From the Ancient Greeks to President Washington to South Korea: What’s the story of compost?

In the opening credits of the Flintstones, Fred Flintstone is being served a rack of dinosaur ribs at a drive-in. This amusing scene aligns with what we know of stone-age men: they were hunters. They ate primarily meat. However, digging into history shows that stone age people also invented agriculture and way before anyone knew how to spell the word “composting” or called it by appealing names like “The Black Gold” – the caveman created compost in his territory.

Based on archaeological findings from the British Isles, approximately 12,000 years ago, during the new stone age, Scots improved their small farms with compost. It is likely that these pioneer farmers plowed and seeded compost heaps in situ, rather than moving them into fields and planting them there.

The Akkadians also documented compost by scrawling cuneiform onto clay tablets, around 2300 B.C; in North America, Native Americans grew corn by planting fish parts with each corn plant to supplement nutrient availability and Ancient Greek farmers often cycled agricultural waste between farms. Another early composter is no less than the first president of the United States, “The Father of His Country”, George Washington, who was known as “America’s First Composter”. Washington literally compared a farmer to King Midas: “He can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards gold”.

What is compost? What is composting?

But wait just a teak; we’ve all heard this buzzword (even Wilma Flintstone has – and implemented!), but let’s clarify what composting is.

Composting converts materials that are typically perceived as waste, such as food scraps, eggshells, teabags, leaves and even compostable packaging, into compost; a valuable, renewable resource.

Under conditions of heat, humidity and oxygen, your organic waste will start to break down into small particles, that will be digested by bacteria and other microorganisms. As a result of this microbial activity, this waste will convert into water, CO2, and nutrient-rich biomass that will help soil retain moisture and nutrients. Typically, this process takes between 4 weeks to 12 months in a home composter and about 6 months in an industrial composter. The compost you will produce at home can be spread on vegetable plots, flower beds, and potted plants. You can also use compost to create your own potting mixture for planting flowers, vegetables, or saplings.

How does composting benefit the world?

Compost is extremely effective for farmers as it eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, improves land health, facilitates water retention in sandy soils, and enhances plant disease suppression, among many other benefits.

But there is so much more to compost than what a farmer will get for his field or orchard. Through composting, we are helping to solve two crucial problems: food loss and world hunger. Sounds dramatic? It really is the truth: Every year, across the world, 1.3 billion tonnes of food is either lost or wasted. With world hunger on the rise, the need to reduce food waste is becoming increasingly urgent: one-tenth of the global population – as many as 811 million people – were undernourished in 2020, up 118 million from 2019.

The good news is that all of us – landlords, farmers and food business owners – can compost our organic waste and by doing so improve soil health, nourish it, save water and so much more.

Who’s the world leader in composting?

South Korea is the world leader when it comes to composting organic waste.

How did they do it? A national law was passed in 2013 requiring household waste to be thrown away in biodegradable bags. In the beginning, residents could throw away an unlimited amount of waste for a fixed fee. Now, each household must buy 9-cent-per-liter bags from a local supermarket, dispose of its waste at designated trash spots, and pay by volume. The result is that they save money by reducing the amount of liquid in their food waste.

Today, the country produces 13,000 tons of food waste every day. 30% of it is composted. 60% is used to produce animal feed. 10% generates biofuel. This way, South Korea diverts the majority of its food waste from landfills and incinerators.

What can we do?

Compost at home. If you have a backyard, place your composter in a dry, shady location. If you live in an apartment, you will need a container that is well insulated and filled with red wiggler worms. To breakdown properly, a compost should have a balanced ratio of browns (carbons) and greens (nitrogens). The brown category includes dead leaves, paper towels, eggshells, compostable packaging, uncoated paper bags, etc. Greens can be fruit and vegetable scraps, non-greasy food scraps, coffee grounds, nuts, seeds, cut flowers and tea bags. Are your greens, browns, and worms ready and set up? Read TIPA’s full guide to composting.

What else? If you already have a composter at home, you might as well use compostable packaging which you can put into the composter after use. Where can you find these? In many places! While shopping for clothes or groceries, always check the packaging of the company since many food and fashion brands use compostable packaging.

After your compostable packaging has served its purpose, read the labeling to learn how to dispose of it; if it is labeled Home Compostable, you can put it in your home composter, where it will biodegrade within 12 months. In cases where the labeling indicates Industrially Compostable, you’ll need to place it in an organic waste bin for collection or drop it off at your local compost site.

Last but not least, you can reach out to local businesses in your neighbourhood and tell them about the benefits of compostable packaging and encourage them to switch. Many brands, both big and small, have made the move in response to customer demand. Be that customer.


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