The Importance of Composting


I'm lucky enough to live in the glorious city of Portland, Oregon where we put garbage, recycling, and compost out on collection day.

Sadly, when I moved from a house to an apartment last year I discovered that participating in the compost program is optional for multifamily units, aka apartment buildings with over 5 occupants.

While I'm stuck in the process of convincing our property manager to buy into composting, I thought I'd break down the importance of composting and give some tips for taking composting into your own hands.

Why Does it Matter if I Don't Compost?

If you don't compost your food waste then it's headed straight into the landfill. I know, it doesn't sound that bad at first- so much waste goes there anyway, what's a few extra slices of pizza going to do?

Actually, quite a lot. In landfills the plant matter becomes suffocated underneath the layers of trash and are forced to decay in an anaerobic environment. In this oxygen deprived environment the decaying matter produces methane gas.

If methane sounds familiar to you, it might be because it's an incredibly potent greenhouse gas. In fact, the EPA says that "pound for pound, the comparative impact of [methane] on climate change is more than 25 times greater than [carbon dioxide] over a 100-year period." That's right. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, undoubtedly the most famous greenhouse gas.

Methane isn't just a knock-out greenhouse gas - it's also been runner-up for most emitted greenhouse gas in the US for years. Methane emissions accounted for 11% of America's greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, following up carbon dioxide at 81%.

Okay, so it's good for the environment if I compost... But will it really matter if I compost? How can just one person's waste make a difference?

It's a trap! No really - this line of thinking is such a trap. I realize that I just told you a whole load of horrible things about methane, but I also see our methane emissions as a source of opportunity. About 20% of methane emissions in the US from 1990-2014 were from landfills- and that's 20% that we can reduce significantly by making some small lifestyle changes.

In fact, many people believe that it would be pretty easy for us to lower the amount of organic matter that ends up in the landfill. In a 2013 study the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that yard trimmings and food accounted for 28% of our national municipal solid waste and paper and paperboard accounted for another 27%.

The EPA concluded in this study that America's 2013 recycling and composting rate was 34.3%. While we took about 87 million tons of waste out of the landfills, there's clearly a lot of room to grow there.

Alright, alright I'm sold. But how can I compost if I don't live in one of the great cities that offer compost curbside service?

The obvious answer is to put the compost to work for you. Keeping compost to turn into fertilizer for your plants may take a little more work and input, but it is free fertilizer for your home garden. Check out Oregon Metro's guide to creating your own compost here.

One of your easiest options if you don't want to hold on to the compost is to see if any community gardens or similar projects near you wants it. It may be worth checking with local small farms too, but it's less likely that they'll risk their crops with compost with unknown contents.

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