Composting organic waste helps combat climate change 

(Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

California goals to separate kitchen garbage will reduce methane gas in landfills

(Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

A tractor turns green waste at a composting facility in Irvine. 

By Al Courchesne

PUBLISHED: June 16, 2023 at 5:20 a.m.

Californians who long ago became accustomed to separating their trash and recycling their cans, bottles and paper are now being asked to separate their kitchen garbage so it can be recycled into compost. Some may be wondering, is it worth the trouble?

As a farmer dedicated to growing food in a sustainable way, my answer is definitely, “yes.”

Organic waste makes up nearly a third of what we put in our landfills, and our habit of burying garbage is a huge contributor to global warming. As food waste decomposes underground, it gives off methane gas, which is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a short-term cause of climate change.

That’s why the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1383 in 2016, setting a goal for California to recycle 75% of our organic waste by 2025. Composting will play a big role in getting us there.

Backyard gardeners know that a compost bin or pile is a great way to add nutrients to the soil. But not everyone has the ability or the desire to recycle their own kitchen waste. Now, through curbside collection, nearly everyone can divert garbage from our landfills and help produce compost that can be available to gardeners, landscapers and farmers.

Compost is more than just a convenient byproduct of recycling organic waste. It’s a key component of farming in a way that is healthy for our planet and for ourselves. It’s crucial to what farmers call “regenerative agriculture,” a method that rebuilds the soil’s organic matter and restores its degraded biodiversity.

At our farm we love compost so much that we have set aside six acres to produce thousands of tons of it every year. We compost our tree prunings, unsold fruit, and materials from other nearby farms and companies.

A compost windrow is home to billions of microscopic creatures. As these tiny life forms eat and move through the soil, they perform essential ecosystem functions like fixing nutrients, decomposing organic matter, and making it easier for the soil to absorb and filter water.

When you think of compost, you probably imagine shovels of rich, dark humus teeming with nutrients and earthworms. But compost can be useful in other forms as well. Our orchard team uses it in a “tea” that they spray on fruit trees.

We start with a five-pound “teabag” of compost and a 300-gallon vat of water. This compost culture is a living thing — it needs food, just like we do. So we add fish emulsion for protein, seaweed powder for nutrients, and molasses for sugar. Humic acid provides the molecular building blocks for a lively microbial tea.

Once all the ingredients are in the vat, we aerate it, giving it oxygen so it can grow. Then we spray it on our orchards and add it to our irrigation system, inoculating the trees with beneficial bacteria and microorganisms, which create a healthy environment that is less vulnerable to disease.

When spread on a field, compost can also trap carbon, keeping it from rising into the atmosphere and acting as a greenhouse gas that causes climate change. By limiting methane emissions and sequestering carbon, organic waste recycling will do the equivalent of taking more than 1 million gasoline-burning cars off the road.

For individuals, composting is one of the easiest things we can do to fight climate change — and it’s basically free. It doesn’t require investing in solar power panels or buying an electric vehicle. It’s just about putting your garbage in a different bin.

The kitchen waste recycling program completes a circle of sustainable living. We take food from the farm and turn what’s left over into compost and then into new, healthy fruit and produce.

Think of it as farm-to-fork — and back to the farm again.

Al Courchesne is the founder and owner of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood

(Contra Costa County).

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