Compost: Your Own Personal Carbon Sequestration

Posted August 16, 2019

By Josh Diaz

Climate change, driven by rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, is a very real threat — to my seaside home of Santa Cruz, to your town, and to all communities across the planet. To stymie further negative impact, we must demand greater federal action to achieve rapid, large-scale change, with firmer regulations and stiffer penalties for those who damage and destroy our environment. When it comes to the average person, though, there are lots of ways we can act collectively to shrink our society’s biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

From changing out old incandescent light bulbs for new LEDs, to driving less, to shopping locally and sustainably, there is hardly a single part of your life that can’t be lived in a more sustainable way. One of the easiest and most impactful ways for anyone to not only emit less carbon but even help pull carbon straight out of the air is through composting — an often overlooked but immensely powerful method of carbon sequestration found in backyard dirt piles the world over.

In order to understand the full potential of composting, you have to understand carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide and other carbon-based GHGs, occurs when these gases are naturally or deliberately removed from the atmosphere or diverted from their emission source to be stored in “sinks” like the ocean, soils, living organisms like trees, or geologic formations like rocks. There are numerous methods to sequester carbon, including those that rely on the carbon-absorbing abilities of natural ecosystems like forests, soils, and wetlands, and those where carbon dioxide is stored and/or dissolved in either a liquid or a gas state; these latter techniques are mostly done at scale by specialized geological experts using old oil wells or natural reservoirs.

The most readily available option for individual consumers to capture carbon, however, is through composting. By taking a portion of their waste and converting it back into soil or mulch that can be used in lawns, gardens, and crop soil, composters offset GHG emissions from other parts of their lives, all while creating a whole host of co-benefits.

Compost helps to maintain or restore soil health, infusing nutrients such as carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen back into the soil while making it lighter and more porous. In turn, healthy soils help to retain water and prevent erosion, while allowing plant and animal life to flourish and perpetuate the cycle of restoration. Carbon sequestration in the form of composting also makes for long-lasting ecological benefits. Over time, for instance, farmers and producers who compost on agricultural land can expect higher crop yields while also reducing or outright eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers.

Healthier soils also make for healthier wildlife by decreasing the amount of pests and pathogens in the soil, water, and air. Compost-amended soils even clean toxic industrial emissions from the air around them by absorbing close to 99 percent of harmful airborne chemicals. Composting works wonders for the soil and land we often abuse and take for granted, and thanks to the waves of green activism, we are seeing it done more in the United States than ever before.

According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, in 2015, the United States landfilled or incinerated over 50 million tons of compostable waste. Current trash and disposal systems in the U.S. contribute a huge amount of methane, a greenhouse gas shown to be 56 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, into the atmosphere. By deciding to throw away biodegradable items instead of composting them properly, one can generate an inconceivable amount of waste and environmental damage.

Fortunately, this form of carbon sequestration can be implemented across many different scales, from a backyard plot to industrial-sized composting facilities serving many thousands of households across an entire region. Different types of composting operations can process different types of waste. For instance, new plant-based “bioplastic” utensils, straws, and take-out containers can only be composted in large-scale anaerobic digestion facilities that can reach the high temperatures needed to break them down properly. More natural forms of organic waste—like eggshells, coffee grounds, or paper towels—can be composted in simple dirt piles or in backyard compost tumblers.

The decision to compost is such a crucial one; something as small as sorting trash correctly can genuinely, positively impact our shared environment.

With all the information and devices at our disposal, it would be a huge missed opportunity for our communities not to take the initiative and start composting our organic waste as a matter of course. The negative effects that greenhouse gases have on our planet are irrefutable—but not unstoppable. We know what it takes to impede the destruction of our shared resources, and it’s our common responsibility to care for the planet. You can do your part by learning about the difference between biodegradable and compostable refuse, available composting services and educational opportunities near you, and encouraging composting amongst your friends and family. By dedicating a small amount of your time to composting—the simple act of sorting through your trash—you can become an active force for environmental good.

Climate change is real. Human impact on our environment, and the disastrous effects that often follow, are well-known. Carbon sequestration can, has, and will continue to help mitigate some of the damage we are causing. Composting can be fun and easy, and you can pride yourself in taking an active role in the lessening of the environmental burden we all face together as humans.

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