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Turn Your Waste into Energy: Compost!

Compost, the product of biodegradable materials naturally broken down by bacteria over time, offers a variety of benefits for your backyard gardens and crops and can even help reverse climate change. Whether you are considering starting your own compost pile or just curious about how compost helps the planet, here are 11 things you need to know about the lovely process of composting!

1. Composting materials (rather than sending them to a landfill) reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

The act of compost reduces greenhouse gas emissions by diverting material that would have ended up in a landfill. In the less than ideal conditions of a landfill (aka low light and low levels of oxygen), the breakdown of organic materials releases methane gas - a “potent” greenhouse gas. But with compost, this can be avoided.

Environment America, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, ascertains that diverting natural materials to compost instead of landfills could decrease landfilled waste by as much as 30% because compostable materials such as yard waste, food scraps, and coffee grounds make up about 30% of the things that are commonly thrown away.

2. Compost helps draw carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.

Adding compost to soil allows for microbes in the soil to have the nutrients they need to trap more carbon in the soil and retain it there. This is demonstrated by a study from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, in which researchers compared two fields - one with compost and one without compost and found that the field with compost had greater levels of carbon held within the soil. Adding compost also promotes greater absorption of CO2 by plant leaves as a result of increased growth.

3. Compost can renew and restore your garden!

In addition to the obvious benefits of added nutrients and organic material, compost can also make gardens more resilient to the effects of climate change by promoting healthy soil that is able to withstand drought and extreme weather events. Other benefits to the garden include improved soil texture and structure as well as healthier plant roots. Compost can even help to loosen clay-like soil and help the soil hold more moisture.

4. Compost strengthens food production systems.

As stated by Environment America, compost has the natural ability to “replenish and stabilize the soil” on small levels as well as in larger agricultural production. Compost decreases the need for chemical fertilizers and instead supports increased sustainable food production. Compost can be used both to combat the loss of precious topsoil and revitalize land that has been overused or depleted of its natural nutrients. According to the EPA, compost can also combat the attack of plant diseases as well as the presence of unwanted pests. Decreased disease and pests equals another move towards less chemicals. Perhaps most noteworthy of all is compost’s ability to support the health of helpful bacteria and fungi that provide essential nutrients for the soil.

5. In addition to food production and agriculture, residential areas and communities can benefit from compost too!

Many communities in the United States and around the world have implemented compost collection programs to take advantage of the multitude of benefits that compost offers. For instance, many large cities and residential areas offer a variety of compost pick-up services, which can be searched for here.

Environment America describes community composting programs as an opportunity for more uniform compost practices with higher participation. However, individual or backyard practices are also praised because such systems require less transport of the materials and therefore cost less to the city or community.

6. Individual compost systems offer some rich benefits!

If you are interested in starting your own compost piles, there are a variety of bins and options available for purchase, or you can build your own. Maintaining your own compost pile does require a bit of knowledge and some work - luckily there are lots of resources out there to help you get started!

For starters, the Environmental Protection Agency provides an array of information on starting and maintaining your own compost pile, including what to include and not to include and how the process works. Planet Natural Resource Center also provides an extensive and easy-to-follow manual for starting your at-home composting pile.

7. Indoor compost is also a great option! If you don’t think you have the space or equipment for outdoor composting, no worries!

There are several worthwhile indoor composting options, including vermiculture (using worms to process waste scraps). You can also repurpose various containers to serve as an indoor compost bin that works by the same general process as outdoor compost, only with slightly more attention to what you put in.

8. Microbes work well… but only in certain conditions!

The most important agent of any compost pile is the microbes and bacteria that are constantly hard at work breaking down the materials that you put in. However, microbes are only willing to do the work under certain conditions, which is why it matters what you put into your compost pile or bin.

For instance, healthy compost requires adequate moisture levels and enough oxygen throughout the pile. If conditions are not met, then the pile can become a rotting mess! To meet these conditions, the materials should be broken down into smaller particles to increase the surface area and the pile may need to be turned and watered regularly. Another method involves alternating layers of different materials with a variety of particle sizes to ensure a sufficient supply of oxygen and water throughout.

9. Compost is built on two main elements…

Although opinions differ as to the exact amount, most would agree that a healthy compost pile involves a certain ratio of carbon to nitrogen. This involves maintaining a mixture of brown materials (high in carbon) such as branches or dry leaves and green materials (high in nitrogen) such as grass clippings and kitchen scraps.

Some such as Addy Elliott, a professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University, say the Carbon to Nitrogen ratio should be around 30 parts carbon for every 1 part nitrogen. Others simply say that the pile should have equal amounts of brown and green materials.

No matter where you stand on the proper ratio, you should at least consider the ratio of materials that you add because an imbalance of nitrogen and carbon can result in a pile that is too smelly or slow.

10. Microbes produce heat - the mark of a healthy compost pile.

While microbes are hard at work in your pile they release heat, which is most measurable in the middle of the pile. The temperature of the pile can therefore be used as an indicator of how well your pile is working. Professor Addy Elliot claims that a healthy compost pile will maintain a heat of around 130-140°F Others claim that a healthy compost pile can reach as high as 140-170°F when it is at its peak cooking time. The high heat of a pile is beneficial because it means that unwanted visitors such as weed seeds and pathogens can be killed. To help your pile reach higher temperatures, you can add materials in smaller amounts and turn the pile when needed.

11. Lastly, compost has a learning curve…

Before you start to throw all your scraps in a pile, there are a few things you may want to consider. For instance, once you have gotten a substantial pile, you will want to stop adding fresh material to the compost so that the process can complete itself. This can take between 3 weeks to 3 months. Other tips from the EPA include choosing a spot that is shady, shredding or chopping added materials, and burying new waste in the middle of the pile.

Once the material in your pile becomes an unrecognizable dark substance then it’s time to take advantage of the nutrient rich product you have made!

Written by Christina Magers

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