Compost 101: The What, The How, and The Why

Aug 7, 2020

What is compost? We’ve been hearing that word a lot recently in the bioplastic industry, as compostable materials have been surging in popularity in recent years. Compost is defined as “a mixture that consists mainly of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizing and conditioning land.” More simply put, compost is decayed organic matter: basically broken down food scraps, lawn cuttings, and other nature- or plant-based materials that have been discarded and decomposed by both the elements and microorganisms. Compost is used to fertilize soil, and add nutrients that support plant growth and help microbial communities flourish. It’s a great alternative to chemical-based fertilizers. The composting process opens the door for us to be able to create products with a completely circular lifecycle. 

There are two main types of compost: industrial (aka commercial) compost, and home (aka backyard) compost. The two types of compost are distinguished by the conditions under which they occur. Industrial compost occurs at much higher temperatures than can occur in nature and requires a specialized community of microorganisms in order to break down the materials added to the pile. Normally, industrial composting is done in a special facility where these conditions can be met. Home compost can occur in any backyard compost pile, or in a variety of other natural environments. It occurs at ambient temperatures and with natural communities of microbes. Materials that are home compostable have a truly circular lifecycle, as they contribute back to the Earth they came from.  

Of all of the waste that humans produce that is transported to landfills, over 50% of it is made up of materials that could be composted. This means we could reduce the volume of waste in landfills worldwide by 50 PERCENT! This would not only reduce the size of landfills worldwide but also reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. In landfills, compostable materials will biodegrade anaerobically (without oxygen) and release methane gas, a very common greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. In a compost setting, materials biodegrade aerobically (with oxygen), and sequester away carbon in the nutrient-rich compost that is created through the composting process, instead of releasing the harmful methane gas. Compost also has a variety of other benefits, not only for the soil and the soil ecosystem but for a variety of other industries as well.

We have often seen recycling as the solution to our waste problem. But recycling is inefficient and not a completely circular process. Recycling is more akin to downcycling, as products made from recycled materials are often of a much lower quality than the originals. As waste continues to pile up, we need a better solution to the plastic pollution crisis. Compostable materials are exactly that. Many home compostable bioplastic materials will not only break down completely in home compost but also in landfill and marine ecosystems as well. By encouraging communities to implement composting programs, the community will not only save money but the planet as well.

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