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The Hidden Gold in Your Garbage

Fact Checked

garbage compost

Story at-a-glance -

  • Since 2015 food waste has been the largest component of waste sent to U.S. landfills, making up 22 percent of the amount landfilled
  • By composting, you’re not only keeping your share of food waste out of landfills, but you’re also helping to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil
  • David Johnson, a molecular biologist and research scientist at the University of New Mexico, is conducting a range of soil-biology experiments that have shown immense benefits from the application of biologically enhanced compost
  • In one 4.5-year trial, cover crops were grown along with one of Johnson’s compost solutions, leading to a net annual increase of nearly 11 tons of soil carbon per hectare (2.47 acres) of land
  • Virtually everyone can compost their kitchen scraps, keeping waste out of landfills and improving the soil health in their own backyard or community

If you're still tossing your vegetable peels, egg shells, apple cores and lemon rinds in the garbage, you're missing out on this hidden source of "gold." Kitchen scraps like these are ideal for creating compost, a deceptively simple tool for building phenomenal soil health and environmental health all at the same time.

Since 2015 food waste has been the largest component of waste sent to U.S. landfills, making up 22 percent of the amount landfilled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The amounts of food waste coming to landfills was so great, in fact, that in September 2015 announced a food loss and reduction goal of reducing that waste by 50% by 2030.1

By following the EPA's and composting, you're not only keeping your share of food waste out of landfills, but you're also helping to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil. Compost regenerates the soil and in so doing supports the future of our food supply, human health and the planet as a whole.

Healthy Soil Depends on Beneficial Microorganisms, Including Fungi

David Johnson, a molecular biologist and research scientist at the University of New Mexico, believes one of the most critical things in a plant's life is its relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. This is why tillage is so detrimental, as it destroys the mycorrhizal fungi and disrupts or inhibits this symbiotic relationship between plants and soil biology.

Synthetic chemicals also have a very destructive effect as they create massive pH changes in the soil that kill microbial life. As a result of industrial agriculture and other human activities, one-third of the soil on earth is severely degraded2,3 and lacking in the beneficial microorganisms it needs to thrive.

Adding compost is one effective strategy for reintroducing such microorganisms to the soil, and Johnson has developed a no-turn composting system that allows fungal communities to flourish, helping to restore biological function to soil on both small and large farms.

Johnson is conducting a range of soil-biology experiments that have shown immense benefits from the application of biologically enhanced compost, which has a clay-like consistency and can be applied as an extract, slurry to coat seeds or as a direct soil amendment.

In one 4.5-year trial, cover crops were grown along with one of Johnson's compost solutions (in this case from vermicompost, or worm compost) leading to a net annual increase of nearly 11 tons of soil carbon per hectare (2.47 acres) of land. Scientific American reported:4

"That's equivalent to removing about 16 metric tons of carbon dioxide per acre from the atmosphere annually — roughly 10 times the increase that other scientists have reported in many different soils and climates.

Johnson ascribes these improvements, along with large increases in crop yields, to improved soil health stemming from the application of the microbes from his vermiculture, leading to an increase in the soil's fungal-to-bacterial ratio.

… In all this work, Johnson maintains that as the ratio of fungi to bacteria increases, the soil biome becomes more efficient in utilizing carbon and other nutrients and that the soil therefore releases less CO2 to the atmosphere."

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Do Compost and Biochar Hold the Secret to Sequestering Carbon in the Soil?

It's estimated that one-third of the surplus carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stems from poor land-management processes, including clearing forests, overgrazing and tilling the soil, that contribute to the loss of carbon, as carbon dioxide, from farmlands.5

One way to increase the amount of carbon in your soil is to use biochar. Biochar is created by slowly heating a biomass in a low-oxygen environment, such as a kiln, until everything but the carbon is burned off. The resulting biochar — similar to charcoal — is then added to compost, sawdust or fish waste, for example, before being placed into the ground.

Biochar can have both positive and negative effects on plant growth depending on how much is applied as well as its pH and level of nutrients like nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). In a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers concluded that biochar P concentration dictates colonization of mycorrhizal fungi in agricultural soil:6

"Growth responses of wheat and clover to the application of various biochars were mostly positive, and their growth was correlated, but biochar contributions to soil fertility varied with biochar properties.

When nutrient concentrations are higher in biochars, especially for P and N, plants can gain access to nutrients via the plant roots and mycorrhizal hyphae. Thus biochar amendments can increase both plant nutrient uptake and crop production in nutrient deficient soil."

For your garden, you can actually buy mycorrhizal fungi spores. It's relatively inexpensive and they're very easy to grow, as long as you do not disturb the soil, and adding spores will help the fungi propagate faster.

At the same time, Johnson is conducting research on land in five states, which showed biologically enhanced compost transforms land, from having net costs per acre to providing net benefits of $500 to $600 per acre, when accounting for carbon capture credits, reduced irrigation, increased soil fertility and other benefits.

"Johnson asserts that if his approach were used across agriculture internationally, the entire world's carbon output from 2016 could be stored on just 22 percent of the globe's arable land," according to Scientific American.7

Benefits of Johnson-Su Bioreactor Compost

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The photos above show Johnson-Su bioreactors on Via Organica Ranch in Mexico, where Johnson has been testing enhancements with biochar. The bioreactor, created by Johnson and his wife, Hui-Chun Su Johnson, is unique in that, unlike traditional composting methods, it requires no turning or manual labor.

It also produces no odors, reduces water usage and composting labor and can be produced using materials that costs less than $35. "This simple composting method produces a biologically enhanced compost by creating an environment where beneficial soil microorganisms … thrive and multiply," Regeneration International, which has a mission to promote, facilitate and accelerate the global transition to regenerative food, farming and land management, reported.8

"When this biologically alive compost is applied to the soil the microorganisms inoculate the soil and work in harmony with growing plants to improve soil health and increase the amount of carbon drawn out of the atmosphere and into the soil." They explained some of the top benefits of Johnson-Su bioreactor compost, which include:9

Increases soil carbon sequestration

Increases crop yield

Increases soil nutrient availability

Increases soil water-retention capacity

Produces biologically diverse compost

Produces nutrient-rich compost

Results in a low-salinity compost

Improves seed germination and growth rates

Mercola.com is a founding member of Regeneration International, and one of their projects is duplicating Johnson's work in Mexico at Via Organica — a project we have cosponsored for years along with the Organic Consumers Association.

Via Organica has been utilizing biochar both in general composting and as litter in their turkey and chicken houses. The biochar not only absorbs the smell and ammonia, but also captures nutrients from the bird droppings. The litter is then collected and used in compost piles.

Because biochar has substantial surface area based on its porous properties, it provides ample housing for the beneficial microorganisms that appear to accelerate the process. Johnson has provided training at Via Organica based on his methods, and we've built more than a dozen of his bioreactors there.

We'll now be using Johnson's method and testing with the addition of biochar, which may even amplify the benefits he's already proven.

Why Recycling Is Failing

When recycling programs first began, it was a dual-stream system. That is, you were required to separate materials such as glass, paper, plastic and metal for different recycling centers. It was a cumbersome task, and one that didn't have the highest participation rates, but it was superior in many ways to the single-stream recycling programs that became the norm by the 2000s.

Contamination rates were low, less than 10 percent, but this jumped closer to 30 percent with single-stream programs. So, while rates of participation increased, actual recycling did not. WasteDive reported that it was actually large waste collection and disposal companies that pushed for the switch from dual-stream to single-stream, thereby making communities dependent on their services for both trash removal and recycling (or the appearance of recycling):10

"Big Waste companies made a deliberate decision to disrupt the then well-functioning dual-stream systems by convincing cities to switch to single-stream recycling. This caused contamination rates to increase and led to the market crunch started by Chinese import restrictions."

China accepted contaminated recyclables from the U.S. for 20 years, which served to undermine U.S. recycling markets. WasteDive added:11

"This made cities dependent on large-scale processing facilities that produced low-grade materials and often don't recover any quality glass – 20% of the single-stream recycling mix. In many cases, the companies that run these facilities also manage — and profit far more from — collection and landfill disposal, disincentivizing them from maximizing recycling."

How Many of Your Recyclables Are Actually Recycled?

Many Americans assume that everything they toss in their recycling bin ends up getting recycled. Unfortunately, mistakes are common and adding nonrecyclable items to the bin can contaminate the entire lot, sending it straight to the landfill.

For instance, municipal recycling facilities often do not recycle plastic bags, which can get caught in their machinery causing damage. Further, if you put your recyclables into closed trash bags, they'll likely get thrown straight into the trash because sorters don't have time to open them, and they're also considered to be a safety hazard.

Most greasy, wet or food-soiled items also cannot be recycled, and neither can very small items, like bottle caps (unless they're screwed on a plastic bottle). Anything that enters a recycling center that cannot be recycled is considered a contaminant and will be thrown out. If too many contaminants are found in a bundle of recyclables, it runs the risk of being rejected. Examples of typically nonrecyclable items include:

Plastic bags

Plastic wrap

Styrofoam

Greasy pizza boxes

Food

Electronics

Batteries

Yard waste

Diapers

Soiled paper such as paper towels and napkins

Single-use or to-go cups, paper food bowls with plastic lining, wax paper and wax paper liners (such as those in pizza boxes)

Medical waste such as needles and syringes

Tools

Plastic toys

Construction waste

Scrap metal

Clothing

Shoes

Foil potato chip and snack bags

Foil lids from yogurt containers

Anything smaller than a Post-it note

Christmas tree lights

Wire hangers

Auto parts

Propane tanks

Mattresses

Bowling balls

Virtually Everyone Can Compost

If you want to reduce the amount of garbage that your home is sending to landfills, composting is an excellent place to start — and something that virtually everyone can do, even if you have only a patio, balcony or countertop. You can compost in a pile, in a box or use a ready-made composter bin.

Many local municipalities also have bins available for a reasonable price. For the best moisture and temperature regulation, select bins that hold at least one cubic yard. Your compost zone should be conveniently located, as close as possible to your source of raw materials (kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, soiled paper products) where it won't be too much of an eyesore.

If you are using piles or bins, I recommend having two of them as then you'll have a place to put fresh scraps while one full "batch" of compost finishes curing. The key to creating compost without unpleasant odors or attracting rodents lies in its makeup. It's not an exact science but should include a mix of browns and greens, such as:12

Browns (2 to 3 parts) Greens (1 part)

Shredded newspaper and other paper

Fruit and vegetable scraps

Dead leaves

Breads and grains

Food-soiled paper (but not coated paper)

Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags

Cardboard

Grass clippings

Branches and twigs

Crushed eggshells

If you're serious about composting, or want to turn your food scraps into veritable black gold faster, just add worms, which can be purchased online. While it's not necessary to add worms to create compost, doing so may help you create high-quality compost faster. Worms' digestive process naturally excretes beneficial microbes into the soil, which drastically alter the soil's composition.

The compost you create can be used on your flowerbeds, vegetable garden, trees and shrubs. If you don't have a place to put your compost, donate it to a school, church or park. On a larger scale, support the small farmers in your area who are also creating and using compost on their soil in lieu of chemical inputs, helping to grow healthier food and create a healthier environment for everyone.