Soil Part 3: Home Remedies for Soil Health
We’ve been talking about the big picture of soil and now it’s time to look at your own backyard. It turns out that repurposing your juice pulp and other veggie food scraps can be a huge benefit for your garden and the planet too. Get all the information and motivation you need to reduce food waste, start composting and much more.
My first impression of my compost pile? It smells so sweet. I’m not kidding. I’m not sure what I expected, but this aroma of earthy pleasantness was not it. I inherited this compost bin when I moved to my new home, and as I’ve been writing this series on soil health and why it matters, I knew it would eventually land here—in the backyard.
It’s so important to understand the big issues facing our soil and applaud farmers near and far who are working to replenish the soil, but we can’t forget the personal ways we can also work to protect the planet. It starts at home. You don’t have to be a soil scientist or a climate change expert to get involved.
Begin by thinking about every banana peel that goes into the trash after you make a smoothie or every apple core that gets tossed from juicing. You are not alone if that food waste currently goes into your garbage can.
In fact, by diverting this waste from the landfill and into a compost bin in your backyard (or joining a community compost program), you can help reduce the roughly 1.3 billion tons of food that is wasted each year, around the globe. That number amounts to about one third of all food produced for human consumption, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.1
For those who live in the United States, it’s the leading country in the world for food waste with folks throwing away nearly 40 million tons of food every year.2 Most of this food goes straight to landfills. The U.S. EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills than any other material in everyday trash, making up about a quarter of all municipal solid waste.3 On average, people in the U.S. waste about one pound of food per person each day.4
All this discarded food contributes to rising methane emissions, a powerful greenhouse gas. Even amid coronavirus shutdowns in 2020, methane emissions continued to surge, according to research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released in April 2021.5 Methane is 28 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year time frame, the report reveals.
“Human activity is driving climate change,” said Colm Sweeney, assistant deputy director of the Global Monitoring Lab in a statement.6 “If we want to mitigate the worst impacts, it’s going to take a deliberate focus on reducing fossil fuels emissions to near zero—and even then, we’ll need to look for ways to further remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.”
The simple act of redirecting your banana peel or apple core can make a difference when it comes to global warming.
In fact, Paul Hawken, author of the groundbreaking book on climate solutions Drawdown, lists ending food waste as one of the top ten ways to help reverse global warming. That’s incredible!
“The food we waste is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global emissions,” Hawken writes.7
Food waste is one of the top sustainability issues worldwide, and the United Nations environment program has an ambitious goal of eliminating half of all food waste by 2030.8
“Recycling food and other organic waste into compost provides a range of environmental benefits, including improving soil health, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, recycling nutrients, and mitigating the impact of droughts,” according to the National Resource Defense Council.9
Now you might be wondering, doesn’t organic material like food scraps just fall to pieces at the landfill and go back to the soil? The short answer is no.
Organic materials at the landfill usually get compacted and covered, which removes oxygen. All that food waste gets mixed with other kinds of trash and the lack of oxygen causes it all to breakdown in an anaerobic process.10 It’s a slow method that keeps the waste building up for longer periods of time. You can find whole heads of cabbage in a landfill years after they were first dumped.11
But there is a better solution for our food waste. Compost! It’s an easy and effective way to reuse leftover food scraps and give back to the land in a way that can sustain and nourish our soil.
What is Compost?
A simple definition of compost is any organic material, such as leaves and food scraps, that can breakdown into a natural fertilizer.12 Compost can be added to soil and help enrich plants.
Research shows that when you add organic material to soil it can increase its ability to retain water.13 That’s great news for drought-prone areas. Each 1 percent increase in organic matter in the soil can help it hold about 20,000 more gallons of water per acre.14 When farmers use compost to nourish soil, they can use less water and still enjoy high yields. This same effort can help in your backyard or at a community garden as well.
Compost also helps improve soil health by bringing key nutrients back to the dirt including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.15
A home compost pile is a great way to divert your food waste from a landfill to help supercharge your garden and work to help reverse climate change.
The Basics of Composting
Let’s cover all the ways you can salvage fresh foods from your garbage bin at home and put them to use in your garden. The basic idea is to find (or make) a compost bin, cover it, turn it and water it about once a week, and in 8-12 weeks, you will have compost.
Compost has three basic components: browns, greens and water.
Browns include dead leaves, branches, cardboard boxes, brown paper bags and even some newer compostable food packaging (look for labels that say safe for composting).
Greens are any materials such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps and coffee grounds.
Water is also needed in your compost pile, as the moisture will help break down the organic matter.
You want to strive to include equal amount of browns and greens in your compost pile and alternate layers of organic materials. The smaller pieces break down sooner, so consider breaking leaves apart, splitting banana peels, etc.
Use this comprehensive list of what you can and cannot compost from the U.S. EPA to get started.16
If you are more a visual learner, check out this video from the Nelson City Council in New Zealand to get started: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egyNJ7xPyoQ
Considerations For City Dwellers
Don’t have a backyard, but still want to be mindful about your food scraps? You have a few options. Check with your local community gardens or farmers’ markets to see if they take “donations.”
When I lived in a big city, I kept all my food scraps in a bag in my freezer and would bring them to the farmers’ market each week. It felt great knowing I was diverting my waste and helping the local farmers who grew my food.
Many cities have also launched composting programs so that residents can compost their food right along with recycling and trash pick-up.
San Francisco is a great success story, becoming the first city in the U.S. to create a large-scale food composting program in 1996. Imagine if more cities had followed their example back then!
“Composting supports soil health, which scientists say is critical in efforts to address climate change,” said Robert Reed, director at Recology, San Francisco’s refuse hauler and partner in developing the city’s waste collection and processing in a blog post.17
The city achieved the statewide goal of 50 percent landfill diversion in 2000 and expanded its commitment with a goal of 75 percent diversion by 2010. In 2011, the city exceeded its goal with a 78 percent diversion rate and continues to see achievements with the program.
“San Francisco’s success in compost collection was achieved by taking numerous steps,” Reed said. “We tested different ways to collect compostable material. We undertook a strong and consistent outreach campaign. We gave presentations at community meetings. The City passed an ordinance requiring all properties in San Francisco to participate in the food scrap compost program. Successive mayors championed composting.”
If you would like to see composting as part of your city’s collection services, consider how you can take measures to make that happen by attending town hall meetings or getting involved in your city government. As more people learn how and why to compost, we can divert more food from landfills and help replenish soil.
You can also look for local companies like CompostNow, Suncoast Compost or Veteran Compost that will collect food waste from your home or business and turn it into nutrient-rich compost for the community.
Even if you don’t have time or resources to compost, you can also work to cut back your food waste. Research from NRDC found that fruits and vegetables are the most wasted food by U.S. households18 and a 2016 report in The Guardian, found that U.S. retailers and consumers throw away about 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce each year.19
You can reduce harmful effects of food waste by preventing waste in the first place. A few ideas include planning meals, using up more produce in juices and smoothies or learning how to better store your produce. Don’t forget to shop your fridge before going to the grocery store. Double check what foods you already have and make it a priority to eat those foods first or build new meals from the produce that needs to be eaten. Get more tools at www.savethefood.com to get more tips.
Finally, keep in mind this wonderful tip from Kathryn Kellogg of the Going Zero Waste blog.20
“Remember that it’s better to be an imperfect composter than not compost at all,” she writes. “It’s still better to work through the learning curve of composting than it is to throw food scraps in the trash where they generate harmful methane. The world needs more imperfect composters!”
Click here to read the first article in this series:
Soil Part 1: How Soil Impacts Our Health—and the Health of Our Planet
Click here to read the second article in this series:
Soil Part 2: A Farming System Focused on Healing
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