The Many Benefits of Composting: An In-Depth Look

Composting is often touted as an easy and environmentally-friendly way to dispose of food scraps and yard waste. But did you know that composting offers numerous other benefits beyond keeping waste out of landfills? From improving soil health to conserving water, composting has wide-ranging advantages that make it a valuable practice for farms, gardens, and households alike.

1. Composting Improves Soil Health

Arguably the biggest benefit of composting is its ability to drastically improve soil health. Soil health refers to the overall quality and performance of soil in terms of qualities like fertility, structure, and nutrient content. Healthy soils grow healthier plants and crops.

Compost serves as a natural fertilizer and soil amendment, adding beneficial organic matter and nutrients that plants need to thrive. The organic materials in compost provide food for helpful microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. These microbes boost nutrient availability in the soil and form relationships with plant roots for optimal nutrient uptake.

Compost also contains humic acid which helps soil particles clump together into aggregates. These aggregates give soil structure and stability. Better structure leads to improved water retention and drainage, more space for roots to spread, and protection against erosion. The organic matter provided by compost is an important food source for soil organisms as well. With regular compost applications, lifeless soils transform into dynamic, living environments for plants.

2. Composting Reduces Greenhouse Gases

Landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions in the United States. Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat and contributing to climate change. When organic waste like food scraps, yard trimmings, and paper rots in landfills, methane is produced. Composting this organic material instead keeps it out of landfills, reducing methane emissions.

In fact, composting 1 ton of organic material prevents 1 ton of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. On a larger scale, widespread composting could significantly reduce a city or country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector. For the health of the planet, composting offers a simple climate change solution.

3. Composting Conserves Water

By improving soil health and structure, compost helps soils better absorb and retain moisture. This means less water is lost to runoff and evaporation, reducing the amount of irrigation needed. Adding just a 1/2 inch layer of compost to the surface of lawns and gardens can reduce water use by up to 50%.

For farmers and gardeners dealing with drought, compost can help soils passively collect and store more water from rainfall. One study found that amending soil with compost allowed corn crops to withstand drought conditions with 30-50% less water. Sustainable agriculture will depend on techniques like composting to conserve water. With much of world facing water scarcity, these water-saving benefits are increasingly vital.

4. Composting Reduces The Need for Fertilizers

The nutrient content of compost also means that less synthetic fertilizer is needed. Compost contains macronutrients plants need like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as micronutrients like calcium, magnesium, and iron. By meeting plants’ nutritional needs, compost reduces the need for manmade NPK fertilizers.

Runoff from these chemical fertilizers pollutes waterways, disrupting ecosystems. Using compost instead cuts down on chemical pollution from agriculture. Applying compost also stabilizes nutrients in the soil, while fertilizers can quickly leach away with irrigation or rain. Recycling nutrients with composting promotes sustainable food production with less reliance on fertilizers.

5. Composting Helps Remediate Contaminated Soil

Remarkably, compost can also help clean up contaminated soil. Compost has been shown to bind and degrade petroleum hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, and heavy metals in polluted soil. It supports populations of beneficial microorganisms that can degrade toxins and make soil safe again.

Compost also absorbs odors from soil and adjusts pH levels. With its cleansing abilities, compost offers a sustainable way to remediate industrial sites, urban gardens with lead contamination, petroleum spills, landfills, and other polluted areas. Composting helps heal the earth by undoing some of the environmental damage caused by human activities.

6. Composting Reduces Erosion

Erosion occurs when soil particles are detached and carried away by water or wind. Compost added to soil provides multiple defenses against erosion. The organic matter in compost binds soil particles together against wind erosion. It also builds better soil structure to minimize detachment by raindrops.

Additionally, compost increases water infiltration rates so rainfall is less likely to run off the surface and transport soil. With cover crops or mulch over compost, erosion is further reduced. Preventing erosion preserves valuable topsoil and the nutrients it contains. Compost offers a barrier against this form of land degradation.

7. Composting Saves Landfill Space

When food scraps, yard trimmings, and other organic waste goes to landfills, it takes up significant space. Organic matter also produces leachate, toxic liquid that must be controlled. Keeping organics out of landfills through composting prolongs the life of landfills and prevents pollution.

In 2017, over 26 million tons of yard trimmings were kept out of landfills through composting in the U.S. If food scraps were added, millions more tons could be diverted. Municipalities spend less money on waste management when volume to landfills is reduced through composting programs. Diverting organics also means landfills have more room for materials like plastics that truly belong there.

8. Composting Can Aid In Stormwater Management

During heavy rains, stormwater runs off impervious surfaces like concrete and rapidly flows into storm drains. This causes flooding and erosion issues. Compost helps soak up stormwater like a sponge and slowly release it into the soil.

Cities are using compost to create biofiltration systems—landscaped areas that filter out pollutants as stormwater passes through compost-amended soils. Compost berms and socks also filter runoff from construction sites and farms. By better controlling stormwater, compost helps prevent downstream flooding and water pollution.

9. Composting Benefits Wildlife

From earthworms and beetles to skunks and raccoons, many creatures benefit from compost. As organic matter decomposes, invertebrates move in to feed on bacteria and fungi. These invertebrates become food for larger wildlife. Birds feast on insects around compost, while small mammals dig through piles.

Reptiles and amphibians take shelter in compost, especially over winter. Compost produces heat as it decomposes, which animals can take advantage of. Providing wildlife habitat is an overlooked ecological benefit of composting. Done properly, composting can nourish biodiversity.

10. Composting Saves Homeowners Money

For households, composting can significantly reduce garbage bills by decreasing trash volume. When landfilled organic matter decomposes, it takes up valuable space. Keeping food waste and yard trimmings out of the garbage saves money. Composting yards trimmings on-site also avoids bagging fees.

High-quality compost can be produced at home for free, eliminating the need to purchase fertilizers and soil amendments. Tests by the USDA found that replacing traditional landscaping with compost-amended soil saved $25 per 1000 sq. feet in maintenance costs. Between reduced waste fees, avoided purchases, and lower maintenance costs, composting puts money back in people’s pockets.

How to Start Composting at Home

After learning about the multitude of benefits composting offers, you may be wondering how you can get started composting at home. The good news is, it’s easy to begin composting organics in your own backyard with minimal effort. Follow these simple steps to start reaping the many perks of composting for yourself:

Choose A Composting Method

There are several types of composting methods to choose from, including:

  • Compost bins – Contained units consisting of stacking bins or a rotating drum design. Easy to maintain and rodent-resistant.
  • Compost piles – Heaps or pits of compost formed directly on the ground. Require more effort but provide flexibility.
  • Vermicomposting – Using worms to accelerate decomposition. Done indoors with worm bins. Great for apartments.
  • Trench composting – Digging trenches and burying food scraps. Covered with soil, decomposition occurs underground.

Consider your space, climate, and volume of organic waste when selecting a composting system. Many households find bin composting to be the easiest method.

Pick A Location

Choose a dry, shaded spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin. Your compost area should get airflow but be protected from excessive wind. If composting directly on soil, make sure the location drains well.

Ideally, the compost site will be somewhat out of view for aesthetic reasons, but easily accessible so adding waste is convenient. Many people tuck compost bins in a backyard corner or behind a fence or hedge.

Add A Base Layer

Start your compost pile on bare ground or put a base layer of woodchips, straw, or twigs in your bin. This boosts aeration from below and prevents compost from touching soil. You want about 12-18 inches of base material.

Leaving air gaps in the base layer helps oxygen flow up into the compost. The base layer also absorbs moisture and allows excess liquid to drain away.

Mix In Greens And Browns

Now you’re ready to add organic waste! Compost needs a blend of “greens” and “browns” to fuel the decomposition process. Greens provide nitrogen while browns provide carbon.

Greens: Food scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds, fresh plant trimmings

Browns: Dry leaves, woodchips, shredded paper, straw, cardboard

Mix 2-3 parts browns to 1 part greens as you build your pile. Layer greens and browns as you add material. Varied particle sizes create air pockets too. Blending greens and browns gives microbes a balanced diet.

Monitor Temperature And Moisture

The decomposition process generates heat, and your compost pile should heat up to at least 110-140°F if microbes are active. Check the internal temperature of piles using a thermometer. If the temperature is too low, remix the pile.

Your compost should have the moisture of a wrung-out sponge. Use a moisture probe to check wetness. Water piles if they become too dry. Proper moisture and heat ensure rapid decomposition.

Turn And Aerate

Give your compost a turn or remix every few weeks. This distributes air, moisture, and nutrients so all parts of the pile decompose evenly. Turning also allows you to break up clumps and pockets. For piles, use a pitchfork or compost turner. Rotate tumbler bins.

Let It Finish

After several months, your compost will look dark, crumbly, and soil-like. Finished compost smells earthy. At this point, let the finished compost cure for 1-2 weeks before using. Then harvest your compost and apply it around plants and gardens to enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Reap Nature’s Benefits With Compost

Composting offers a bounty of benefits for people and the planet alike. From carbon sequestration to stormwater filtration, compost powers natural processes that sustain Earth’s systems. By composting your organic waste, you can heal soils, nourish your garden, conserve resources, reduce pollution, and mitigate climate change.

Next time you brew coffee or pull weeds, remember the potential of those “wastes” to improve ecosystems. We vote every day with our actions. Choosing composting is choosing a greener path. Our future depends on working in harmony with natural cycles, and composting allows us to mimic the regenerative power of nature. With a little care and creativity, anyone can tap into compost’s endless gifts.