Read time: ~8 minutes

I was raised in your average suburban Midwest household. I barely knew what and where the landfill was and I don’t think I even knew what composting was until college. Don’t judge me.

Fast forward to 2021, I live in Chicago now, and turns out not only are there are many different types of composting but it also seems to be going more mainstream. Or maybe my Instagram ads are just really on point. 🤷🏻‍♀️

Either way, the more I learn, the more I realize the benefits of composting, and the more I want to share!

While I do feel that composting is gaining in popularity, I also feel there’s still a social stigma around it. So, I want to share a general overview of the benefits of composting and why it’s good for the environment.

Let’s dive in!

So, What is composting?

Composting is combining organic materials, (an easy way to remember is ‘anything that once was alive’) into a bin to decompose. The result (with added work) is a material called compost that can be used to fertilize soil, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

What is Global Warming And Is Composting Related?

The words ‘global warming’ get thrown around a lot — in jokes, politics, rallies, marketing, but what is global warming?

I think we all know it means the earth is getting warmer, but why?


What causes it?

Why is that bad?

Personally, I like this definition from Nasa:

“Global warming is the long-term heating of Earth’s climate system … due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere.”

But how is composting related to that?

Easy answer — composting helps remove harmful greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. It not only acts as a natural fertilizer for soil to help grow new plants, it also lets beneficial bacteria and fungi thrive which contributes to healthy soil.

The benefits of composting include:

  • Helping reduce greenhouse gases
  • Reducing food waste and therefore methane emissions
  • Using compost to fertilize new plants which helps them grow
  • New plants absorb carbon dioxide and take it out of the atmosphere.
  • Compost can also help retain water in a drought
  • It can prevent erosion during a storm. Both of these things occur more as earth’s temperature changes

What Exactly Is a Greenhouse Gas?

Let’s start with what the four main greenhouse gases are:

  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Methane
  • Nitrous Oxide
  • Water Vapor

You’ve most likely heard of these whether you knew they were greenhouse gases or not. I’ve said it a few times now, but the words ‘greenhouse gas’ probably make you cringe because it’s been ingrained in us that they’re bad.

BUT it’s not that simple.

Greenhouse gases are kind of like the good villain. They started off helping Earth but now it’s backfiring (hint: because of humans).

Let me break down the science really quickly and explain the greenhouse effect.

Similar to the way a Midwesterner emerges from winter craving the sun, the earth craves it as well. As she absorbs the rays (energy) from the sun, she releases infrared radiation (Wait! IR is just a type of energy we feel as heat but cannot see).

She gives off IR in order to achieve an energy balance.

An example of energy balance is you making sure your energy consumed (calories) roughly matches your energy output (physical activity).

The Earth is trying to do the same thing. If there were no greenhouse gases, the earth would remain at about 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18C). Toasty for a Midwesterner, but not ideal.

Life as we know it has been able to thrive because of greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect.

The Greenhouse Effect — Why It Works & Why It’s Broken

So the earth absorbs energy from the sun. She keeps some of it and bounces some back (as Infrared Radiation) into the atmosphere.

Some IR get released into space, but most of it gets absorbed by greenhouse gases. They send it back to earth which keeps everything at a nice, reasonable temperature.

This process has worked pretty well for the past several million years. But now the activities that fuel our modern lives are releasing an excess amount of greenhouse gases.

The GG’s are just chugging along doing what they do best and what has worked for the Earth for well, ever.

Composting is beneficial to the environment because it can help remove and prevent some of these human-produced greenhouse gases.

Everything that depends on Earth’s temperature (AKA everything) is being thrown out of balance as the gases trap the extra heat we’re causing and send it back to earth.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the largest contributor to Global Warming

CO2 makes up a small part of the atmosphere, but just as a small amount of poison can take down a human, a small amount of C02 in the atmosphere is not good.

The main human contributors of CO2 are:

  • Transportation
  • Electricity Production — (Burning of coal, oil, & natural gas)
  • Industrial Activity
  • Deforestation
  • Cement Manufacturing.

Since C02 is a natural substance, Earth has a way to naturally absorb carbon; these are called carbon sinks. They’re basically places that absorb more carbon dioxide than they produce (pretty cool, huh?).

Plants are probably the first carbon sink that comes to mind and you would be correct!

There are other kinds of carbon sinks as well, but the problem we’re running into is that humans are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the carbon sinks can take out.

Additionally, harmful behavior such as deforestation reduces existing carbon sinks. We’re essentially releasing more greenhouse gases but removing the natural ways that Earth removes them.

Methane Is The 2nd Largest Contributor To Global Warming

Methane gas makes up even less of the atmosphere than CO2. BUT, and it’s a big one, Methane is, at minimum, capable of trapping 25x more heat than CO2. So while there may be more CO2 in the atmosphere, less Methane is still worse.

Human related methane emissions include:

  • Producing and transporting coal, natural gas, and oil.
  • Livestock & Agriculture
  • Municipal Landfills

I’m sure you’ve heard, eating less meat can help. One reason is because methane comes from livestock and other agricultural practices (okay I’ll say it, it comes from animal poop).

Food Waste & The United States

Another benefit of composting is removing food waste that would have gone to a landfill. We’re eliminating the methane it would have released and turning it into new compost that can help fertilize new plants!

Americans throw out about 4.4 lbs of trash every day. And in the U.S., it is estimated that 30–40% of food is wasted. That’s $161 BILLION USD worth of food being wasted.

Thrown out, not used.

It’s not just those spinach bags sitting in the back of the fridge unopened that most of us are guilty of.

Food waste can occur at any stage of the food chain. During harvesting; production; damage from birds, bacteria, insects; faulty equipment during storage; and imperfect food deemed too ugly to sell at the grocery store.

What happens when food waste is sent to the landfill and why does it matter?

How A Landfill Works

As we know, a landfill is a hole in the ground, protected by lining, to prevent the yuckies from leaking into the soil and groundwater.

When food (or anything) is sent to the landfill, it’s compacted tightly together and layered until the hole is filled. Once filled, it’s covered to keep the smell in and rodents out, then covered in vegetation to make it pretty.

And while yes, the methane released from landfills CAN be collected and used as an energy source, not nearly enough of that is happening.

Remember those 4.4lbs of trash? Imagine if a third of that was composted!

A clear benefit of composting is that it lessens how much we’re sending to a landfill.

Are The Benefits of Composting Really Worth It?

Honestly, yes.

Is it easy? Absolutely not, but to be cliche here, what good things in life are easy?

Is composting the end-all solution to food waste? No, but it’s a step in the right direction!

“One small step for man, one large step for mankind.” — Neil Armstrong

If we all take small steps in the right direction, that’s a large step for everyone. By raising awareness we’re letting people know that we want change, we want to do better!

We can then create educational resources around composting, learn about the different types that exist, and what works for each of us.

I’m fortunate enough to live in a city with (private and a public trial of) composting services. The two that are most convenient for my lifestyle are:

  1. A service that provides a bucket to put your scraps in, then they come by on schedule to pick up your scraps. They also offer you free compost to use for your own plant babies.
  2. The second has bins around the city that are placed near the trash cans. Your subscription gives you access to the bin and you throw away your composting as desired. They come around and collect the bins on schedule.

Once I started composting, it was insane to see how much food waste I had! When I saw that, I became more conscious of how much food I buy and am making changes to my shopping habits.

I challenge you (my therapist’s favorite words to me) to do a quick Google search and see if composting is something that’s feasible for you or if you have access to a composting service.

As we get closer to Farmer’s Market weather, check out your local farmer’s market to see what resources are available about composting.

If none of these work for you, take a look at what you’re throwing away. Could you re-purpose, give away, or throw away less?

You might also be interested in…

The benefits of composting & why greenhouse gases aren’t the bad guys