Composting and Social Justice

Composting presents an ecologically and socially-just means for maintaining soil quality by re-purposing food waste, instead of an extractive food production economy that relies on heavy fertilizer use and disposes of food waste in landfills -– with substantial environmental and social impact.

As such, composting is an integral element of an alternative, local, and generative food production circle. Composting creates new associations between consumers and their food by making visible and explicit the produce they use, consume, and waste. Composting can help to re-evaluate food waste as a resource for “good soil.” Moreover, it decreases food waste through a more direct – “unalienated” – relationship with the farming, food, and waste we produce. In the act of sorting food waste, keeping it in special containers, and maintaining the compost pile, food waste is re-contextualised as a valuable resource for rich soil.

What emerges is a different relationship and understanding of food waste – and a systematic change: Different to the linear food chain (from produce to food to waste that ends up in landfills), composting repurposes waste as a resource in a circular economy (from soil to produce - food - waste - to soil).

A Short History of Composting

Composting was used by the earliest agricultural civilizations and was practiced by both early European colonists as well as Native Americans. The production of food shifted from utilizing humus (the soil produced by composting) to industrial fertilizers in the early 20th century. German scientist Justus von Liebig was a key figure in advancing chemical solutions that would provide nourishment to plants. His chemical solutions could be more easily applied to fields because they could be sprayed on the soil. The key property of his chemical solutions, that the chemicals were soluble in water, raised the threat of contamination. Today drinking water contamination from fertilizers and pesticides sprayed on the fields is a large challenge in the U.S. and other countries with industrial-scale food production. The recent turn to local food production as well as urban gardening culture has made composting frequently used once again.

A Key Challenge For our Food Systems

Scaling of compost production to meet the need for large quantities of food is a big challenge. A key question for the classroom is how to use biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, social sciences, etc. to find environmentally friendly and sustainable ways so composting can become an integral part of life. Questions could involve maximizing the efficiency of composting, through experiments or learning from other cultures. It could also involve the history how composting was used in alternative models of food production and agriculture.

Forms and Techniques of Composting

There are several methods of compost which differ in scale. For experimentation, small-scale composting in 2-Liter or 3-Liter soda bottles is the most efficient method. For larger group-projects, composting in a garbage bin might be a better approach. Below is a list of composting options:

  • Garbage-can composting
  • Soda bottle experiments
  • Worm bins
  • Outdoor composting