Image Source: Amber Karnes. Source License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Adaptations: cropped.

Composting is the biological process of breaking up organic waste (e.g., food waste, leaves, grass trimmings, animal waste) for reuse in soil and gardens. It reduces the amount of waste going to the landfill and help increase life of a landfill site.

Why is this important to your community?

The average American throws away 20 pounds of food each month and as a nation we waste about 40 percent of the food produced in the US, according to the National Institute of Health. Our grass clippings and fallen leaves typically go to the street, requiring pick-up by government or private haulers. Composting is a method of sustainably disposing of and converting waste not suitable for consumption into a valuable resource. This tool supports local farms by utilizing food and organic waste to produce nutrient-rich soil that can raise the value of farmland by increasing erosion resistance and water holding capacity. It also diverts food waste from landfills, which reduces the cost for local governments to provide roadside service, offers a more environmentally and economically sustainable way of disposing of waste, and helps to increase the life of a landfill site. For home and community garden composters, it improves garden plots, increasing yields and can serve as a great education/recreation tool for family members.

of food thrown away each month by the average American
of the food produced in the US is wasted

How does it work?

Composting can be done at variety of scales—from a composting bin your backyard to a large municipal-wide program. There are a variety of methods you can use to compost waste. Aerobic composting uses air to grow bacteria that create high temperatures to break down waste. This method is high maintenance and predominately used for large volumes of compost as it must be rotated on a regular basis to ensure air flow. Anaerobic composting, the most common type used for backyard composting bins and agricultural compost, breaks down the waste with slow working bacteria that survive without air. This process requires the longest amount of time, but the least amount of maintenance. Vermicomposting, the most useful method for composting food waste, utilizes worms, bacteria, and other bugs to break down organic materials. This method requires some maintenance to ensure that worms are fed and the environment is stable. Whether you utilize aerobic, anaerobic, or vermicomposting methods of composting, the benefits are clear. Composting enriches soils, helps remediate contaminated soil, prevents pollution and excessive use of landfills, provides economic benefits by reducing the need for transporting waste and reduces the need for water and pesticides.

Ready to get started?

Using the Tool

  • Assess existing waste management systems and determine the potential market for composting of organic waste and fertilizer.
  • Determine a strategy for developing a composting system.
    • Connect with local officials, municipal waste representatives, and other potential partners to discuss the possibility of employing a composting system or program.
    • In rural areas, a small composting system (anaerobic or vermicomposting) could be added to existing waste management infrastructure to reduce the amount of waste entering landfills. Small farms also can invest in smaller composting systems. In more developed areas, municipalities or private companies can develop a larger-industrial scaled composting system (aerobic, anaerobic, or vermicomposting) to recycle waste and turn it into an enriched soil product.
    • In any setting, urban, suburban, or rural, community gardeners and individual homeowners could also invest in a composting bin or a designated composting bed, and use the soil for planting or landscaping. Regardless of the scale of the system, the potential return on investment should be considered. This will include the initial system investment, operating costs, potential savings, and sale (if applicable) of the final product.
  • Support a public composting education campaign that encourages individuals to compost at home. This could include educational programs on how to compost provided by parks and recreation departments or Cooperative Extension, and/or fiscal incentives.
  • Provide budgetary and policy support for the program. This could include permitting assistance, marketing, and linkages to funding sources (tax credits and other alternative financing measures).

Where has it worked?

Charlotte-Douglas International Airport Vermicomposting Program - Charlotte, NC

Image Source: Julie Rose.



About the Program

The vermicomposting system started in 2012 at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport uses worms to process organic and food waste from the airport. Non-compostable waste is separated, recyclables are filtered out and organic waste is pre-composted and heat treated in large drums for three days. The waste is then processed by 1.9 million red wiggler worms that can process up to two tons of waste per day.

Why it works

While the initial system investment of $1.2 million and the operating costs of $425,000 per year are steep, the vermi-composting system is projected to save the airport $475,000 per year in trash removal fees and allow the airport to reduce its waste levels by 70%, meaning that the center could be profitable by 2017. Composting is also helping the airport save money on fertilizer and will potentially allow the airport to sell the remaining composted soil to local gardeners for an additional profit. In addition to the environmental and fiscal benefits of composting, the center provides employment for 15 Go Green employees in the waste sorting department.\