The Pros And Cons Of Composting

Hands dropping food scraps into a compost bin
(Image credit: Erlon Silva - TRI Digital / Getty Images)

Composting is one of the most beneficial things you can do in the garden, and the reasons to compost are many. That being said, don't feel guilty if you don't want to compost, or if it just sounds like too much trouble. It's true that composting provides numerous benefits but, on the other hand, there are several valid reasons not to compost. If you're thinking it just isn't your thing, take a moment to consider the benefits along with the downsides of composting.

Pros of Composting

Amy's viewpoint: I compost, but I've heard every excuse in the book on why NOT to compost. Usually, it comes down to a time factor - not enough time to compost. Phooey! Another good one is that "it smells." Not if you're composting correctly. I think I could literally refute every excuse on composting disadvantages. But, instead, I am going to devote this time to talking about the benefits of composting. Good for the environment. The biggest reason to compost is that it's environmentally friendly. Did you know that yard waste and food scraps comprise about 27% of solid waste in the United States? That figure is quite staggering, especially when you consider that almost everyone can compost! Why should you be concerned about the amount of solid waste in landfills? Not only does hauling waste to landfills fill up space for years, but landfills produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Methane can remain in the atmosphere for up to 15 years and, as such, has serious implications with relation to global warming and climate change. So this major composting advantage is actually three-fold: reducing solid waste, minimizing methane gas and, therefore, reducing our impact on climate change. Improves soil structure and water retention. As if these weren't enough "pros" of composting, this "black gold" also improves the quality of almost any soil. It improves the structure and texture, allowing the soil to retain more nutrients, water and air, which equals healthier, more productive plants. Water retention encourages plants to grow larger root systems which in turn protects from erosion and water runoff that takes pollutants into our waterways. Natural, organic fertilizer. Amending the garden with compost has yet another benefit. Because it is made up of organic materials, compost breaks down over time. As compost breaks down, it continually feeds the surrounding plants. This reduces the need for synthetic chemicals and fertilizers. Less cost involved. Reducing the need to purchase synthetic additives cuts costs dramatically and, after all, composting is free to anyone that has a patch of ground. This means that growing your own organic fruit and vegetables leads to a considerable savings over purchasing them from the supermarket. Anyone can compost. And lastly, let me go back to something I mentioned at the start of this article, "Everyone can compost!" Even folks who reside in the most urban of settings can participate in composting and, indeed, some of them are more intense composters than rural homeowners. Even if you don't have yard space for your own compost pile, many municipalities now have yard waste/food scrap programs. And you can compost indoors too.

Cons of Composting

Mary's viewpoint: There are some very good reasons for composting, but it's a big job and it isn't for everybody. Take time to consider both the pros and cons of composting before you jump in. Here are common reasons not to compost: It's stinky. If you aren't careful, a compost pile can develop a nasty odor - nasty enough to attract bugs, as well as rats and other four-legged pests. You can minimize this composting disadvantage by turning the pile regularly and by burying food scraps in the center of the pile, (or by not composting at all). An improperly processed compost pile, especially one that includes chicken manure or other animal waste, can also harbor dangerous pathogens. It's ugly. Creating a gorgeous landscape is a lot of hard work and you may not like the idea of an unsightly compost pile detracting from all that beauty. Sometimes, the neighbors aren't crazy about the composting idea, either. You could always purchase a neat and tidy compost bin and tuck it away in a corner, but even a small compost pile or bin takes up a certain amount of space. It sucks up a lot of time and energy. Composting means hauling grass clippings, leaves and other compostable materials to the pile. When the compost is finished, you spread it in your garden or flower bed, and then you start all over again. You can't just forget about compost; it must be turned every day or at least several times a week. Depending on the type of composter, you may need to turn it manually with a garden fork or shovel. That's a lot of hard work and one of the major cons of composting. It's not a perfect fertilizer. There's no argument that compost is good for the soil and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. However, most gardeners learn that compost is, at best, a supplement to regular fertilizer, and that the balance of nutrients depends on the ingredients. For example, compost based on chicken manure tends to be very high in phosphorus. Also, compost that isn't properly managed can lose a significant amount of nutrients as they are leached out by rain or dissipate into the atmosphere. It may take longer than you expect. Every time you add more material to the compost, it takes that much longer to break down and ultimately delays the finished project. Some gardeners prefer to use two bins so one can be "cooking" when the other is finished. Weather can also be a delaying factor; not much happens with compost during the winter unless you have an insulated bin, so the compost basically just sits there until spring.

Composting Advantages vs. its Disadvantages

Sure, there may be some downsides to composting, but in the greater scheme of things, the small inconvenience of remembering to scrape your plate into a compost bin instead of the garbage is more than worth it. Composting just may be worth the future of the planet.

Amy Grant

Amy Grant has been gardening for 30 years and writing for 15. A professional chef and caterer, Amy's area of expertise is culinary gardening.