The Urgent Need to Compost

Applying Compost

Story at-a-glance -

  • A single one-half inch dusting of compost on rangeland can boost the soil’s carbon storage for at least 30 years
  • Applying compost also leads to increased plant productivity, soil carbon sequestration and reduced need for commercial feeds
  • Composting can be done on virtually any scale; even if you live in an urban environment, you can turn yard waste, food scraps and more into valuable compost

By Dr. Mercola

Simple solutions are often the most powerful, and this certainly applies to compost. While many cities in the U.S. offer residents garbage and recycling pickup, in Marin County, California, residents are also offered green carts in which to collect yard waste, food scraps and other "green" waste to be composted.

The green waste is picked up once a week, just like trash, but instead of being sent to take up space in a landfill, the green waste is ground up into small pieces and taken to a certified organic compost facility. There, it's converted into a rich, organic soil amendment.

What's so Great About Compost?

Research conducted by University of California Berkeley bio-geochemist Whendee Silver, Ph.D. found a single one-half-inch dusting of compost on rangeland can boost the soil's carbon storage for at least 30 years.

"For a lot of people, this sounds a little fantastic," Silver told SFGate, "[but] there's nothing magic about it." She continued:1

" … [W]e've been bleeding [carbon] … into the atmosphere for many, many years through plowing, overgrazing and poor agricultural practices … So anything we can do to get some of that carbon back into the soil is going to be beneficial."

It's estimated that one-third of the surplus carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stems from poor land management processes that contribute to the loss of carbon, such as carbon dioxide, from farmlands.2

Carbon farming is a simple premise that involves using agricultural methods that can naturally trap carbon dioxide in the ground (for decades, centuries or more), while also absorbing it from the air.

The process, known as "carbon sequestration," could help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions while regenerating the soil and more. Composting green waste, and then spreading it over grazing lands, is one powerful tool toward this end. According to SFGate:3

"The research showed that if compost from green waste — everything from household food scraps to dairy manure — were applied over just 5 percent of the state's grazing lands, the soil could capture a year's worth of greenhouse gas emissions from California's farm and forestry industries.

The effect is cumulative, meaning the soil keeps absorbing carbon dioxide even after just one application of compost, the researchers found.

In theory, Silver calculates, if compost made from the state's green waste were applied to a quarter of the state's rangeland, the soil could absorb three-quarters of California's greenhouse gas emissions for one year, due in large part to the one-time offset from waste diversion."

Improve Soil Fertility, Boost Plant Growth, Capture Carbon and More

Compost happens with or without the help of humankind — it's happening right now on forest floors, in farmers' fields, and in your yard. But oftentimes it's a slow process and you can speed it up using the right combination of water, oxygen, heat, and organic material.

When communities work together to compost their green waste, the end result is a healthy soil amendment that leads to priceless rewards. Many American diets are now based on foods grown in mineral-depleted, unhealthy soils.

This is certainly the case with genetically engineered (GE) processed foods and meat and dairy products from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

One of the more insidious aspects of the industrial food system is that, as soil becomes sicker and less able to perform its functions, farmers become increasingly dependent on the chemical technology industry — they become trapped.

The use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide) begins a downward spiral, making it necessary for farmers to use more and more herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers that kill soil microbes — especially if they're using GE seeds.

Plants' natural symbiotic relationship with soil microorganisms is disrupted by the use of synthetic fertilizer. The use of synthetic fertilizers results in higher yields and bigger produce that is less nutrient-dense.

The mineral content of fruits and vegetables has declined by 5 percent to 40 percent over the last five to seven decades.4,5 Compost, on the other hand, works with the soil to boost its health naturally, resulting in multiple benefits. As reported by SF Gate:6

" … [A]pplying compost is a simple way of creating what scientists call a positive feedback loop. Plants pull carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis and transfer a portion of the carbon to the soil through their roots.

Soil microorganisms then turn the carbon into a stable form commonly known as humus. This not only sequesters the carbon but improves the soil's fertility, boosting plant growth and capturing more carbon while also improving the soil's ability to absorb and retain water."

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Applying Compost to Grasslands Increases Carbon Sequestration

In 2013, the Marin County, California research was published in the journal Ecosystems.7 It looked into the effect of applying soil amendments such as compost to grasslands. Grasslands cover 25 percent of the Earth's land surface and have significant potential for carbon sequestration.

Using a field-scale model to test several case studies on California grasslands, the researchers found applying manure slurries led to greenhouse gas emissions from the soil. However, applying composted manure and plant waste led to large offsets that exceeded emissions.

Other benefits, including increased plant productivity, soil carbon sequestration and reduced need for commercial feeds, were also seen. If it can be done in California, it can be done elsewhere as well, with potentially radical benefits to the environment. The researchers concluded:

" … [C]ompost application to grasslands is likely to lead to net greenhouse gas offsets across a broad range of potential environmental and management conditions.

We conclude that applications of composted organic matter to grasslands can contribute to … (carbon erosion) mitigation while sustaining productive lands and reducing waste loads."

Subterranean Landfill Fires Show Why Current Systems Are Failing

Organic waste is the second highest component of American landfills. So one of the major benefits of composting that waste, instead of sending it out with the trash would be a significant reduction in needed landfill space.

There are more than 3,000 active landfills, and 10,000 old landfills, in the U.S.8 While the number of landfills in the U.S. has been decreasing in recent decades, they have, individually, been increasing in size.

Along with being a major source of methane emissions, landfills produce "leachate," a toxic fluid composed of pollutants like benzene, pesticides, heavy metals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and more, which come from the compressed trash.

Although landfills are technically supposed to keep garbage dry and are lined to prevent leachate from contaminating nearby soil and groundwater, the landfill liners are virtually guaranteed to degrade, tear, or crack eventually, allowing the toxins to escape directly into the environment.

Another little-known risk is the creation of subterranean smolders, which are basically flameless fires that occur deep beneath the surface.

Sometimes called "hot spots" or "subsurface reactions," these smolders are the result of a heat-producing chemical reaction (although the specifics of what elements and conditions are necessary to trigger one remain a mystery).

Landfill Hot Spot Could Heat Up Radioactive Waste

The smolders are incredibly difficult, if not virtually impossible, to put out, requiring some combination of extreme amounts of water, dirt applications or quarantining the area so it effectively runs out of fuel. The high-temperature smolders pose risks to people living near and working in landfills.

They damage the plastic liners and pipes and allow leachate to seep into groundwater. The leachate also becomes more difficult to treat due to the chemical reaction and the higher temperatures result in the release of even more dangerous gases into the air.

Further, at The Bridgeton Landfill, which is about 20 miles from St. Louis, Missouri, a currently burning smolder is only about 1,200 feet away from thousands of tons of radioactive barium sulfate, which is a byproduct of uranium processing. If the radioactive waste gets hot, it could release cancer-causing radon gas into the surrounding communities.9

You Can Try Composting in Your Backyard

When you apply compost and add carbon back into the soil, the carbon feeds mycorrhizal fungi that eventually produce glomalin, which may be even better than humic acid at retaining water. This means you naturally limit your irrigation needs and make your garden or fields more resilient during droughts.

The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has become very committed to understanding and teaching about natural soil health and regenerative agriculture. The NRCS website is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about soil health, including farmers wanting to change their system.

On an individual level, you can get involved by growing some of your own food and applying compost to your vegetable and flower gardens. Composting can be done on virtually any scale. If you live in a city or suburb, there are many small systems available. The principles of composting — finding the balance between carbon, nitrogen, water and air — remain the same.

Even if you live in an urban environment, you can still compost. People living in urban areas actually have a great opportunity to build networks to tap available resources of potential composting materials that will otherwise end up in a landfill. There's plenty of waste out there. For example, you could ask your local coffee shop for their coffee grounds, or ask a juice bar for their spent pulp.

You can also turn to your neighbors, who may or may not be interested in composting themselves but have plenty of food scraps, leaves and cardboard. If you want to give it a try, check out my interview with New York City native Rebecca Louie, below. She's the author of "Compost City: Practical Composting Know-How for Small-Space Living," and in the video she reveals how to create compost in even the smallest of spaces.