As we’ve said before in many of our articles you can read here at Sustainable Jungle, for us living a sustainable life is a holistic exercise. It’s a journey dotted with incremental improvements (and failures, we’ve had our fair share!) along the way. Step by step, we’re considering all aspects of our lifestyle. From our habits at home to the kinds of products and businesses we choose to support. And, when it comes to our own waste management, there’s a lot of room for improvement!
In 2012, city-based humans globally produced a staggering 1.3 billion tons of waste. Much of it went into landfills, despite 25-50% being what those in the know refer to as “organic”, or “waste of biological origin”. In this context, “organic” just means anything that was once living (as opposed to organically farmed products) and includes paper, cardboard, food scraps, garden trimmings, and fecal matter (e.g. dog poop). So… what does it matter? Why would we care if organic matter goes to landfill? Well, compost is actually a much better home for this organic matter and has some pretty impressive upsides… you’ve probably heard of composting but may be wondering what all the fuss is about?
Composting is the process of biodegradation, or breaking down, and repurposing of organic waste. In other words, composting is nature’s way of recycling natural waste. The process works like this: microorganisms, worms, snails, insects, and fungi break down organic waste and turn it into a useful material that gets fed back into the earth (more on that below) – it’s like the circle of life (watch here for a ~1 minute lesson refresh from The Lion King). For a compost pile to be successfully turned into this useful material, it needs three basic “ingredients” – imagine this processes imitating a forest floor where you’d need a range of inputs or ingredients to make the ground fertile (with heaps of nutrients and minerals) for trees and plants to grow from:
- Browns: This consists of dead plant matter (i.e. leaves) and wood based waste (i.e. twigs, paper, cardboard). These are carbon rich materials.
- Greens: This consists of live plant material (grass trimmings, vegetable waste, fruit cores, coffee grounds, egg shell, and other kitchen scraps). These are nitrogen rich materials.
- Water: Most organic materials will generate their own moisture as they break down, but sometimes a little water must be added to achieve the desired damp sponge consistency, especially in hot climates.
We’ll be talking a lot more about the specifics of composting in coming months but to help you get excited about it (if you’re not already after that Lion King reminder), here’s a list of benefits:
The biggest benefit of composting is the obvious one: creating an environmentally friendly alternative to landfill disposal. According to a 2015 EPA study on Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), national waste consists of 26.5% paper product, 7.5% wood, 7.6% yard trimmings, and 16.4% food scraps. Added together, that’s 57.8% of total waste that could be used for composting! Imagine reducing landfill waste by over 50%! This is not only good for the environment, it makes financial sense too.
Take New York City for example – in response to its nearly $400 million dollar annual trash disposal cost, it began implementing a citywide composting program. When former Mayor Michael Bloomberg first envisioned the plan in 2013, officials estimated the city could save $100 million of that by composting the one-third of waste formerly shipped to landfills.
Landfills are a financial drain on cities and consequently on taxpayers too. In his 2013 State of the City address, Bloomberg stated, “We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of $80 per ton.” If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s good because it shouldn’t.
Composting not only keeps waste out of landfills, but re-purposes it into material that improves the structure of existing soil (think back to that forest floor analogy). When mature, compost becomes a nutrient rich material called “humus”, capable of amending formerly depleted soil by replenishing it with carbon and important plant growth nutrients like phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen, and neutralizing soil pH levels, it makes it way more hospitable to a wider variety of plants. Physically, it creates a solid soil surface (or tilth) to prevent soil erosion. It also improves the workability of tricky soil types, adding water retention to fast-draining sandy soils, friability to firm, unworkable soil, and drainage to clay-based soils. This makes it especially useful in areas of reforestation and environmental restoration. It can even help regulate soil temperature, extending the growing season, and increasing moisture retention, so you can save time and money on watering. On a wider agricultural scale, this promotes higher crop yields. Watch this ~12 minute inspiring video to get a sense of the potential impact from an industrial farming perspective.
Compost is rich in bacteria and fungi that prevent insect infestation and suppress weed growth so you can forget about expensive pesticides and weed killers. Additionally, because the soil is so rich in nutrients, it simultaneously reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.
You still might be asking, “Okay, but aren’t landfills just giant compost piles?” Yes, BUT in a landfill the mixture of organic and non-organic material ruins the composting process and releases methane gas, or the dreaded “greenhouse gas”. Composting at home reduces these emissions and helps store carbon in the soil, thereby lowering your carbon footprint while improving soil quality. Composting improves the overall carbon cycle of the earth by managing atmospheric CO2 concentrations. For a complete explanation of this process, check out this US Composting Council Fact Sheet.
Compost bioremediation can, according to the EPA, be used to “restore contaminated soils, manage stormwater, control odors, and degrade volatile organic compounds” where “agricultural effluents, industrial residues, and industrial accidents” have contaminated surface waters, soils, streams and reservoirs. Hope you don’t come across anything like this in your day to day but if you’re interested, you can read more on this from the EPA here (pdf).
Schools, mobile home dwellers, even entire municipalities are turning to composting as alternative waste disposal. In 2012, Portland implemented a curbside composting project, which, after six months, resulted in 44% less residential trash. San Francisco, Seattle, and dozens of others are following suit. As of 2015, composting programs served 3.8 million U.S. households, and other countries around the world are building up their composting programs.
While progress is slow, people are catching on. Between 2013 and 2015, the U.S. went from composting 5% of food waste (about 1.84 million tons) to 5.3% (about 2.1 million tons). That averages to 0.4 pounds per person per day. For in-depth state-by-state breakdowns of solid waste generation and recycling, check out the EPA’s Advancing Sustainable Materials Management Fact Sheet.
So next time you take out trash, take a closer look: How much of it can be composted? Composting is simple and cost effective, requiring only a receptacle and waste you’re already producing. There are different types and methods, depending on what best suits your lifestyle. We encourage you to continue researching. Start with the EPA’s “Composting Basics” for a complete list of what can and cannot be composted and how to get started. You are also very welcome to sign up to our newsletter, we’ll be writing a lot more about composting with guides and videos documenting our own composting journey!