“Food goes bad because of life: the life that lingers in its cells after the organism dies and the life takes over the body of the dead. Preventing that life prevents decomposition.”
Out of all the rituals that define my days, the one I hold most dear is my trip to the farmer’s market every Sunday to drop off my compost. There, the food scraps I have gathered throughout the week in my freezer join those of my Brooklyn neighbors and begin their collective journey back into soil through the process of decomposition. Of course, moments arise when habit and languor lure me to throw away my food waste, but each time that temptation presents itself, I have started asking myself this question: who am I to deny your return to the Earth?
So, let’s talk about decomposition. In the context of biology, it refers to the breakdown of organic material. When a leaf falls in a forest, that leaf will rot on the ground and eventually be turned into humus, the organic component of soil. Typically, decomposition requires a delicate balance between nitrogenous materials (green plant matter, food waste, and so on) and carbonaceous materials (brown matter including dead leaves, sticks, etc) for decomposers to feed on. The humus-rich soil then gives way to more plants, continuing the cycle of growth and decay.
As nature’s recyclers, decomposers serve a vital function within energy systems. Without them, dead matter would pile up and overtake the planet. Some decomposers are incredibly specialized in the type of matter they break down, while others are generalists that can break down all manner of matter. Decomposers you are likely familiar with include fungi and detritivores (invertebrates such as earthworms, millipedes, and termites). But the vast majority are those whose work is unseen by the human eye: microorganisms such as protozoa and bacteria.
Composting, then, is the human effort to create the conditions for decomposition of the materials produced by our daily lives. Food scraps and other materials—including cardboard, newspaper, hair and other biowaste—are given the space for microorganisms to break them down aerobically (with oxygen). When the composting process is complete, the resulting humus is given to soil to make it healthy and rich with nutrients. Just like the leaf on the forest floor whose eventual decay benefits the ecosystem to which it belongs, this thriving soil is then able to produce more food.
According to the FDA, up to 40% of food in the US is wasted—most of which is sent to landfills. Organic materials buried beneath heaps of garbage still break down, but they do so anaerobically (without oxygen). When matter decomposes anaerobically, it releases methane—a potent greenhouse gas that is 28 to 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide. So, in addition to benefiting ecosystems, composting helps the climate in two ways: creating healthy soil that can sequester carbon and grow more plants that do the same, as well as preventing the release of harmful methane into the atmosphere. Healthy decomposition requires room to breathe.
Within human systems—societies, communities, relationships—energy flows, and so does decomposition. I recently wrote about conflict avoidance, and what is throwing “away” our rot if not that? I’ve been meditating on how this buries any chance of healthy decomposition, which requires intention, balance, and space. When we discover rot in a relationship, we often scrap it rather than seeing the potential for spoilage to create new growth, either in the relationship or elsewhere if its time has come to pass. Decay is inevitable, but the waste it offers is ripe with information to ensure we are not perpetuating unhealthy cycles and ecosystems.
The Latin roots of human and humus are the same: both are derived from dirt. And so, as my studies of the wondrous world of decay rot the notions of waste into which I was indoctrinated, I have begun applying the rich philosophy of composting to our everyday experiences as human beings. Not just the physical, but also the mental, emotional, and spiritual—because to deny any decomposition is to deny the possibility for wholeness. Now, when I am presented with putrescence, I practice asking the same question: who am I to deny your return to the Earth?