will still be food scraps that cannot be consumed (e.g., a banana peel). Composting is a great way to recycle those discards instead of tossing them in the trash.
Cuts Methane Emissions From Landfills
Typically when organic matter decomposes, it undergoes aerobic decomposition, meaning that it’s broken down by microorganisms that require oxygen. When compostable waste goes to a landfill, it gets buried under massive amounts of other trash, cutting off a regular supply of oxygen for the decomposers. The waste then ends up undergoing anaerobic decomposition, being broken down by organisms that can live without free-flowing oxygen. During anaerobic decomposition, biogas is created as a by-product. This biogas is roughly 50 percent methane and 50 percent carbon dioxide, both of which are potent greenhouse gases, with methane being 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a century. Although most modern landfills have methane capture systems, these do not capture all of the gas; landfills are the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the United States.
Because our solid waste infrastructure was designed around landfilling, only about 6 percent of food waste gets composted. However, states, cities, and individual businesses and vendors can spearhead zero-waste strategies to increase composting and recycling rates within their jurisdictions and to keep waste from being generated in the first place. There have been many composting success stories around the country, one notable example being San Francisco. In 1996 San Francisco established a large-scale composting program, and by 2000 it was able to divert 50 percent of its waste from landfills. By increasing its goals over the years, San Francisco has been diverting more than 80 percent of waste from landfills since 2012. That means more than 90,000 metric tons of carbon emissions are avoided each year—equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 20,000 passenger vehicles.
Improves Soil Health and Lessens Erosion
Compost is an essential tool for improving large-scale agricultural systems. Compost contains three primary nutrients needed by garden crops: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It also includes traces of other essential elements like calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. Instead of relying on synthetic fertilizers that contain harmful chemicals, composting offers an organic alternative. Research has shown the capability of compost to increase soil’s water retention capacity, productivity, and resiliency.