Compost is an inherent process of nature. The breaking down and transformation of organic matter is how Earth ended up with soil, sediment, and sustenance. It’s a sustainable and regenerative process that’s essential to our survival in the climate crisis.
Compost is Symbiotic
Compost (verb) refers to the natural process of decomposition, where organic matter is broken down by microorganisms, fungi, animals, oxygen, and time.
Compost (noun) refers to the result of that process; dark, loamy soil that’s rich in nutrients and living organisms.
Compost has been a part of human history since the dawn of agriculture. It’s a practice that’s allowed humans to build civilizations, develop cultures and foodways, and provide sustenance for both the land and our communities. Our ancestors observed the cycles of growth, death, and re-growth in natural ecosystems and understood that “waste” and “dead” organic matter could be used to feed the soil and generate new life.
People from around the world have been using compost to feed soils and grow nutrient-dense food for centuries. In ancient China, farmers regularly plowed under weeds and added processed animal bones, animal excrement, and human excrement as fertilizer, prolonging the productivity of their fields. Human and animal waste were also used by ancient Hebrew, Aztec, and Japanese farmers to increase crop yields and create viable farmland where none existed before. Ancient Greek and Roman farmers used the inedible parts of edible crops, tree prunings, and the leftover material from pressing olives and grapes to create rich compost and healthy soils. Wampanoag Native Americans of the Northeast taught early European settlers how to use shells, fish, and ash from their fires to fertilize crops, and Wampanoag people are still using these same methods today.
Industrialization, imperialism, capitalism, and urbanization have all helped to shift our lifestyle away from our connection with the land. Our “waste” has been moved into landfills, pipes, and processing facilities where it’s rendered invisible. When we send organic matter like food scraps, yard clippings, and other biodegradable materials to the landfill, they don’t get exposed to oxygen. Anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition releases methane. According to the EPA, “methane is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.”
Instead of throwing organic matter into landfills, compost recaptures biodegradable materials and converts them into nutrient-dense soil that sequesters carbon, stores rainwater, and feeds the plants we eat.
Compost For Our Communities
There is infinite capacity for healing in compost. Witnessing compost transform death into new life teaches us how to live through changing times. It turns grief, loss, and sadness into generative emotions that feed our actions for a better future.
As a gardener, I know the sadness of seeing something I’ve sown and nurtured die. Whether it’s from the heat, the sun, or a neighborhood critter, all of the energy and care I put into that being is now gone. But it isn’t wasted. I carry the wilted green carcass of the plant over to my compost pile and smile, knowing that it will soon become soil that nourishes another living being.
And so the cycle goes. New life can emerge when we let things die and decompose (transform). Compost reminds us that there is a certain possibility in endings.
What if we chose to “decompose” the fossil fuel industry and the exploitation of both animals and farmworkers in our agriculture system? To let those parts of our society die and become something different. Something new.
Compost doesn’t just show us death, it also shows us life. It offers a warm, moist bed where we can plant new seeds and nurture them into thriving, green, living things. What will we nurture into being when we let the old systems die?
“Community composting hubs inspire joy and lead to lasting transformation of unhealthy and unjust systems.”—CA Alliance for Community Composting
When I think of compost, I think of food sovereignty, happy people, and thriving ecosystems. I think of community gardens that provide food, connection, clean air, clean water, respite, and joy for everyone around.
In a world where most of our accessible food comes from industrial, monocrop farms that rely on fossil-fuel-derived fertilizers and contribute to soil erosion and water pollution, it’s difficult to see any way out of our current systems. It’s easy to despair amidst all of the extraction and exploitation, but compost helps me see that a better world is possible.
Compost Is Our Future
Close your eyes and imagine a future where compost is the default. Where we don’t throw our waste “away”, but instead work with natural cycles to transform it into something new. What do you see?
I see neighborhood-scale, closed-loop systems centered around community gardens that are open and accessible to everyone. I see myself walking to the garden to drop off my food scraps a few times a week, saying hello to my neighbors, and stopping to pick a few fruits off the trees on my way there. I see myself volunteering to help turn the compost pile, tend the plants, and teach cooking workshops to the local kids.
That’s the beauty of compost. It’s a climate solution that cools the planet AND encourages community care.
If compost were the default, our systems would look completely different. Our cities, towns, and neighborhoods would be laid out in a way that encourages walking, biking, and gathering outdoors instead of isolating ourselves in cars. Compost would bring us closer to where our food is grown and reclaim power from corporate grocery chains and industrial agriculture operations. It would increase the nutrient density of our food and help cool our neighborhoods with leafy green canopies. Compost would help us form tight-knit communities where there are regular touchpoints between neighbors, encouraging us to take good care of each other.
“Composting at the community scale allows individuals to engage with each other and learn from the process.”—LA Compost
Composting is a beautiful way to reconnect with natural cycles and our communities—and community composting projects are already flourishing around the U.S. Government bodies and grassroots groups are working to make compost the norm again, including the recent launch of a municipal composting program in Meow Meow Tweet’s new home base, Sacramento, CA.
Here are some resources for composting wherever you are:
- Your 5-Step Guide to Start Composting at Home is helpful for anyone just looking to get started by gathering food scraps at home. The guide touches on different composting methods for different home sizes, including small-scale solutions for apartment dwellers!
- CalRecycle’s Guide to Community-Scale Composting is a great place to start if you’re thinking about starting your own community composting program. They provide general information as well as links to California-specific resources like CalRecycle’s Community Composting for Green Spaces Grant Program.
- Compost Now! has a growing list of small compost pickup services all over the U.S.
- LA Compost provides a number of community composting options around the LA area.
- Common Compost provides compost setup and food scrap collection services in Oakland and the Bay Area.
- In Sacramento, you can drop off your food scraps at the farmers market with ReSoil, or take your scraps to Find Out Farms on Fridays.
- Community Compost Co. offers residential food scrap pickups as well as various drop-off points throughout the NY Hudson Valley and New Jersey.
- For bike-powered food scrap pick-ups, drop-off sites, and office composting programs in Brooklyn, check out BK Rot. Reclaimed Organics also offers bike-powered composting services in Manhattan.
Written By Faye Lessler