Food Waste and Our Soil: Why everyone should compost for a healthier future

It’s called “black gold” – no, it’s not oil, it’s compost and it is valuable. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize just how precious this commodity really is for our earth.  I’ve written about how-to compost in the past. It’s not a very glamorous topic, talking about how people should throw away their trash but it’s a very important one. Compost can help revitalize infertile soils which is major problem not only in the U.S but throughout the world.

Soil Erosion is a Global Issue

The U.S. and most of the world’s inventory of arable topsoil has been lost to erosion, overuse of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, and other farming practices that have left the soil depleted. Topsoil is the most fertile arable land on earth and some experts fear, we could even run out of it to grow food in within the next 60 years[1]! Soil erosion is 2nd to population growth as the environments biggest problem[2]. But soil isn’t sexy.

How Does Compost Help the soil?

The majority of people who compost are gardeners who know all the benefits composting can produce for their gardens, lawns and lives. Compost helps build soil structure which enables soil to retain nutrients, water and air – all key ingredients to growing healthy plants. It also helps protect land against drought and plants from disease. Compost is filled with life – microorganisms, earthworms and insects – a synergistic force of nature. It acts as a PH buffer, neutralizing various soil toxins and metals (lead and cadmium) by bonding with them so plants will not. Now think about places like California that have had a tremendous amount of soil erosion and degradation due to wildfires and mudslides and how they could benefit a build up compost.

It’s Not just for Country Folk – Urban Dwellers benefit too

However, composting is a practice of sustainable living which should be practiced by everyone.  There is little in this world that we have control over, and composting is one of the things that can do that is within our control to make our planet a healthier place.  It doesn’t require government intervention or corporate governance; it simply takes a little effort by individuals.  A new habit of how we throw away our trash needs to be formed.

Today, there are more and more compost services which take the hassle out of what traditionally was something only avid gardeners and farmers practiced. We have friends who live in Portland, Maine who use a compost pick-up service which provides them with beautiful compost. A quick search on the internet was able to provide me with a number of businesses throughout the United States that provide either curbside or drop-off composting. That’s great for citizens to be able to have those options available to them and I believe that more people would compost if they knew more about how it would help our environment.

Urban dwellers who would like to be environmentally conscientious in the past have not been able to compost or have had to struggle with composting. Composting can be messy and smelly; it can bring about rats, and other unwanted and hazardous pests if not done properly. Fortunately, more and more businesses have turned their energy and efforts towards this problem and are making it easy for communities including city-dwellers to compost. But why should they want to compost? They don’t have gardens or lawns they could use the compost on.

How Does Composting Help the Environment?

When food waste ends up in landfills, it produces methane gas, the greenhouse gas which traps heat within our atmosphere which is 23x more potent than carbon dioxide.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste is responsible for 34% of all the methane emissions in the U.S.[3] Landfills are so densely packed that much of the degradation happens during a slow, anaerobic process. Anaerobic processes create a tremendous amount of methane gas. One way to ease the amount of food waste that ends up in the landfills is for the food waste to be converted into compost.  We need to be more consciences about how we throw away food.  Americans throw away food more than any other single material, more than paper, even more than plastic![4]

Set up a system

We moved to New Hampshire a few years ago and live in a very rural area that does not have curb-side or community drop-off yet in our area, although it does exist in the state. Our town however, has very strict recycling rules and our garbage has to be well sorted before going to the dump.  Our kitchen has seven (7) 13-gallon trash containers which take up three of my under cabinets. We primarily sort out: burnables, cardboard, metal, aluminum foil, plastic, glass, magazines. You may think seven sounds like a lot but we actually could use a few more for a few other categories like batteries and light bulbs. There are at least two trash containers at my desk, as well as two in every bedroom and bathroom. So, you can imagine with all the different trash we deal with being able to sort out our food waste from the other “burnables” would be desirable. The dump isn’t far away but sometimes the weather can make things difficult to get down the mountain on the days the dump is open – which is only Friday-Sunday; Mondays included during the summer months. However, composting up here on the mountain the traditional way would require an electric fence to keep bears, coyotes and the rest of the surrounding wildlife away.  It was hard enough running out to the side yard in Connecticut sometimes, so the thought of having to breach an electric fence made the idea impossible. That all changed when I found the FoodCycler™ FC-30, a in-home composting unit which has been a complete game-changer in our household. Check out our Product Review on this wonderful little unit.

As individuals, we can make a difference in the health of our planet by making smart choices of how we discard our household food waste in the future. We must learn to strike a balance between our lifestyles and our impact on nature.

Facts to consider

The average US citizen creates 4 lbs of trash per day [EPA]

The average US citizen throws away about 1200 lbs of organic garbage annually that could be repurposed as compost. Americans as a whole throw away 43,000 tons of food every day. [EPA]

The EPA estimates that 75% of American waste is recyclable yet only 30% is actually recycled. [EPA]

Americans generate 21.5 million tons of food waste annually – composting it would reduce greenhouse emissions equivalent to removing 2 million cars from the road [Carnegie Mellon CEE Green Team . -April 15, 2015]

Footnotes:

[1]What If the World’s Soil Runs Out?” Time, 14 Dec 12

[2] D. Pimentel, “Soil Erosion: A Food and Environmental Threat,” Environ. Devel. Sustain. 8, 119 (2006)

[3] Waste Land: Does the Large Amount of Food Discarded in the U.S. Take a Toll on the Environment? Scientific America March 10, 2010

[4] Upper Valley Business Finding ‘Pay Dirt’ in Food Scraps nhpr.org February 13, 2018

Further Recommended Reading:

CompostNow.org

SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction – fao.org

11 Facts About Recycling – dosomething.org

Soil Erosion and Degradation – World Wildlife Federation

Composting: The Making of Black Gold

Mix, Mash, Moisture, Move: The Four M’s of Composting

Compost is an important ingredient in every garden. They call it Black Gold because what it can do for your plants is priceless.  People think that composting has to be difficult – but it doesn’t. People have a way of over-complicating things.  First off to make things clear let’s define the word compost. According to Merriam-Webster, the noun compost is a mixture that consists largely of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizing and conditioning land. But it’s also a transitive verb meaning to convert (as plant debris) to compost. So composting makes compost and compost is again? Oh yeah, decayed organic matter -well that explains that!
Let’s see what else we can find from the Concise Encyclopedia on compost: 

“Mass of rotted organic matter made from decomposed plant material. It is used in agriculture and gardening generally to improve soil structure rather than as a fertilizer, because it is low in plant nutrients. When properly prepared, it is free of obnoxious odors.”

Well that is concise mouthful so let’s break it down.  

The mass of rotted organic matter

Green matter for composting

In order to make your compost balanced you want to remember not to use just one or two items but many different items so you can have a balanced compost.   The “rotted organic matter” you want to collect are easy to remember if you break it down into two groups: brown matter and green matter.  Brown matter consist of things are hard and dry and provide carbon into the mix. Green matter consists of things are moist and wet and provide nitrogen.  
Brown Materials include: shredded newspaper, cardboard (non-waxed), dried leaves, brown bags, small amounts of sawdust, eggshells, pine needles, tea bags, corn cobs, straw and wood prunings. No single brown item should make up more than 10% of your entire mixture.  You can also use fresh manures from rabbits, horses, goats and chicken unless you want to have a vegan compost.   Green items include: vegetables, fruit, seaweed, kelp, plant cuttings, garden weeds and trimmings, and apple cores, etc.
No single green item should make up more than 20% of your entire mixture.  If you plan on using grass clipping, you have to dry them out first, otherwise you will have a stinky, icky mess on your hands.
No-no items include meat scraps, bakery products, seeds and fruit pits, dairy products, grease, whole eggs, cheese and oily things like peanut butter, mayonnaise and lettuce leaves with salad dressing on them nor can you use table scraps from dinner.  No pet food or pet litter and keep the large branches out as well, unless you can chop it up.
Some other things which you may not realize you can use include things like hair and pet fur, feathers, dryer lint, wood ashes, paper towel, the tubes from toilet paper and paper towels.
Ultimately while collecting these materials and composting them you want to strive for a 3:1 ratio of Brown:Green aka Carbon:Nitrogen ratio.

 
Brown Matter like wood chips and bark

Properly Prepared

An important thing in composting is mashing your ingredients into small bits. The smaller the better as it will help speed up the decomposition process.  Things like dried leaves can be run over with a lawn mower to make them smaller.  Moisture is very important as well. You are striving for a damp mixture not too wet or too dry either. Finally you must keep turning your pile, always towards the center of the pile where its the hottest and moistest part of the mixture. That’s where all the good stuff happens in the decomposition process.

What else?

Composting can take some time , but the more you mix and mash, the quicker the process can be. Also having a certain amount of mass will help to expedite the process as well.  When you add new things to the mix be sure to mix it in well.  Think of it was making a meatloaf or a cake.  You need to be sure all the ingredients get mixed well together each time you add something new.

Composting pit

Where and how you choose to compost is a personal choice.  There are a lot of different methods, like barrels which can be rolled or containers with handles which can be turned. But a simple 3 x 3 or 4 x 4 area is all you need – anything bigger would be ineffective and actually hinder the process.  You can build your own compost pit easily with some wood or brick. You can even use the black garbage bag method, but that can be a rather stinky process and tends to use only one ingredient.  If you do this just be sure to add other composted blends to your compost mixture before you add it to the garden so it is well balanced.

Is there anything else?

One of the most challenging parts about composting can be collecting the materials.  Separating things out doesn’t always come naturally to folks.   Especially if you have teenagers or children running about who find using a garbage can challenging. That may be just my kids.  Anyway, I find that having a can especially designated for the compost heap helpful.  Clearly mark it, maybe select a different color bin altogether.  If you have any ideas in this area, I would love to hear about them. If you’re on Twitter send me a message @HomeharvestCT or simply leave a comment on this blog.  

Composting is a fabulous way of helping to reduce our waste and is such a valuable ingredient for our gardens.  Happy composting everyone!