In Permaculture, Plants & Living Systems, Regenerative Solutions, Soil & Compost

Cruise through suburbia one spring or fall day, and you’ll see them: rows upon rows of paper bags of leaves, lawn clippings, and yard waste, waiting for municipal pickup. Ironically,  the hard-working homeowners who fill them often follow up with a garden store run for bags upon bags of commercially-prepared compost.

Bags of yard waste awaiting pickup.

It’s a ritual we watch every year with bemusement, thinking – if only they realized they could create their own compost from the biomass they’re throwing away!

What Is Composting?

Composting is one of the simplest DIY projects imaginable, and one that pays out in benefits for your garden, for the pollinators, for the planet – and for your budget!

Fresh compost, ready for the garden.

hands and boots in compost pile

Basically, composting replicates nature’s process of breaking down organic matter by the action of microorganisms to create soil. The biological dance begins with four components:

  • Wet materials or “greens” containing nitrogen and phosphorus, such as animal manure, grass clippings, or food scraps, to feed the microorganisms 
  • Carbon-based dry materials or “browns,” such as straw, wood chips, paper and cardboard, to absorb moisture and provide porosity for air flow
  • Water to help the microorganisms digest and reproduce
  • Air for the microorganisms to breathe

When you layer these components together and add to them, water them, and turn them over periodically, you set up and maintain the natural decomposition process. The microorganisms begin to eat, excrete, and multiply, generating heat and breaking down the components of the pile. After some time – different lengths of time, depending on your recipe and process – the components will be completely decomposed and the heat dissipated. You’ll need to give the pile a few more months to cure, and then it will be ready for use (stay tuned for an upcoming blog about the stages of composting and compost recipes).

Make Compost – and Make a Difference!

The process of soil-building is the easiest, most immediate contribution you can make toward regenerating the biosphere: compost activates and nourishes the soil ecology wherever you spread it, literally helping to rebuild the skin of the earth. But that’s barely the beginning of the benefits of composting…

Reducing the waste stream

Roughly 40% of the food in the U.S. – a pound of food per person, per day – goes to waste every year. Together with garden waste, that makes up roughly 28% of the U.S. waste stream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Food scraps heading for the landfill.

Food scraps in the municipal waste stream.

Mitigating climate change

When that food and garden waste is buried under tons of trash in a landfill, no microorganisms can break them down into beneficial soil particles. Instead, anaerobic (airless) decomposition takes place, producing a biogas made up of equal parts of methane and carbon dioxide, both leading greenhouse gases. According to the EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the U.S., coming after agriculture and fossil fuels. 

Repairing erosion: 

According to, an estimated 24 billion tonnes of soil are lost to erosion each year: 3.4 tonnes per person! That shows up in a cascade of impacts:

  • Decreased soil fertility, increased chemicals, increased pollution: as soil erodes, its trace minerals steadily diminish, along with its ability to grow healthy crops. As a result, farmers add increasing amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, which are washed into the waterways in their turn.
    How can composting change this? Compost replaces the three primary nutrients – nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus – in the soil, as well as trace minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, without the need for chemical additives.

A crop duster spraying pesticide over farm fields.

crop duster spraying field with pesticides

  • Decreased nutrient density of crops: as soil erodes and crops lose access to trace minerals, they depend more on the limited nutrients in those chemical fertilisers, and their ability to provide nourishment dwindles.
    As compost is added over time, however, the soil regains mineral content and becomes better able to produce nutrient-dense crops. 
  • Decreased water absorption: As soil erodes, it becomes progressively less able to absorb water. This results in water sluicing across its surface rather than sinking in, carrying steadily more nutrients with it.
    Soil that has been amended with compost, on the other hand, begins to regain its healthy structure, rebuilding its ecosystem, forming clumps, and absorbing the water flowing across it.  In fact, each 1% increase in organic matter helps soil retain 20,000 gallons more water per acre.

A rain-eroded field sends nutrient-loaded silt into the waterways.

  • Decreased carbon sequestration: As soil becomes eroded, its structure changes, reducing its ability to retain carbon.
    Healthy soil, on the other hand, can store more than 4000 billion tonnes of carbon (as opposed to the 360 billion tonnes stored by trees, and the 800 billion tonnes stored in atmospheric carbon dioxide).

“But I’m Just One Person…”

Western culture tends to focus on big, top-down solutions, where the government or corporations effect massive change. By comparison, the efforts of individuals seem insignificant, barely worth mentioning: what difference could your little compost pile make?

But when you look at the combined impact of your compost pile with those of your neighbours, extending outward to your community, city, province or state, and beyond, that adds up: 

  • many tonnes of food and yard waste not dumped in landfills
  • many tonnes of soil not eroding into the waterways
  • many tonnes of carbon sequestered in the soil
  • many adults’ and children’s health improved through eating nutrient-dense food

A backyard compost bin.

And the impact ripples outward! As just one example, on just one day, Thanksgiving 2023, the San Francisco Examiner reported that city residents “composted 360 tons — 720,000 pounds — of food scraps… equivalent to 48 of the iconic Powell Street Cable Cars and 16 of BART’s ‘fleet of the future’ trains.”

To quote the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organised citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

Want to learn more about composting? Check out our videos HERE and more blog posts HERE!

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