Compost as Solution to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions


Black Tumbler Style Composter 

Putrefaction. Fermentation. That’s what vegetable scraps in a kitchen garbage or landfill go through. It’s also called anaerobic decomposition, which occurs in oxygen-poor environments. As “putrefaction” implies, this is a stinky process. Yet much of the Western world puts vegetable scraps in a kitchen can and thinks nothing of it until it’s time to tie up that fetid, hot, weeping plastic kitchen garbage bag and drag it out. Putrefaction’s end products are methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, organic acids, and heat.

Carbon dioxide is not the only problem. Methane is the problem, too, says Sally Brown, PhD, an environmental researcher and author of Carbon sequestration in urban ecosystems (Springer, 2012). I corresponded with Professor Brown by email about her research. Methane is not “clean” despite what fossil fuel companies’ commercials say when they are selling natural gas. Methane is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its heat-trapping ability over a 100-year timeframe. And atmospheric methane levels are rising faster than carbon dioxide, according to NAOA. Decreasing methane emissions is the number one reason composting is important.

Compost Depends On an Oxygen-Rich Environment

Professor Brown says we should be composting vegetable scraps rather than sending them to kitchen garbage cans and landfills. A ton of food scraps sent to compost rather than a landfill prevents the emission of the equivalent of one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — of course, with a lot of variance based on what materials went into the compost.

Unlike decomposition in a landfill, which occurs without oxygen, composting requires an oxygen-rich environment. Composters have openings for oxygen to enter as opposed to air-tight garbage cans and compacted soil-covered landfills.  Compost piles should be small to moderately sized so that they can be turned over to create oxygen-rich pockets allowing the aerobic microbes that degrade vegetable scraps to breathe. My composter, the one in the photo, is on rollers allowing the contents to be rolled over to mix it with air.

The are benefits with this process, aerobic decomposition. Aerobic microbes breathe like we do. Like us, their respiratory end products are carbon dioxide, water vapor, heat energy and, in their poop, ultimately minerals. Plant-accessible minerals make soil healthier. Healthy soil means healthier plants. Healthy plants photosynthesize more carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere.

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