Composting recycles food waste so that it isn’t waste at all. Compost makes excellent top soil, which in turn absorbs carbon, helping to cool our planet.
If you find yourself already breaking your New Year’s resolutions—and really, who could blame you after the unending test of resolve that was 2021—I have a suggestion that is easier than learning to knit or getting in 10,000 steps a day.
Resolve to compost.
The State of California is here to help you stick to your composting goals. A mandate to redirect food waste from the trash bin to the compost heap went into effect Jan. 1, making California the second and largest state to enact such a law, after Vermont. Many cities already collect compost, including San Francisco and Davis. San Diego boasts one of the largest city-run composting sites in the state, and Chula Vista recently opened a composting center that’s solar powered to boot.
Unfortunately, these laudable composting efforts don’t mean the San Diego region is ready for the new law. Between supply chain woes and capacity limits at compost facilities, cities are still figuring out how to create effective large-scale composting systems. That’s why, while a state law and existing local efforts are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, large-scale trash reduction must start closer to home, by changing individual habits and elevating community composting practices.
Composting is in our roots, so to speak. It’s an ancient activity, used continuously by Indigenous people the world over for thousands of years, that we’ve only learned to neglect in the last century or so. We have become habituated to throwing trash away without thinking about where “away” is. Of course, there actually is no “away.” Our trash ends up in landfills and incinerators that sit next to homes and schools, and that are routinely and unjustly built in communities of color. The toxicity these sites produce seeps into the ground, runs into the water and pollutes the air.
Food waste makes up about a third of what we toss nationwide. When food waste is buried in a landfill, decomposing without any oxygen, it produces methane gas as it rots. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, more potent that carbon dioxide, and a significant contributor to global warming. Melting ice releases stores of additional greenhouse gases that increase ocean acidity. That acidity can eat away entire ecosystems and species and, ultimately, harm the health of those at the top of the food chain. No, not sharks. Us.
Composting, on the other hand, recycles food waste so that it isn’t waste at all. Compost makes excellent top soil, which in turn absorbs carbon, helping to cool our planet. Compost can reduce our reliance on synthetic fertilizers, protect us from drought by helping water sink deep into soil and enrich depleted farmland, easing economic hardship while also preventing toxic runoff from entering our rivers, aquifers and ocean. Yes, the banana peel you throw in the compost bin has an impact on the entire planet.
It really is all connected.
Resolving to compost starts at home. Once you start diverting food scraps from the trash to a countertop container, or a green waste can, a switch flips: you might start to cringe at how much of your cardboard can’t go to compost because of the ink on it, or you’ll think twice about picking up fruit wrapped in plastic containers instead of open produce. And eventually that banana peel won’t be just a banana peel: it will be a reminder of why healthy air requires healthy soils and healthy seas, and why composting is one important part of making a healthier planet.
Individual actions are what start a movement—and what helps that process along is community. Local organizations like CRECE Farming Cooperative in Santa Ana, a grantee of our family foundation and Food2Soil Compost Collective in San Diego are actively elevating and reinforcing individual composting habits, building community and educating would-be composters in the process. These organizations are showing that it’s possible to build composting sites and start operations quickly, at low up-front cost, and produce high quality compost faster, without the environmentally damaging impact of long-haul trash trucking. A diverse compost sector, built from the community up, can develop best practices and generate local green jobs. We’ve seen this work in other, albeit smaller places. Healthy Soil, Healthy Seas Rhode Island, an initiative with support from our foundation, brings together several community organizations to shape individual action and local policy and connect the dots between land, sea and air.
In the months and years to come, we need to remember that composting is best done in your own backyard, literally and figuratively.
Schmidt is co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures, and co-founder and president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, which works to expand access to renewable energy, clean air and water, and healthy food. She lives in Santa Barbara.