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The importance and power of compost, who knew?

Written by Will Affleck

I admit it, I often feel overwhelmed when it comes to climate change. Like you, I see footage of the wildfires, droughts, floods, and the record setting heat waves across the world, including Canada. But rather than sparking outrage, these images often make me feel helpless. I try to do my bit: my family gardens, we have bicycles. But with multinational corporations and petrol states such as China and the U.S. pumping out a continuous stream of carbon dioxide, how much difference can my family make? With our 2013 Subaru Legacy and 120 year old house can we make any real difference in the overall climate situation? It's easy to feel apathetic.

But the other day, I came across some rather shocking information. Did you know that there are different types of greenhouse gases? I didn't. It turns out that the villainous C02 that we hear so much about is a mere juvenile delinquent. The real climate criminal is methane. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane is between 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100 year period, and 80 times more powerful over a 20 year period. This seems like very important information. Curious that the powers that be wouldn't deem it worthy of communication.

You've likely heard that methane emissions stem from livestock. It's true. Every time a cow burps or passes gas, a little whiff of methane wafts up into the atmosphere. But did you know that landfills are another major source of methane? Yes, landfills. I always assumed that food waste will break down into compost while in landfills. After all, aren’t they just giant holes in the ground? But it turns out that it doesn't. Landfills are designed for storage, not decomposition. They lack the oxygen required for organic matter to biodegrade. Instead, those kitchen scraps, yard waste, and other organic matter that we mindlessly deposit into our garbage bags sit for years, slowly releasing methane that would otherwise be converted into soil by microbes and healthy bacteria.

The amount of methane produced in landfills is staggering. In Canada, in any given year it is equivalent to the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (including C02) of about 20.3 million passenger vehicles or 11.9 million heated homes. Indeed, it has been suggested that if organic waste was a country, it would be the third worst polluter in the world, second only to China and the United States.

EPA data shows that food scraps are the single most common material landfilled, comprising 24 percent of overall waste. In Canada, the average person sends over 200 kg of organic waste into the garbage each year. Imagine the impact when this breaks down? Simply by keeping organic material out of the garbage, the average household can cut down on 1/3 of their overall garbage output.

Sounds grave, but it is actually wonderful news. As much as I would like to retrofit my home, install geothermal heat, and trade in my Subaru for an electric vehicle, it is not necessary to make a substantial difference (though kudos to those who take these steps). All I have to do is keep kitchen and yard waste out of my garbage.

But how? Enter composting. Not only does composting help to reduce waste, it also makes our soil healthier. This in turn produces healthier plants, helps clean our water and air supply, and draws carbon down into the soil from the atmosphere. Yes, you read that right. Composting acts as a valuable carbon sink that actually reverses some of the damage caused by climate change!

But wait, that's not all! Compost can also be used to regenerate soil. It can replace synthetic fertilizers and rejuvenate fields where the soil quality has been eroded through unsustainable farming practices. It also enhances soils' ability to retain moisture, which means less irrigation and less soil lost to wind and water erosion. With the right application, compost can even revitalise scrap land that is too rocky to farm (here's looking at you Middleville).

With all of these benefits, why don't more of us compost? Well, there are a number of reasons. To start, there is a lack of awareness. Like me, most people assume that leftover food decomposes in the landfill. They don't know about the methane being produced, nor the disproportionate impact it has on the environment.

Next, there is confusion around what can be composted. You've probably heard that some foods, such as meat and bones, cooked food, or leftover salad with dressing on it, can't be composted. Luckily this is not accurate, but these perceptions do impact people's willingness to try. After all, subtracting the meat, salad and cooked food, what is left? Can we really expect people to sift through their leftovers for that one salad leaf or carrot that is left unpolluted by butter or salad dressing? David Suzuki or my grandmother, maybe, but not an average old sinner like me.

There is also a "yuck factor". Food scraps can be slimy, especially if they are left inside for a few days. Many of us also worry about the smell or the potential for it to attract critters. This is a valid concern, especially in urban areas where we are likely to upset the neighbours. You don't need the reputation as that smelly, racoon-attracting house on the block, trust me.

Finally, you may have tried composting and then given up. How many of us have that old black plastic bin sitting beside the shed? We tried it for a season. It filled up, and there it has sat full of yard clippings and egg shells since 2001. If this is you, you are not alone. I know I've got one, as do the neighbours on both sides of me.

All in all, composting household organic waste is one of the most important things we can do for our community, our local environment and the planet! But it's not simple; these barriers can be hard to overcome. If only there was another way...

-Will Affleck is a local Almonte resident and founder of a new, top secret compost initiative. Feeling brave? Check it out:

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