Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Why I Like To Compost, and Why Noah Did Too

I have to admit– I like to compost. I’ve been doing so since my mom taught me about it as a kid. There’s something earthy about seeing my food peelings become soil that connects me to the circular nature of life. Today I ate an apple. Now what should I do with the core? I can think of several choices.

Photo from The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

The first option would be to throw it in the garbage. Then a truck is going to come, take it to a garbage dump, and a tractor will compact it. Most of the garbage there will last for thousands of years undecomposed. Meanwhile, the garbage is going to release methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas, and will contribute to climate change.

The second option would be throw the core in the garbage, at which point a truck will come, and take it to a plant that burns garbage. This is known as an energy from waste facility. Instead of filling garbage dumps with garbage, the garbage is transformed by burning into something that people use, electricity. In England, there has been a 6.5% increase in trash incineration, accounting for 10.8 million tons of garbage burned. This very complicated process releases some emissions into the atmosphere.

The third option would be to put the apple core in a municipal composting bin. The municipality will take that compost by truck to an industrial facility, which turns compost into soil that can be used in agriculture . Of course this can only happen if municipal composting exists where we live. In Jerusalem it does not.

Option four is the most sustainable of all—to drop this apple core in the local compost at a community garden or even right outside my home. An advantage of composting locally is that no truck has to come take away the organic waste. Also, if you compost with dry matter and you turn your compost, the decomposition process won’t release methane, and therefore won’t contribute to climate change.

Photo from The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Genesis 6:16 states that God commanded Noah to build the Ark with three levels. The Talmud explains why. Humans were to be on the top deck, the animals in the middle deck, and their manure stored at the bottom. Why store the manure? After all, it could have just been thrown into the sea! As farmers in the Midwestern United States learned after the 2019 floods, “Flooding drains nutrients out of the soil that are necessary for plant growth as well as reducing oxygen needed for plant roots to breathe and gather water and nutrients,” according to researchers from Colorado State University

The Bible also teaches that one of the first things Noah did after leaving the ark was plant a vineyard. So perhaps it was not just the vine branches that Noah took out of the Ark after the floodwater receded, but also the wisely-accumulated manure stored on the bottom level of the vessel. This may be the first Biblical reference to organic fertilizer. (See more in the recently published Eco Bible: Volume 1: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus, co-authored by Rabbi Leo Dee and me, and published by The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development.)

Photo from The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

The next time you eat a fresh apple, or other foods, think about what you could do with the waste other than just having someone else truck it away. The idea of garbage and waste is of something external to us. We don’t want to deal with the waste we produce, so we send it away from us. Yet as I wrote in a previous blog post on Jerusalem and waste, garbage has a life as well, and doesn’t end when we throw it away.

If houses of worship start composting, that will have a big ripple effect. Does your house of worship serve as a positive example of mindful resource use, especially in regards to composting its organic waste? Have you ever heard your clergy member speak out about how we produce so much garbage? Is the holy city of Jerusalem living up to its potential for cleanliness based on the enlightened consumption of its residents?

Garbage is not a new phenomenon, but the volume of trash that we produce each day is. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov told a story of one person creating a mountain of garbage. When he wrote this, 200 years ago, it may have been an absurdity. In our times it is very plausible to see that a person in consumer society can, in their lifetime, create a mountain of trash. The Onion parodies such a lifestyle in its poignant article, “Man’s Garbage To Have Much More Significant Effect On Planet Than He Will.”

God did not create the earth in order for us to make it a wasteland, desolate, or a garbage dump. No, God created the earth in order for it to teem with life, and for there to be healthy settlement of people and thriving ecosystems of plants, animals, and sea life. As the Prophet Isaiah wrote (48:18), “For so said the Lord, the Creator of heaven, Who is God, Who formed the earth and made it, He established it; He did not create it for a waste, He formed it to be inhabited, ‘I am the Lord and there is no other.’ “

Photo from The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Compost is about inter-connection with food, soil, and life. The peelings from fruits and vegetables are of value, since they can decompose and make soil that we can use to grow more food. Composting is also a practical way to reduce our overall personal waste stream. Consider how much garbage you produce each week, and try to reduce it by composting.  Let’s leave our children and the next generations with a thriving and sustainable planet.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs the international Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD), including its Jewish Eco Seminars branch. Yonatan is coauthor of the bestselling book Eco Bible, published by ICSD, which shines new light on how the Hebrew Bible and great religious thinkers have urged human care and stewardship of nature for thousands of years as a central message of spiritual wisdom. He has spoken internationally on religion and the environment, including at the UN Environment Assembly, the Fez Climate Conscience Summit, the Parliament of World Religions, and the Pontifical Urban University. He co-organized twelve interfaith environmental conferences in Jerusalem, New York City, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. ICSD reveals the connection between religion and ecology and mobilizes faith communities to act. Yonatan is a member of the United Nations Environment Program's Faith-based Advisory Council, and of the Pontifical Universities' Alliance for Laudato Si' Advisory Council. As part of ICSD's Faith Inspired Renewable Energy Project in Africa, he has been involved in facilitating the development of a commercial scale solar field on church lands in Africa. Yonatan is lead author and general editor of two other books on Jewish environmental ethics including Uplifting People and Planet: 18 Essential Jewish Teachings on the Environment. Yonatan also co-authored three ICSD reports on faith and ecology courses in seminary education in Israel, North America, and Rome. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He was a Dorot Fellow, PresenTense Fellow, and Haas Koshland Award recipient. He lives with his wife, Shana, and their two children in Jerusalem. He enjoys hiking and being in nature.
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