As a generation that has been raised alongside the threats of the climate crisis, seemingly simple solutions have been sold to us our entire lives: drive electric vehicles to reduce emissions, cut down on meat consumption, use paper products instead of plastic ones, etc. However, in a world fueled by capital gain, these “answers” are often presented in contradictory ways. Composting has been offered as a potential strategy, but is it a valid one? 

Composting is the process by which organic matter is decomposed into a nutrient-rich soil. This practice acts as a valuable way to recycle materials that would otherwise go to the landfill like plant waste or food scraps. Why is this important? When food decomposes, it releases methane (CH4), one of the 10 primary greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. 

Methane emissions call for increasing attention because of the way the gas interacts with our atmosphere. Methane only remains in our atmosphere for roughly a decade at a time, which is comparatively shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2), whose aggregations remain for thousands of years. However, atmospheric methane ultimately merges with oxygen (O2)  to create CO2. Methane also absorbs heat at a rate 200 times higher than CO2.  This is why methane’s global warming potential is measured to be 84 times greater than CO2 on a 20-year timescale and 28 times greater on a 100-year timescale. 

Composting combats this. This process prevents our waste from decomposing anaerobically, or without oxygen. An anaerobic environment, like the one created in landfills, fosters bacteria that feed on the waste and emit methane as a consequence. Instead, with composting, the waste is broken down methodically in a way that allows the nutrients to be reintroduced to the systems from which they came. 

This has immense and lasting impacts. The robust and nutrient-rich soil that composting creates stimulates plant growth. Healthier and longer-lasting plants act as carbon sinks as well, actively absorbing the excess CO2 in the atmosphere. Compost also promotes overall soil health, which prevents erosion and influences a porous infiltration of water and an elevated water retention. This effectively reduces water use for farmers and gardeners, as well as aids in stormwater management. Composting can also lower the overall costs of growing plants by preventing plant replacement and reducing the need for irrigation. 

These factors make both our farms and ecosystems more resilient to climate change in general. As weather shifts and the extremes become more common, it is vital that we have set up environments that are capable of enduring. With soil as our anchor, composting can be a lasting solution.

One can begin their composting journey right here at UC Santa Barbara. There are many student-run programs in our community that make it easy! Associated Students’ Department of Public Worms has compost bins throughout campus where one can drop off any food scraps or compostable products. Isla Vista Compost Collective manages drop-off bins at St. Michael’s University Church and University United Methodist. They also host community workshops to help those interested in making their own compost get started! Associated Students Recycling also has created the Apartment Compost Initiative, a project aimed towards making composting accessible for those living in university housing. 

So, the next time you go to throw away your food scraps, keep composting in mind!