When we think of composting, we tend to think of enormous dumpsters full of everything you didn’t eat for dinner that day, mixing together into an earthy, smelly, nasty concoction that seems to have a life of its own. But at its most basic level, composting is simply the deconstruction of any organic material. And it’s probably already happening, whether you realize it or not, in your kitchen’s plastic-lined garbage bin.

In honor of Earth Day, consider this: In a study on the efficiency of household composting, researchers had a series of households compost for an entire year and tracked the waste they avoided. They found that, on average, composting saved 277 pounds of waste per person per year. Those scraps would otherwise have gone to a landfill or other garbage treatment facility. The results of the study, the researchers say, show that organic waste that would normally be placed in the garbage can be reduced by more than 80 percent.

But if organic matter is always going to decompose, why does it matter if it does so above ground or under the cover of a landfill? When food decomposes in a landfill, it does so underground. That means that it doesn’t have any access to oxygen and undergoes a process called anaerobic decomposition. This releases methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. When organic matter decomposes above ground (in compost), it has access to oxygen and thus undergoes aerobic decomposition, which doesn’t generate methane.

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