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Differences between landfill and compost

EARTHA STEWARD
special to the daily
Summit County, Colorado
Summit Daily/Mark Fox
ALL |

Dear Eartha: I read on your website that methane produced from the breakdown of organics in the landfill is now 72 times more potent then carbon dioxide! I thought the number was 23; how can this be?

Erin, Frisco

For a couple of years now, we’ve been using 23 as the magic number to explain how potent methane is and its “bad guy” role in the climate factor. But first, let’s review how organics break down in the landfill environment …



Most landfills are designed to NOT break down organic waste. Many people mistakenly believe that the landfill is a giant composting system. In reality, all of your leftovers, yard clippings and organic wastes that go into the garbage do not turn into high-nutrient soil in the landfill.

Organic substances need adequate oxygen, sunlight and beneficial microorganisms to recycle naturally into compost. You can’t really find those lovely conditions in a landfill underneath heaps of trash and non-organic plastics. When organics slowly and painfully decompose in a landfill, it’s not pretty! Instead of the production of nice soil, you get hazardous methane.



Over the decades, scientists have studied methane in long-term effects ” what methane can do to our environment in a 100 year span. Now the world is focusing on immediate solutions and in the short-term (or 20-year frame), methane is a greenhouse gas 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide, bringing up more urgent issues with sending organics to our landfills!

As you can see, there is a fundamental link between waste and climate change. Because greenhouse gases are largely responsible for climate change, reducing the amount of organics going to the landfill also combats climate change.

Currently, around a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions are absorbed by the earth’s soil. However, climate change is damaging the soil’s ability to absorb carbon emissions. It seems to be a Catch 22!

Compost is the answer ” it has the remarkable power to absorb carbon. Compost provides an ideal environment for methanotrophic bacteria (bacteria that devour methane and use it as energy). In fact, the EPA found that a blanket of compost on a landfill can help reduce methane emissions by as much as 100 percent! Compost can also be used to enhance the nutrients in existing soil and therefore, improve soil damaged by climate change.

My new favorite book, “A Nation of Farmers” by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton, dives into compost solutions that can reduce individual carbon output. We all talk about lightening our impact, but these authors took it a step further and determined a way to “reduce existing carbon in the atmosphere by raising the levels of soil humus.” Not only did they find a solution for curbing your carbon footprint, they claim there is still a way to repair the damage already done.

According to “A Nation of Farmers,” by adding compost to the soil in agricultural lands and the 7 million acres of U.S. “green spaces” such as public parks, private backyards, and front lawns, we could “reduce carbon in the atmosphere at present by 5 percent or more.”

Remember when we said to “think big picture” for the recycling changes happening June 1? Try this: If you really want to divert materials from the landfill, composting organics is far more effective than recycling plastics #3-#7. Organics (including yard waste, food waste, paper and wood waste) make up over 65 percent of Summit County’s waste stream. Composting is a local solution that maximizes both waste diversion and environmental benefits.

“A Nation of Farmers” makes the solution easy: “What is needed … is simply a commitment to return organic material to the soil … Every one of us with any soil can do this ” your tiny backyard or your giant farm can reduce the impact of global warming that we’ve already created.”

Want to learn to compost? HCCC’s Master Mountain Composter program starts in June. Applications are now available online at http://www.highcountryconservation.org. It’s never too late to start composting in the high country; contact us to find out how!

Eartha Steward is written by Carly Wier, Jennifer Santry, and Heather Dodd Christie at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Submit questions to Eartha

at eartha@highcountryconservation.org.


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