Composting: It’s Not Just for Farmers

Follow the sustainable food movement back to its roots and eventually you end up in the soil. As Americans continue to wake up to the problems of our food system, we also wake up to the problems under our feet. We can’t have healthy food without healthy soil. 

Sustainable farming guru Elliot Coleman sums it up nicely in his recent Civil Eats article, arguing that hydroponically grown products should not be labeled as Organic:

In an ideal farming system, soils are nourished, as in the natural world, with farm-derived organic matter and mineral particles from ground rock. Green manures and cover crops are included within crop rotations to maintain biological diversity. It’s a “plant positive” rather than “pest negative” philosophy, focused on growing vigorous, healthy plants and animals imbued with all their natural powers of resistance."

While Coleman’s argument may apply to farmers, we are beginning to see this “plant positivity” more and more in the cityscape: school gardens, a garden in the White House, and, most recently, perhaps a rooftop garden at Fenway Park to serve hyperlocal concessions. The recent Urban Soil Carbon Water Summit held in LA addressed the plight of city soils and how we can work towards saving them, right in those cities.

We are also in the age of local and sustainable food, which is sweeping through so many cities that in some places it is hard to walk down the block without stumbling into a grass fed beef burger joint serving home brewed kombucha. The influx of the farming mentality into our cities also brings up an issue of what to do with all of that farm-fresh, local, artisanally crafted waste. To “close the loop” in our efforts to build more sustainable food systems, we have to be more creative than allowing our organic waste to go to the landfill to emit methane and contribute to global warming. We have to compost! And though you don’t have to go as far as composting your own body, getting started with composting is a great idea wherever you live.  

Composting means that you have to take out the garbage (due to its smell and volume) less often, but for those of us who get excited about things other than efficiency, there are plenty of environmental benefits to it, too. The good ol’ EPA has a pretty succinct assessment outlining  the major reason why you might want to start making your own “black gold.” 

Composting improves the soil
A miracle drug for ailing soil, adding compost can up nutrient content of the soil, increase the soil’s ability to hold water, reduce compaction in soil, and build soil organic matter.

Composting means fewer chemicals
Along with supplying additional nutrients to the soil, compost increases the vitality of the soil food web, resulting with plants more resistant to pest pressure.

Composting cleans the soil
A toxin’s worst nightmare, physical, chemical and biological reactions in the composting process can render some chemicals harmless including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), heavy metals, pesticides and other soil contaminants.

Composting prevents pollution  
A well-managed compost system emits less methane than if those materials were to go to the landfill. Healthy soil created by adding compost can prevent stormwater runoff and erosion, making cleaner and healthier waterways. Fewer chemicals in the soil from compost’s remediative properties means fewer chemicals in our waterways when the rain comes.

Composting saves money
People who compost don’t need to spend much money on fertilizer. The environmental benefits that compost can provide also translate into cost savings: no one need pay for a mess to clean up when the mess has been prevented.

If you’ve got the space, then the world is your composter! Well, actually we recommend following some pretty easy steps to get started with composting if you’ve got an amenable backyard or shared outdoor space. If, however, you are someone living in a city in a townhome, an apartment or another landless space, things can look a little different.   

Compost Tumbler
Those of us who like to keep things tidy and neat tend to appreciate the slickness of the compost tumbler. This is essentially a drum, or a sphere, that sits on a stand, usually capable of being turned, either by a crank or by the owner’s ingenuity. Well attended, these bad boys can crank out fresh batches of compost in about ten weeks. These are great for small patios, decks, balconies, or any other tiny outside space that is just begging to make the world a better place. These devices can get a little expensive and if you have a little bit of outside space, you might consider this simple DIY compost tumbler described here by CompostJunkie.com  

Vermicompost (Worm) Bins

Worms are a voracious bunch - some people suggest that Red Wigglers, a tropical species of earthworms used for composting, can consume four to six times their body weight every day! Why not put them to work for you? A vermicompost bin is a compact and super easy way to make some high powered compost. Perfect for those with no outdoor space, a bin can sit virtually anywhere as long as it is not exposed to sunlight. There are many vermicompost systems available for purchase online, but if you want to spend your money on other things, Perdue University Extension offers this excellent resource explaining how to do it yourself.

Earthworms are a strong biological indicator of soil health. As they move through soil they provide spaces for water and air, they bring organic materials into the soil by consuming decaying material from the surface and their castings (excrement) are a potent fertilizer with other soil health benefits. If compost is “black gold” then vermicompost is “black platinum.” For more information about its benefits, check out Cornell’s vermicompost research site

Private composting services
If you are new to the compost world and wary of starting your own bin, or simply don’t have the time to dedicate to tending to your compost pile (tumbler, or bin) then you might consider using the services of a private composting outfit. Typically, these businesses operate with two benefits to the consumer, they haul away your organic waste and they then return to you finished compost.  Some larger contractors exist out there, usually businesses that specialize in soil delivery and landscaping, such as Brooks in North Carolina, but we are partial to the smaller businesses that are focused just on composting. Compost Cab in Washington D.C. is a great example of one of these innovative businesses. Particularly inspiring, both Tilthy Rich of Durham, NC and the Pedal People of North Hampton, MA use bicycle power to drive their pick-ups and deliveries. Though not in every city, we expect these services to become more and more popular as soil awareness grows. 

Municipal Composting Services
If you are fortunate enough to live in one of the cities following the fast growing trend of curbside composting, then you are privy to one of the easiest and most efficient ways of making huge amounts of compost. Similar to the arrangement described above (materials hauled, and compost made available) these facilities use large scale composting processes either on the ground or in large industrial operation. Started in San Francisco almost 20 years ago, with Seattle trailing not too far behind, back in 2013 it was estimated that over 150 municipalities were following this trend with big leaps of growth in the five years prior. While it is easy to imagine the laid back, environmentally conscious, San Franciscans sorting their greens, this is not just a trend for the “earth children.” The city of New York recently ramped up its already existing composting efforts infrastructure including a composting program in public school cafeterias. The increase of these facilities is a trend that we expect to see continue.

If you are interested in finding a composting facility near you, public or private, check out Bio Cycle’s Compost finder, which will locate facilities that are registered to their site.

Composting need not be a scary thing. Quite the opposite, it is about as fun and magical as you can get. Compost takes something old and discarded and turns it into a earth healing substance! Get yourself started by reading more about how to make compost and how to make a compost bin. Also, take the Earth Day Every Day pledge to join our community who is committing to make a difference with the way that we treat our soil and our waste!

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