Preserving the Environment

Can a Little Bit of Compost Help Fight Climate Change?

October 27, 2014
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Can a Little Bit of Compost Help Fight Climate Change?
A single layer of compost could significantly increase soil's ability to store carbon. normanack/Flickr
Scientists might have found a mulch better way to fertilize farms.

There are plenty of reasons why compost is beneficial to the environment. This nutrient-rich mulch enriches soil and helps plants grow, reduces the need for fertilizers and as it turns out, can also play a big role in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

Experiments conducted on a Marin County ranch found that a single layer of compost has significantly increased the soil’s ability to store carbon (an effect that’s been observed for the last six years), the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

If scaled up, this eco-friendly solution could potentially slash California’s carbon pollution. According to the research, if compost were applied to a mere 5 percent of California’s grazing lands, the soil could capture a whole year’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s farm and forestry industries. Researcher and bio-geochemist Whendee Silver theorized to the San Francisco Chronicle that if compost were applied to 25 percent of California’s grazing land, the soil could absorb a whopping three-quarters of the state’s annual emissions.

Here’s how it works: Compost nourishes plant growth. And as a plant grows, it sucks in the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Carbon, as well as being used to create new plant tissue, is also pushed into the soil via the roots.

Compost helps cut greenhouse gases in other ways as well. We’ve mentioned that composting helps divert unwanted food scraps and other organic material from the landfills, which are the U.S.’s third largest source of methane emissions behind the oil and gas and agriculture industries.

The Marin county composting experiment has also benefited the land in other ways. Ranch owner John Wick has observed an increase in native birds and plants, as well as green grass year round (which is especially remarkable in a state that’s experiencing a historic drought).

So if composting is so great, why hasn’t California (and other states) spread the solution? Well, as the San Francisco Chronicle explains, even though the process is relatively low-tech, it requires a lot of time and money.

However, many cities such as Denver; Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore., and New York City have compost-collecting programs. And in San Francisco and Seattle, residents are fined if they fail to compost. So as more cities and states green up, there will certainly be much more mulch to spread around.

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