Compost: The Good, The Bad... The Dirty!
I first got in to composting in college because it was a great way to take recycling matters into my own hands. But later, when I really became passionate about composting as part of a movement, and not just as another form of recycling, I realized that I could help rural communities create their very own healthy food by sharing what I had learned.
Composting is an amazing biotechnological process that yields incredible results when fully understood. Though they still exist amongst us, generally speaking, we have come a long way from the nuisance of stinky piles. It's easier than ever to put your waste to good use. And once you know the facts, you might begin to feel like so many compose-converts out there -- that composting is the only disposal choice for our biodegradable waste.
So what's the big deal?
Did you know that America loses up to 40% of food from farm to fork? (NRDC 2012), and that 21% of trash from American residences in 2013 consisted of food scraps? That's a ton of food! Or, technically speaking, 35 million tons of food scraps in the garbage (EPA 2013). To put it in perspective, this is the equivalent of 1,000 of your friends throwing away 96 pounds of food per day.
As a society we need to get better at managing our food habits -- at farms, restaurants, stores, and in our own fridges. We should reduce what we buy as much as we can, donate the rest to food banks, find animals to feed the rest of our leftovers to, and anything that's left should be composted (or anaerobically digest it to create biogas and electricity, but this is a different topic).
Reduce, reuse, recycle.
This still applies, and composting is a method of reusing organic matter. It gives me, you, us and them the opportunity to create life. We can take something that we no longer have a value for -- that inedible banana peel, those rotting squashes that you bought just a tad too many of and forgot about because your fridge was too packed -- and with a little bit of care, and help from our microbe friends, we can decompose the food scraps and create the final product of controlled decomposition -- compost!
This “controlled” decomposition is what differentiates compost made in the forest from the one managed by us. We, composters, are really microbe farmers who play chef when preparing the conditions for the microbes to thrive in. The conditions these aerobic microbes want is one filled with...
- Oxygen: Compost pile cannot be too compacted
- Medium moisture: Moist but not soggy
- A good ratio of carbon material (woody, leaves, brown, etc) to nitrogen material (food, manure, grass, fresh leaves, etc). This will allow the microbes to flourish in the pile and it will be shown by measurable rising temperatures. To make sure potential pathogens and weed seeds are killed, you should be seeing temperatures get up to at least 131° Fahrenheit or 55° Celsius for at least 2 weeks.
The final product of this controlled decomposition is an excellent amendment for the soil. It has a lot of organic matter which helps provide long-term nutrition for soil microbes working in harmony with plants. Compost improves the water retention ability of the soil, protects against soil erosion, enhances plant disease suppression, improves ability of plants to store nutrients (cation exchange capacity), helps to convert nitrogen and phosphorus into more stable forms, and adds humic acid and humus pronounced "oo-moos," which helps to bind soil material.
Composting empowers communities to transform sterile grounds into fertile havens through natural processes and democratizes the way we care for our soil. Composting gives us the power to feed our plants and soils with the nutrients made in our own backyards and keeps landfill growth at bay. So...why wouldn't you want to?
Jorge Montezuma is the Organics Recycling Specialist for NC Department of Environmental Quality and serves as the Board Secretary for the NC Composting Council. He also keeps a blog called Soil Masons.
You can reach him at email@example.com.