This post was written by NRDC Program Assistant and Master Composter Aline Goganian.
In honor of World Soil Day, and as one of Claire's colleagues, I wanted to take the opportunity to share a little about one of my own passions: composting! Composting was my avenue into the NRDC Santa Monica office. I started as a volunteer with a wild idea to set up a worm bin on our rooftop in order to minimize the footprint of the organic waste our staff creates each day. Fast forward a few years and I am now a Program Assistant to NRDC's Facilities and Water programs! As I love to say, I wiggled my way in with the worms.
As a child who grew up in an apartment in Los Angeles, I had a deep appreciation for time I spent in nature and always dreamed of having my very own garden. My mom loves to tell me how, as a toddler, the first thing I would do when we went camping was to immediately sit in the soil, stick my hands in the bare earth, and just play.
My passion for soil was revived in me when I started to work at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, a local nonprofit to the San Diego region, where I took their Master Composter Course and really began to dig deeper into the details and benefits of composting. Here are the reasons why composting is critical to a healthier planet!
From the day a seed is planted, it begins to absorb nutrients from the soil that are critical to its success. For decades, we have continuously taken nutrients from our soil to grow our food and ornamental plants which over time depletes our soil. Composting helps create an environment to expedite nature's way of recycling these nutrients back into the earth by using aerobic decomposition to process organic materials, ultimately replacing critical nutrients, like nitrogen and carbon, back into the soil.
Soil with higher organic content not only grows healthier, more resilient plants, but also retains much more water which is critical during times of drought and reducing nutrient runoff in urban landscapes to farms. (Check out a previous blog by Claire that sheds some light on this too.)
Reduce your Waste
Not only does composting help amend your soil but is also a great way to reduce your waste stream. In a report written by NRDC's Dana Gunders we learned about 40% of our food is wasted in the U.S. Food scraps and yard waste make up 20 to 30% of our waste stream that could actually be composted instead.
Of course, there are some limitations, like avoiding meat and dairy (and a few more if you're using a worm bin), but if you take a look at your trash you might be surprised at how much is actually compostable. Not only can you reduce waste going to the landfill, but you can also help reduce the amount of emissions from trash trucks transporting this trash from homes to landfills.
Another common misperception is that you need a backyard to compost. Well, my fellow apartment dwellers, it can be done!!!
Although you may not have as much of a need for the awesome healthy soil you will create, you can still significantly reduce your waste stream by using a worm bin, as we have done in our Santa Monica office. Worm bins can be kind of pricey when buying them retail, so check with your city if they provide any rebates or subsidies or feel free to create your own.
Regardless of the method of composting, the decomposition process happens aerobically (with oxygen) rather than anaerobically (without oxygen), which is what occurs at the landfill. When things are decomposed aerobically they release carbon dioxide; when they are decomposed anaerobically they release methane.
Many people ask me, "doesn't composting stink?" Well, if it's being composted correctly, aerobically, it should smell like one of those fresh clumps of soil I dug up as a kid on our campsite. The stink factor actually comes from the release of methane.
To better prove this point as most people still don't believe me, I was able to convince my Dad when he lived in an apartment without any outdoor space to start a worm bin, which he did right underneath his sink and he never made a stink about it.
Another significant difference between aerobic and anaerobic decomposition is when methane gas is released it is at least 28 times more harmful of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, 18% of methane in our atmosphere is from landfills and increasing our composting efforts can help reduce this number.
If your city does offer a compost service, be sure to investigate where it's actually going to be processed. For instance, the City of Los Angeles does provide a green bin to its single family residents but these yard scraps are collected and transported are used as a top cover layer on our landfills! This is deceptive as you think green means composting when it is in fact still being decomposed anaerobically and releasing methane. This difference between aerobic and anaerobic decomposition is noteworthy ... especially with our concerns about greenhouse gases and their effects to global climate change.
Aside from all the great benefits for our earth, the real beauty of composting is the entire experience of the process and witnessing something come full circle. Not only is eating food you've grown a rewarding and delicious experience, but getting to compost the inedible parts and eventually return the nutrients that were absorbed back to the soil in order for the whole cycle to start again is why I get my hands dirty every day!
Thanks, Aline! And happy World Soil Day, everyone! For more World Soil Day coverage, check out Lara Bryant's blog.