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What is composting and why is it important?

Composting is the transformation of organic material (plant matter) through decomposition into a soil-like material called compost. Invertebrates (insects and earthworms), and microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) help in transforming the material into compost. Composting is a natural form of recycling, which continually occurs in nature.

An ancient practice, composting is mentioned in the Bible several times and can be traced to Marcus Cato, a farmer, and scientist who lived in Rome 2,000 years ago. Cato viewed compost as the fundamental soil enhancer, essential for maintaining fertile and productive agricultural land. He stated that all food and animal wastes should be composted before being added to the soil. By the 19th century in America, most farmers and agricultural writers knew about composting.

Today there are several different reasons why composting remains an invaluable practice. Yard and food wastes make up approximately 30% of the waste stream in the United States. Composting most of these waste streams would reduce the amount of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) requiring disposal by almost one-fourth, while at the same time providing a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Compost added to gardens improves soil structure, texture, aeration, and water retention. When mixed with compost, clay soils are lightened, and sandy soils retain water better. Mixing compost with soil also contributes to erosion control, soil fertility, proper pH balance, and healthy root development in plants.

The standard means of disposal for most yard and food waste include landfilling and incineration. These practices are not as environmentally or economically sound as composting. Yard waste that is landfilled breaks down very slowly due to the lack of oxygen. As it decomposes, it produces methane gas and acidic leachate, which are both environmental problems

Landfilling organic wastes also take up landfill space needed for other wastes. Incinerating moist organic waste is inefficient and results in poor combustion, which disrupts the energy generation of the facility and increases the pollutants that need to be removed by pollution-control devices. Composting these wastes is a more effective and usually less expensive means of managing organic waste. It can be done successfully on either a large or small scale, but the technique and equipment used to differ.

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