Week 3: Why Should We Care About Compost?

By Lindsay Holsen, RTC/CEC intern

Lindsay Holsen is our CEC/RTC summer intern, visiting us from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI. In addition to community engagement and research translation work, Lindsay is helping Duke doctoral student Tess Leuthner, a trainee in Dr. Joel Meyer’s lab, with a research project on soil nematodes and contaminated soil. 


In a strange way, humans resemble compost piles.


We eat foods that combine adequate amounts of nutrients to make a meal and give us energy, but we all have different consumption habits, just like compost piles differ by location and available inputs. A human, like a good compost pile, also contains incredible microbial communities that process the things we eat. Our gut microbes work much like a compost pile does, by interacting with temperature and pH to create dynamic and sensitive cellular interactions in the human body.


These microbial communities that we have in common with compost piles are extremely powerful, and they may even have the potential to create a healthier, more sustainable world.


That potential is what brought together organizations, including the Duke University Superfund Research Center Research Translation Core and Community Engagement Core, to the annual meeting of the North Carolina Composting Council (NCCC) in June 2017. The NCCC is working to reduce the amount of food waste sent to landfills and to utilize the incredible potential of food and other municipal waste to create nutrient-rich soil.   The organizations involved in the NCCC, including its umbrella organization, the United States Composting Council (USCC), provide information to make composting more accessible, develop standards for composting and safety, and address challenges to sustainable interactions between compost operations facilities and the average consumer.


Why does compost interest the Superfund Research Center?


  • Compost material can help to remediate certain types of contamination including VOCs, PAHs (Semple, 2001), and certain pesticides (Cole, 1995)
  • Compost decreases plant pathogens and induces plant resistance to disease (Hoornweg 1999)
  • Composting reduces runoff and pollution of groundwater and decreases the need for synthetic fertilizers (Pit,1999)
  • Composting reduces food waste sent to landfills which in turn reduces methane gas production, transportation and energy costs (EPA, 2017): “Uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions” (Gunders, 2012)


The North Carolina Composting Council meeting was a great opportunity for the Community Engagement and Research Translation Core of the Duke University Superfund Research Center to meet with staff from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) and the Soil Health Institute. The CEC hopes to be able to provide community garden managers and participants with accurate information about potential contaminants and remediation options that will be beneficial to the health of community gardens and gardeners across the state. That means making connections with topical experts and resources that are useful for the community gardens we work with. Ultimately, we also aim to work with researchers on Project 5 to apply bio- and phytoremediation techniques at gardens that can clean up contaminated soils.


Another component of the community gardens project is testing a type of heavy metal biomarker for soil with a nematode in the lab (see my previous blog post on this topic for more details).  While we were in the area for the NC Composting Council meeting, we also visited a few local community gardens to collect samples and bring them back to the lab. Stay tuned for more results on this aspect of the project, coming later this summer!


Composting, among other techniques, may provide a valuable tool for soil remediation given the limited economic means of small community gardens that face challenges of industrial contamination or questionable land use and management history. Understanding whether contaminants may be present in garden inputs like compost is another aspect of the research project. We look forward to continuing to connect with gardens and the composting community as we move forward in our work.



For more information:

North Carolina Composting Council website: http://carolinacompost.com/

US Composting Council website: http://compostingcouncil.org/




Cole, M. A., Liu, Z., & Liu, X. (1995). Remediation of pesticide contaminated soil by planting and compost addition. Compost Science & Utilization3(4), 20-30.

Composting At Home. (2017, March 20). Retrieved July 11, 2017, from https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home

Gunders, D. (2012). Wasted: How America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill. Natural Resources Defense Council, 1-26.

Haug, R. T. (1993). The practical handbook of compost engineering. CRC Press.

Hoornweg, D., Thomas, L., & Otten, L. (1999). Composting and its applicability in developing countries. World Bank working paper series8.

Pit, R., Lantrip, J., Harrison, R., Henry, C. L., & Xue, D. (1999). Infiltration through disturbed urban soils and compost-amended soil effects on runoff quality and quantity. National Risk Management Research Laboratory.

Semple, K. T., Reid, B. J., & Fermor, T. R. (2001). Impact of composting strategies on the treatment of soils contaminated with organic pollutants. Environmental pollution112(2), 269-283.