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Davis, California

Friday, June 2, 2023

The science and practice of composting

As a student at UC Davis, one of the most prominent agricultural universities in the country, you are probably well aware of the practice of composting. However, other than throwing away your decomposable garbage in the designated “Compost Bins” at the MU, you may not know much about it.

But many students and UC Davis professors argue that composting is not only vital to our soil and environment as a whole, but also fun, easy and doable no matter where you live.

In simple terms, composting is the decomposition of plant materials and other once-living organisms into a stable, dirt-like composition known as humus. However, the science of composting can also be very complex.

“Composting requires four main [ingredients] for it to work effectively: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water,” said Natsuki Nakamura, a junior environmental science and management major and piles director at Project Compost, a student-run and -funded unit dedicated to composting.

As Nakamura explained, each of these four ingredients has a specific purpose for the microbes that decompose the once-living organisms in the compost pile.

Carbon is specifically needed for energy and high carbon materials tend to be brown and dry. Nitrogen is needed for building proteins, which in turn would help grow and reproduce more microorganisms. Oxygen and water are added to speed up the decomposition process.

Oxygen is especially important because most microorganisms in the compost pile work in an aerobic, or with oxygen, environment.

“Oxygen is what accounts for the heat in compost piles. The oxidation of carbon by the microorganisms produces heat. Often, it can get hot enough that the compost pile begins to steam, which is pretty cool,” Nakamura said.

Science aside, composting is most importantly a simple means to help the environment.

“Compost is a viable resource for gardening and agriculture. Any diversion of the waste we produce would be beneficial to prevent detrimental effects to the environment and to humans,” said Alisa Kim, student unit director at Project Compost.

Composting is important to the environment in many ways, but mainly it helps restore soil to its most ideal state.

“Adding compost to soils has one very important benefit in that it returns organic matter to soil. [This] organic matter has many positive benefits to soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties,” said Michael Singer, a professor emeritus in the department of land, air and water resources at UC Davis.

A major factor contributing to this loss in organic matter is that much of what is taken out of the soil is not put back in. As Nakamura explained, instead of composting, people often send decomposable waste to a landfill, where it becomes compacted with waste that is not decomposable, keeping the natural process from occurring.

But despite the complexity of the science behind composting, Kim said the practice of composting is actually quite simple and that anyone can compost. While putting plates from the MU into the compost bin is a good start, students can also do it in their own apartments or homes.

Both Kim and Nakamura agree that the easiest way to compost in a dorm or apartment is by using vermicomposting, a type of composting using a specific species of worms called red wigglers. The red wigglers do most of the breakdown process, so that the compost needs less bacteria and fungi.

Using this method, students can keep their compost inside in a confined bin.

“[Vermicomposting] is ideal for apartments because it’s confined, small, and basically the worms do all the work for you. All you have to do is feed them the decomposable material,” Nakamura said.

Project Compost holds free workshops throughout the year giving an in-depth tutorial on how to practice vermicomposting and starting participants off with their own worm bins. Other workshops are held throughout the year as well on other ways students can incorporate composting into their lives.

Project Compost’s next workshop is on June 2 in front of the Tri-Co-ops.

Kim believes the most important aspect of composting for students is that it makes them aware of the state of today’s environment.

“It brings people closer to the earth, gives them more understanding about the impacts of living the way we do and is a great start to learning about the environment,” Kim said.

CLAIRE MALDARELLI can be reached at science@theaggie.org.