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Don’t Waste Your Yard Waste-Use It!

by Ruby Stanmyer

Spring has sprung in North Carolina meaning that weekends are full of gardening, landscaping, and yard maintenance. To some, the resulting yard waste is a nuisance. It used to be common practice to gather up this waste and burn it, while some prefer to bag it up and throw it in the trash. However, there are many regulations surrounding open burns and sending yard and household waste to landfills also may not be the best practice. Smoke from burning vegetation (such as leaves and weeds) may contain toxins such as carbon monoxide and particulate matter that can increase your risk of respiratory infection. Children and adults who have respiratory illnesses, allergies, or asthma may be disproportionately affected.

Composting could save hundreds of thousands of tons of waste from going to the landfills. Every year North Carolinians throw over 10 million tons of trash! Out of this astronomical number, the USDA Food Loss Project Analysis estimates that at least almost 1 million tons is food waste generated within residential homes in North Carolina. This remains a conservative estimate and it is likely that the actual number is far higher. Removing food waste from the trash systems would represent a success in our waste cycle. Currently, North Carolina is one of the largest exporters of waste in the country, behind only New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio. This is due to landfill limitations and high costs of disposal. The two largest urban areas in the state, Raleigh and Charlotte, are considering a pay-as-you-throw solid waste program that would charge higher prices based on how much trash you generate. In an effort to control trash, food waste, and higher prices, residential homes in North Carolina should be encouraged to participate in household composting! As well as being good environmentally and economically, the end product of compost is a useful soil addition and fertilizer for your planting needs.

Composting can be as simple as creating a pit or pile in your yard where you put food, yard waste, or most other kinds of organic matter (for more information on what to compost, visit EPA.gov and search “composting”). There are different methods of DIY containers for more secured options. Additionally, there are compost bins that you can easily purchase. Once you have a receptacle, add organic material, and mix the material weekly, until it begins to naturally decompose. If you reside in a suburban or urban area, particularly within the Triangle, there are also neighborhood compost systems. These local businesses charge a small monthly fee which provides weekly compost pick-up right to your door. Most often provide the finished compost product to their customers free of cost. Compost enriches and fertilizes soil upon application. It also helps retain moisture, improves aeration, provides essential nutrients to plants, helps balance pH, can extend the growing season by moderating the soil temperature, and can help control soil erosion.

Composting is a practical solution for yard and household waste. In many areas, burning of leaves and yard refuse is prohibited due to potential health impacts and the fear of larger scale fires. Composting remains a highly efficient way to re-use both yard and household waste. Considering the huge amount of trash that we produce every day, composting is not a hard step to take to reduce the amount of waste that we contribute to our already overburdened landfills. You also get an end product that can be used in any yard, garden, or planter to improve your soil fertility. Let’s compost y’all!

Note from the author:  I am a current graduate student in water resources management at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. I took a Soil Resources course this year and got interested in all the beneficial effects of composting. One of my assignments for this class involved writing an opinion piece, and I wanted to write about how great and easy composting can be. Since I don’t have space for a backyard compost at my apartment, it’s been great to use a neighborhood compost pick-up and there are so many options in the Triangle! I wanted to communicate that you don’t need to be a master gardener or have a lot of space in order to reap the benefits of compost.

Thanks to Compost Now for the graphic.

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Compost Combats Global Warming!

The Link Between Soil and CO2

Did you know that according to the US governments analysis of grassland ecosystems in the year 2000, only 3% of the tall grass prairie that was once in North America is still intact?  This loss has had a huge impact on the way our entire ecosystem works, but what is little known is the massive loss of soil carbon that has accompanied the loss of prairie land.  All of that carbon from the soil has been released into the atmosphere and is responsible for about one third of the increase in atmospheric CO2 over the last 150 years.  Turning Earth, LLC says more carbon has gone into the atmosphere from the soil than from fossil fuel between 1860 and 1970.  

Soil carbon and its impact on climate change is the subject of intensifying scientific research, and with good reason.  The findings of current research are expanding our knowledge of how soil sequesters carbon and how our own effort to regenerate the soil with compost can slow down the rapid rise of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Overall, the world’s soil holds about three times as much carbon as the atmosphere and recognition of its capacity to take up atmospheric CO2 is catalyzing a significant shift in the direction of the battle against global warming.  The focus thus far has been in quelling emissions from the burning of fossil fuels; however crucial that reduction may be, scientists now find that soil carbon sequestration, known as a carbon “sink”, is as a promising a weapon in the fight and one that can be utilized by everyone from large agricultural and governmental organizations to individual home owners.

The Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio conducts research on the best methods for reducing atmospheric CO2 through sustainable land management practices.

According to Rattan Lal, Director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s soils have lost between 50% and 70% of their original carbon stock, much of which oxidized when exposed to air, becoming CO2 when the soil was cultivated.  Places like the North American prairie, the North China Plan and even the arid interior of Australia are now being considered future carbon sinks based on the rapidly expanding knowledge of carbon sequestration in soils.  Researchers are studying how land restoration projects in these areas might bring back carbon, nitrogen and, thereby, the natural fertility these areas have lost.  “We cannot feed people if soil is degraded,” Lal says.

When soil is tilled or disturbed in any way the carbon in it is exposed to the air, an oxygen source.  The carbon atoms attach to the oxygen forming CO2 a potent greenhouse gas.  Conventional farming practices continuously remove plant material that has grown each season that, in the natural system, would return to the soil when the plant dies.  In countries like India farmers literally burn the dead plant material off the fields in order to clear the land for the next planting. Besides putting harmful smoke into the air, these intensive farming practices remove further carbon from the soil adding to the deterioration that has been rampant throughout the world for decades.  

Regenerative agricultural practices like no till farming, planting of “green manure” cover crops, and top dressing the field with compost can turn back the carbon clock, reducing atmospheric CO2 while raising soil fertility and decreasing vulnerability to floods and drought.

“The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself” -Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Plants pull carbon out of the air through photosynthesis forming carbon compounds that are the structure of the plant body itself or biomass.  What the plant doesn’t need for growth is secreted through the roots and becomes food for soil organisms like microbes and fungi.  This is known as the humification of carbon, a process in which the carbon is made stable in the soil. Humus, whose main component is carbon, gives soil the ability to hold water, determines its structure, and gives it fertility.

Lal estimates the potential to store carbon in the top layer of degraded and desertified soils around the world could amount to 1 – 3 billion tons of carbon annually, equal to approximately 3.5 to 11 billion tons of CO2 emissions. Active soil carbon which is located in the topsoil (generally the top 15 to 30 centimeters) is continually exchanging carbon between microbes living in the soil and the atmosphere. Bolstering soil microbiology by adding compost restores normal soil activity in places where it has been interrupted by the use of insecticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.

It is currently unknown how much carbon is stored in deep carbon pools well below the active layer of soil, it is thought that soil below the five meter depth may store carbon at much higher rates than shallower soils. Encouraging finding are coming in from scientists studying some deep rooted grasses in Australia with below-ground plant structures that plunge more than five meters deep sequestering carbon all the way down.

The Marin Carbon Project

The Marin Carbon Project was started in 2007 when local farmers concerned about the impact of global climate change on the productivity of their farms.  Located in the San Francisco Bay Area the group now includes farmers, researchers, government agencies, and nonprofits who are working to enhance soil carbon sequestration in farm land, range land, and forests.  The aim is to improve farm productivity and the health of the local ecosystem while mitigating climate change. Citing research that showed dairy farms had more carbon in their soils than the adjacent grasslands because farmers sprayed manure on fields as a way of recycling the waste.  This group believed that they could improve soil quality and offset CO2 emissions produced by agriculture by putting compost on grasslands.

Lead by researcher Whendee Silver of the University of California at Berkley, the Marin Carbon Project showed that applying composted agricultural and green waste to grasslands sequesters carbon at a rate of 1 metric ton per year.  The fields that the project treated with compost also had  higher forage production due to higher fertility and better ability to hold water in the soil.  The conclusion after nine years of steady results is that applying organic matter to soils is one of the most effective ways currently available to divert CO2 from the atmosphere.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, grasslands comprise 40.5% of the earth’s terrestrial area excluding Greenland and Antarctica.  The use of chemicals that kill soil microbes and fungi, overgrazing, erosion, fires and simple poor land management have robbed of much of this land of its carbon and carbon-storing ability.

Expanding the practices of the Marin Project to just 25% of California’s grasslands, Silver projects that the carbon sequestration rate would be 21 million metric tons of carbon per year.  Grasslands, farm lands and uninhabited lands, with the addition of compost, could return carbon to the soil, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and divert green waste from landfills.

Organics Diversion and Methane Avoidance

Besides the large scale application of compost to grasslands, small scale composting not only sequesters carbon but prevents the production of methane in landfills. Organic “green” waste in the conventional waste stream decomposes in anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions producing methane which, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, is 84x more potent as a green house gas than CO2 in the first 20 years after its release into the atmosphere because of its ability to absorb heat from the sun.

In its Basic Information About Landfil Gas, the EPA states that municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 14.1% of these emissions in 2016. Composting organic waste such as food scraps, grass clippings and paper, allows the organic materials to decompose aerobically which prevents the production of methane. The US sent 31 million tons of food waste to landfills in 2007, composting this waste would have been the equivalent of taking 8.4 million cars off the road.

Residential and commercial lawns and gardens are essentially the same as an agricultural field with low biodiversity, soil depletion and lack of soil organic carbon especially if chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are in use.  Every homeowner can impact global warming by converting their land to organic maintenance practices and by composting all biodegradable household waste and applying it to the landscape.

“Fighting global warming is not out of our reach, it’s as close as our own back yard.”

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Events

NC State’s 20th Annual Vermiculture Conference

This is the only annual training in the world on commercial vermicomposting, this event provides the tools you need to start or expand an earthworm or vermicompost production operation.

 

Sustainable Spirits West

Sustainable Spirits meet the mountains!  Sustainable Spirits is a casual gathering for the sustainability community organized by the North Carolina Composting Council. Its purpose is to create a space for people to gather, meet each other, and engage in fun and meaningful conversations for an inclusive and regenerative future.  It’s free, unstructured, and open to everyone interested in anything from renewable energy and civic engagement to green building, organic farming, and beyond!

This gathering is sponsored by Danny’s Dumpster, working for a waste free Western NC by enabling, educating and inspiring people to dispose of their waste responsibly through composting and recycling.  Come and hear about what they are doing for the ground we walk on and the air we breath.

Click HERE to register.