The History Of Compost
The expression "older than dirt" certainly applies to compost. Nature has been producing compost for millions of years as part of the cycle of life and death on Earth. The first human use of animal manure, a raw form of compost, was in about 3,000 B.C. in Egypt when it was spread directly on the fields as a fertilizer. Later, manure was mixed with dirty stable straw and other refuse and allowed to sit in piles until it was needed. Rain kept the piles wet and aided the decomposition process, producing a rich compost.
The Greeks and Romans knew the value of compost to boost crop production and even used the warmth of decomposing compost to produce summer vegetables in winter. Christian monasteries kept the art of composting alive in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, and by about 1200 compost was again being used by many farmers. Shakespeare mentions it in several of his plays written in the early 1600s.
In the United States, Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were prominent landowners during the late-1700s and early-1800s. When they were not involved with affairs of state, they both spent much of their time trying innovative farming practices, including experiments with various composting methods and materials. As years of successive crops depleted the nutrients in the soil on the East Coast, the practice of composting became widespread. This trend continued until the early 1900s when it was estimated that 90% of the fertilizer used in the United States came from compost.
That all changed in 1913, when a German company began producing synthetic nitrogen compounds, including fertilizers. These new chemical fertilizers could be produced less expensively than messy animal manure compost, and the farmyard compost pile quickly became a thing of the past. By 1950, it was estimated that only 1% of the fertilizer used in the United States was derived from compost.
One notable exception to this trend was the work started in 1942 by J.I. Rodale, a noted pioneer in the development of the organic method of farming. Rodale was one of the first to see the hazards of relying on synthetic fertilizers and the benefits of using compost derived from natural sources. Composting got a short-lived boost during the environmentally conscious era of the 1960s, but it wasn't until the 1980s when it became a big business. This surge wasn't the result of a renewed awareness of the positive aspects of compost, but rather a growing concern over the negative aspects of refuse. In short, in our efforts to get rid of our refuse, we werepolluting our air, poisoning our rivers, and quite literally burying ourselves in it with our landfills.
In order to divert some of the municipal refuse away from landfills, several cities established recycling centers in the early 1970s where people could bring cans, bottles, and newspaper rather than throw them in the trash. This was followed by curbside recycling, where people could place these recyclable materials in separate containers for pickup in front of their houses. Finally, many cities added additional curbside containers for yard wastes to be composted. By 1992, almost 1,500 cities had yard waste composting facilities.
At the same time, tough new environmental laws mandated that industries could no longer simply dump their waste products onto the surrounding land or discharge them into nearby rivers. To meet these laws, many industries began their own recycling and composting programs. Environmental concerns also affected farmers, who were being blamed for the negative health effects that chemical fertilizers and pesticides had on humans and wildlife. As a result, many farmers decided to cut back or eliminate chemicals in favor of using compost.
Today, most compost is processed in large facilities designed to handle a specific type of raw material. Agricultural compost is usually produced and used on the same farm that generated the raw materials. Industrial compost may be bagged and sold to individual buyers, or the raw materials may be sold in bulk to other composting facilities. Municipal yard waste compost is usually produced in facilities operated by the city or the refuse collection company and is sold to local landscaping companies and garden centers.