Composting for Carbon Sequestration

Compost Bin at Community Garden in Ferndale

Compost Bin at Community Garden in Ferndale

By Catherine Haug, May 24, 2016 (photo, right, by C. Haug)

Since the dawn of agriculture – if not before – humans have returned ‘waste’ foods to the earth, to feed the earth and keep it whole. But in the late 1800s, feeding and protecting the earth was shoved into the background, and by mid 20th century was all but forgotten by modern society, especially in the US. Instead, it all went into landfills, combined with other waste – out of sight, out of mind – where it takes much much longer to break down.

Tilling the soil, which breaks up and murders the soil’s microbiome, weakening its ability to help plants thrive. The Great Dust Bowl in the 1930s may have been started by drought, but it was fueled by the tilled soils on the Great Plains.

The manufacture of chemical fertilizers (see my post Organic vs chemical fertilization for farms, gardens for more), using ‘fixed nitrogen’ originally made from petroleum to produce bombs for the war, pretty much sealed the casket of those dying soils.  Our great American carbon sink has turned into a wasteland that produces food only through the use of ag-chemicals, and that food is sub-par nutritionally.

But it’s not too late to fix the harm we’ve done. “…a single one-half-inch dusting of compost on rangeland can boost the soil’s carbon storage for at least 30 years.” (1,2) Read on for more about this.


Number one action we all can take, even if we don’t have a farm, ranch or garden: Compost your food waste. See ESP postings for more information on composting:

If you don’t have space for compost bin or container, save up your food waste and take it to a to a friend’s compost bin, or check with our local community gardens to determine if they will accept your food waste. See Nourish the Flathead (5) for a list of community gardens in the Flathead (Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Whitefish, and Bigfork/Ferndale as of this posting). I added the link (5) to our home page under ‘Links’ in the right hand column.

Perhaps one day all of our Flathead County green box sites will provide compost bins, but there are many issues that need to be resolved before that can happen. Consider taking this issue to our Flathead County Solid Waste department, requesting open discussion about community compostingContact information (4):

  • US Mail: 4098 Highway 93 North, Kalispell, MT 59901
  • email:, or
  • phone: (406) 758-5910
  • See their website (4) for more information.

Update: communication on compost bins at green box sites

May 25, 2016, I sent an email to the Solid Waste department to learn whether the county has plans for compost bins:

“I am a proponent of composting, but many people don’t have the space for a compost bin, nor the time to maintain their compost pile. Does our Flathead County Solid Waste department have any plans to  install compost bins at the green box sites? I live in Bigfork and would love to see a community compost bin installed at our new green box site. …”

Catherine Haug, Bigfork MT, 5/24/16

And promptly received the following reply from the district:

“Thanks for your email regarding the idea of composting at the green box site.  The District at this time is not interested in having a compost operation at the container sites.  The infrastructure costs and ongoing labor costs, odors and having locations for the compost to go can be problematic as well.  Maybe there is another location that this type of operation would work in the community.  Thanks for your idea on a community compost operation.”

Jim Chilton, Operations Manager of the Flathead County Solid Waste District, 5/24/16

This reply doesn’t mean they will never consider it, and we can still request public discussion about the idea. Meanwhile, one of our core team members poses a list of concerns that would have to be resolved before the idea could be implemented:

  •  Many people do not realize what you can put into a compost pile and would be dumping [inappropriate materials], rather than just the compostable matter. For example, grass clippings that had been sprayed with fertilizers/pesticides, or non-compostable trash (plastics, etc.).  
  • With it open to the public, there would be little supervision over it; I would worry about what we would end up with. Would the “guards” at the box sites  be diligent about turning piles regularly and keeping trash out of it?
  • The potential problem of the piles attracting bears, which they sometimes do, that would set some people into a tizzy.
  • Would the county want to be hauling piles off to mature, then package for individual use?   

Carbon Sequestration by Composting

In an article on SFGate, UC-Berkely bio-geochemist Whendee Silver, Ph.D.,  reported that “a single one-half-inch dusting of compost on rangeland can boost the soil’s carbon storage for at least 30 years.” (1,2) She goes on to say (2):

” … [W]e’ve been bleeding [carbon] … into the atmosphere for many, many years through plowing, overgrazing and poor agricultural practices … So anything we can do to get some of that carbon back into the soil is going to be beneficial.”

“The research showed that if compost from green waste — everything from household food scraps to dairy manure — were applied over just 5 percent of the state’s grazing lands, the soil could capture a year’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions from California’s farm and forestry industries. 

The effect is cumulative, meaning the soil keeps absorbing carbon dioxide even after just one application of compost, the researchers found. 

Carbon farming, a form of carbon sequestration, is a simple premise that involves using agricultural methods that can naturally trap carbon dioxide (CO2) in the ground (for decades, centuries or more), while also absorbing it from the air, slowing climate change. (1)

The image, below, on Carbon Farming, is from Marin Carbon Project (3). Click the image for a larger view:

Carbon Farming

Carbon Farming


  1. Mercola:
  2. SFGate article:
  3. Marin Carbon Project:
  4. Flathead County Solid Waste department:
  5. Nourish the Flathead:

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