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Compost

Industrial compost made from composted vegetables and animal manure in the UK.

Credit: Derek Yamashita / Alamy

Compost

Call to action:

Separate and compost organic materials to reduce the strain on landfills, reduce methane emissions, regenerate soil, and grow healthy food.

Composting utilizes the natural process of decomposition to turn organic materials, such as plant matter, food, and animal waste, into a carbon-rich natural fertilizer that can be used in gardens, farms, and rangelands. Composting reduces greenhouse gas emissions by diverting food and plant waste that is often incinerated or sent to landfills. It can also replace synthetic fertilizers, decreasing the use of harmful chemicals on farms. Composting has been practiced for centuries by Indigenous peoples and traditional communities and is a central component of regenerative farming and gardening. Compost’s rich mixture of microorganisms and nutrients can significantly improve soil and plant health, with cascading benefits for human and animal well-being.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn about the benefits of composting. Composting has been practiced for thousands of years by Indigenous, traditional, ancient, and historic communities. The introduction of compost to industrial society began with Sir Albert Howard, who studied traditional farmers in India using a technique that was based on a method of composting that imitated the forest. Here are some major benefits:

Learn about the different types of compost and how it is made. There are many ways to make compost. Choosing a method will depend on your goals, materials, and environment. Most people choose “hot” composting—also called aerobic—which involves five main areas: feedstock and nutrient balance, particle size, moisture content, oxygen flow, and temperature.

  • Onsite composting requires very little time and equipment and is great for small amounts of food scraps. The process is “hot” because of the heat the system generates—in excess of 150∞ Fahrenheit—which kills pathogens and weed seeds. The periodic stirring of the compost material to reintroduce oxygen to feed microorganisms is what separates it from passive “cold” composting.
  • In-vessel composting refers to any practice that involves feeding organic materials into a vessel, such as a drum, silo, or concrete-lined trench and turning it periodically for aeration. The benefits of this method include having total control over environmental conditions.
  • Vermicomposting involves adding red worms to food scraps, yard trimmings, and other organic matter. The worms feed on these materials and break them down into compost called castings. The process typically takes three to four months to produce castings that can be used as potting soil or as high-quality liquid fertilizer, known as “tea,” for houseplants or gardens. See Vermiculture Nexus for more information.
  • Aerated (turned) windrow composting is best suited for large volumes of compostable material generated by communities, governments, farms, and businesses. Organic waste is deposited into long rows called “windrows” and aerated through manual or mechanical turning.
  • Aerated static pile (ASP) composting is a production method that creates compost within three to six months using a homogenous mix of organic waste (excluding animal products and grease). Compost materials are piled on top of perforated pipes through which air is circulated.
  • Johnson-Su bioreactor composting is a low-labor form of composting. The method controls the ratio of particular types of soil microorganisms that thrive with no turning and reduced water usage. Here is a guide on how to build one in a day using simple tools.

Set up a compost system at home. Compost can benefit home gardens by maintaining and enhancing soil quality. Instead of purchasing compost, consider starting a compost pile at home:

  • Learn about the basics of composting. All types of compost require three ingredients: browns (dead leaves, branches, twigs), greens (food and vegetable waste, coffee grounds), and water. A compost pile should have an equal amount of browns to greens and should alternate layers of different-sized particles. Here is a handy list on what to compost and what not to compost and why. Here is a guide on how to store food scraps. Here is a guide to learn more about soil health and evaluate your personal plants and land.
  • Identify a location. Alter an existing container (such as a bucket or garbage bin) or build your own to sit outside (pallet box, chicken-wire container). There are many low-cost ways to do this yourself. Additional DIY ideas are here. If you’re making aerobic compost (fueling the decomposition process with oxygen and moisture), make sure your container has holes, or prop it up in a way that allows air to enter from the sides or underneath.
  • Identify the best system for you. Backyard composting is most suitable for those living with gardens or yards. Here is a helpful video to get started. You can compost directly into your garden using an in-situ technique. Indoor composting is an option for those who live in apartments or are without access to an outdoor compost pile. Consider purchasing a special type of bin or making one yourself. You can also use a Bokashi bin, which is a Japanese system that anaerobically ferments your kitchen waste, including meat and dairy. The process uses bacteria and yeast to break down waste in the absence of oxygen. Here is a guide on how to set up an indoor vermicompost bin. If you run into any problems, consult a troubleshooting guide such as this one.
  • Give your compost away. If you don’t garden, here are some ideas on how to donate or give away your compost.

Join a curbside compost pickup program. If composting at home seems like a challenge, consider giving your food scraps to a compost pickup program, in which a city government or business will do the composting for you.

  • Municipally run: Boston kicked off a curbside composting program in July 2022 with thousands of households set to have food scraps picked up for free. Among U.S. cities, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, and Burlington, Vermont, also have curbside composting programs.
  • Privately run: If you live in an area that is not serviced by your government, consider paying for a curbside collective service. Compost Queen is one such example in northern Colorado that collects food scraps from your home for a subscription fee. Here is a list of compost pickup services across the U.S.

Start or join a community compost. Regional and municipal composting communities exist all around the world. Find the closest one or start your own.

Get involved in composting activism. Composting is sometimes difficult to access for marginalized communities who lack the time, resources, and supportive regulatory environment. Through the effort of farmers, gardeners, and activists around the world, there are expanding opportunities for composting. Here are some inspiring examples:

Groups

Schools and Universities

Start on-campus composting. Students, staff, faculty, and administrators can all play an important role in starting an on-campus composting program. Although each institution will need to select a solution best suited to their needs, here are some resources to get started:

Farmers, Ranchers, Landowners

Incorporate compost in your operation. Most farms have all the necessary ingredients to compost: surplus plant/animal waste, space, equipment, and soil that can benefit from compost amendments. The benefits of compost on farms and rangelands include improved carbon storage, plant growth and health, improved soil quality and nutrients, and reduced water runoff.

  • Identify a suitable method of compost. The compost facility best suited for your operation will depend on your site, feedstocks, budget, labor, and desired timetable. This article walks you through key questions before setting up on-site composting. Here is a summary of options when undertaking large-scale organic composting. The Composting Handbook is a how-to manual for farm, institutional, and commercial composters.
  • Include manure in your compost. Manure on its own can release nitrous oxide gas, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. However, if the manure is incorporated into compost, it could limit these emissions in addition to contributing to the health of the soil. Here is a story about an amateur farm that does just that, changing their grassland into a healthy ecosystem.
  • Spread compost on rangelands. Tests in California have demonstrated the value of spreading a layer of compost over rangelands, as this guide explains. Benefits include improved forage quantity and quality, increased water-holding capacity, and additional carbon sequestration.
  • Sell your compost as a product. Here's an article explaining the logistics and profit potential of compost as a business. Follow this story about a farm that has dedicated 10 percent of its land to compost creation, and was rewarded with sales that comprised 72 percent of their income.

Companies

Start composting at your company building or workspace. Composting is a useful approach for businesses that are looking for a way to save valuable resources, divert waste from landfill, and reduce waste costs overall.

Governance

Legislate mandatory food waste separation. Policies that require and enforce food and lawn waste separation can boost composting programs, reduce pressure on landfills, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

  • India has launched a waste-segregation program on a national scale under its Swachhaa Bharat Mission.
  • The city of San Francisco has made food waste separation mandatory.
  • The state of New York requires any large scale producers of organic waste to take responsibility for bringing food waste to a composting facility.
  • EU laws require governments to improve household waste sorting and collection, including a biowaste collection stream to produce compost.

Legislate targets for landfill reduction. Reducing and eliminating waste disposal in landfills does not just reduce methane emissions sources, but also presents an opportunity to divert organic materials for composting purposes.

Implement organic waste collection. Programs that couple mandatory food waste separation with waste collection are the most successful. Curbside pickup programs take the pressure off the citizens to deal with the organic waste themselves and provide an easy outlet for compost creation.

  • South Korea has a mandatory food waste collection. Citizens are required to separate their refuse, and the city then picks it up for free.
  • The state of Vermont has a mandatory food waste separation program, although it’s not enforced or supported with enough resources yet.
  • Portland is considering new measures to require businesses to dispose of their food scraps separately.
  • In 2013, New York City started compost collection services, and has since expanded to select districts.
  • The Australian government has announced a large-scale composting facility in Canberra which will process food and garden waste from across the city.

Compost in government buildings and public infrastructure. Public buildings and offices can lead the way by producing and using compost in lawns and parks.

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