Composting – The History

Composting as a recognized practice dates to at least the early Roman Empire since Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79). Traditionally, composting was to pile organic materials until the next planting season, at which time the materials would have decayed enough to be ready for use in the soil. The advantage of this method is that little working time or effort is required from the composter and it fits in naturally with agricultural practices in temperate climates. Disadvantages (from the modern perspective) are that space is used for a whole year, some nutrients might be leached due to exposure to rainfall, and disease producing organisms and insects may not be adequately controlled.

Composting was somewhat modernized beginning in the 1920s in Europe as a tool for organic farming.[1] The first industrial station for the transformation of urban organic materials into compost was set up in Wels/Austria in the year 1921.[2] The early personages most cited for propounding composting within farming are for the German-speaking world Rudolf Steiner, founder of a farming method called biodynamics, and Annie Francé-Harrar, who was appointed on behalf of the government in Mexico and supported the country 1950–1958 to set up a large humus organization in the fight against erosion and soil degradation. In the English-speaking world it was Sir Albert Howard who worked extensively in India on sustainable practices and Lady Eve Balfour who was a huge proponent of composting. Composting was imported to America by various followers of these early European movements in the form of persons such as J.I. Rodale (founder of Rodale Organic Gardening), E.E. Pfeiffer (who developed scientific practices in biodynamic farming), Paul Keene (founder of Walnut Acres in Pennsylvania), and Scott and Helen Nearing (who inspired the back-to-land movement of the 1960s). Coincidentally, some of these personages met briefly in India – all were quite influential in the U.S. from the 1960s into the 1980s.

There are many modern proponents of rapid composting that attempt to correct some of the perceived problems associated with traditional, slow composting. Many advocate that compost can be made in 2 to 3 weeks.[3] Many such short processes involve a few changes to traditional methods, including smaller, more homogenized pieces in the compost, controlling carbon to nitrogen (CN) ratio at 30 to 1 or less, and monitoring the moisture level more carefully. However, none of these parameters differ significantly from early writings of Howard and Balfour, suggesting that in fact modern composting has not made significant advances over the traditional methods that take a few months to work. For this reason and others, many modern scientists who deal with carbon transformations are sceptical that there is a “super-charged” way to get nature to make compost rapidly.[1] They also point to the fact that it is the structure of the natural molecules – such as carbohydrates, proteins, and cellulose – that really dictate the rate at which microbial-mediated transformations are possible.

Some cities such as Seattle and San Francisco require food and yard waste to be sorted for composting

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