Gaseous Emissions from the Composting Process: History
Please note this is an old version of this entry, which may differ significantly from the current revision.

Compost can be used in agricultural activities due to its various positive impacts on the physical and chemical properties of the soil, meanwhile reducing utilization of inorganic fertilizers. Composting has also negative environmental impacts, some of them of social concern. This is the case of composting atmospheric emissions, especially in the case of greenhouse gases (GHG) and certain families of volatile organic compounds (VOC). 

  • organic wastes
  • composting
  • gaseous emissions
  • mitigation strategies

1. Introduction

As a result of increasing solid wastes’ generation, the implementation of a reliable technology to deal with these wastes is considered as a pillar of sustainable development of any nation [1]. However, the selection of any technology should be compatible with the economic situation within the jurisdiction. Concurrently, the used technology has to satisfy the laws and regulations that fundamentally aim to reduce any environmental and health problems [2]. Among the different technologies used in this field is the composting process, which has been used to deal with solid wastes and mainly for the organic fraction of wastes [3][4]. This process is recognized as an environmentally friendly and cost-effective method, as organic matter is biologically degraded under aerobic conditions [5]. This biodegradation of organic matter contributes to reducing the volume of wastes and producing a stabilized and nutrient-rich final end product, “compost”, that could be used in agricultural activities due to its various positive impacts on the physical and chemical properties of the soil, meanwhile reducing utilization of inorganic fertilizers [6][7][8]. Actually, when the process-controlling parameters are well adjusted, this will lead to different advantages; thereby the process is viewed as a sustainable alternative for landfilling and other treatment options [9]. However, even though composting is a natural biochemical decomposition process, a successful composting operation that produces a valuable end product is normally associated with releasing gaseous emissions including greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere (Figure 1). The released GHGs are attributed to energy requirements for composting plants’ operation and to the biochemical reactions within the organic waste itself, which produces CO2, methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) due to the mineralization and degradation of organic matters [10][11]. According to Hao et al. [12], the majority of organic carbon is converted to CO2, whereas the methane accounts for less than 6%. Nevertheless, it should be noted that even though CO2 represents the major part of the emissions, it does not add to global warming due to the biogenic origin of carbon. On the contrary, the other emissions resulting from the process such as CH4 and N2O have a direct impact on the global warming, while NH3, Sulphur compounds, and most of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emissions cause undesirable and other odor nuisances [9][13][14].
Figure 1. Monitoring exhaust gases from a composting process. * H2S is only significantly observed when anaerobic conditions prevail in the composting process. ** VOCs: Volatile Organic Compounds, a wide group including families such as alcohols, aldehydes, alkanes, aromatic hydrocarbons, carboxylic acids, ketones, nitrogen compounds, phenols, sulphur compounds, and terpenes, among others.

2. Gas Emissions from Composting Process

As a result of microbial activities and putrefaction, gaseous emissions from organic wastes are produced [10]. These emissions, which include CO2, CH4, N2O, Sulphur compounds, and many other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as shown in Table 1, have been detected during the different phases of the waste management [9][15].
Table 1. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) detected in the composting of different organic wastes.


Main VOC Family

Other VOCs


Poultry litter

Alkanes and alkylated benzenes

Aldehydes, terpenes, and ketones


Chicken manure and biochar

Ketones, phenols, and organic acids

Aliphatic, aromatic, and terpenes


Municipal solid waste

Alkylated benzenes, alcohols, and alkanes



Wastewater sludge


Furans and esters


Digested wastewater sludge


Alcohols and Ketones


Swine carcass

Sulphur compounds



Municipal solid waste


Alcohols, volatile fatty acids, and aromatic compounds


Livestock and Poultry Manure

Sulfur compounds, aliphatic hydrocarbons, aromatic hydrocarbons

Chlorinated organic compounds


Municipal solid waste digestate

Terpenes and oxygenated compounds

Sulphur compounds and methanethiol


Green waste


Alkenes, aliphatic alkanes, aromatic hydrocarbons, ketones, aldehydes, furans, and esters


Sewage sludge

Isovaleraldehyde, butyric acid, sulphur compounds, and pinene

Indole, skatole, and phenol


3. Factors Affecting the Emissions’ Rates

During the initial stages of the composting process, both nitrogen and sulfur are in the organic form [25]. As the process proceeds forward, the mineralization of the organic nitrogen leads to the formation of ammonia (NH3), which could react with hydrogen ions to form ammonium (NH4+). The NH4+-to-NH3 equilibrium is highly affected by the dominant conditions within the composting mixture, mainly the pH value and temperature [26][27][28]. Thermophilic temperatures and alkaline conditions enhance the loss of nitrogen as ammonia. Additionally, ammonia-oxidizing bacteria or archaea and nitrite-oxidizing bacteria convert part of the nitrogen to nitrate through the nitrification process. This nitrate is used by the microbial community, but it would be converted to N2O under certain conditions including denitrifications’ process, especially under insufficient oxygen levels [26]. Furthermore, the low levels of oxygen lead to the formation of some anaerobic zones within the compositing mixture. These zones play a major role in the sulfur transformation and the production of H2S through the action of Sulfate-reducing bacteria (anaerobic) during the degradation of the organic matter [29]. Additionally, during the formation of H2S, other reduced sulfur compounds will also be produced, such as MeSH, Me2S, Me2SS, and others [26].

4. Mitigation Strategies

4.1. Providing Adequate Bulking Agent

The addition of some materials to organic wastes has proven its efficiency in improving air convection within the composting mixture, thereby reducing the amount of gases’ emissions such as CH4 and N2O from composting, since most of the degraded carbon would be released as CO2 [11][30][31]. For instance, sawdust and straw for dairy manure composting resulted in an effective mitigation for CH4 and NH3 with ME values of 66.3% and 44.0%, but they may increase CO2 emission [12][32]. Additionally, Li et al. [33] demonstrated that ammonia emission may well be mitigated by adding a mix of sucrose and straw powder at the start stage of a composting process [34]. Indeed, these materials facilitate the absorption and microbial assimilation of ammonium, which decreases NH3 emissions [9][35][34].

4.2. Introducing Microorganism for Promoting Nitrification Process and Reducing NH3 Emissions

This approach stands on the mineralization of organic nitrogen into ammonium nitrogen, which could be transformed into nitrate by nitrification and eventually to N2 by denitrification, or the ammonium could even be also a fixed microbial protein under the action of fungi [35][31][36][37][38][39]. It was found that the introduction of mature compost rich in nitrifying microorganism to food wastes’ composting was able to reduce NH3 volatilization by 36% [40]. Nevertheless, and despite the capability of this approach in reducing NH3 emission, regulating the denitrification process to reduce N2 and N2O still represents a challenge for its successful application [5][39]. Additionally, the introduction of some exogenous microbial communities including CC-E (a complex bacterial community in which Alcaligenes faecalis is the main advantageous strain) and EM (Effective Microorganisms, a kind of commercial microbiological agent) for dairy manure composting reduced the potential for NH3 emissions, with ME of 9.15% [40][41].

4.3. Vermicomposting

This composting approach demonstrated promising results in reducing the amounts of gaseous emissions including nitrous oxide, CH4, NH3, and others [34][42]. The decrease in emissions’ rates is attributed to the reduction of anaerobic denitrification, due to the burrowing action of the earthworms [43]. Furthermore, the large specific surface area and loose texture in vermicomposting contribute to creating a strong adsorption capacity and, at last, reducing production of different emissions, among them the NH3, where vermicomposting was able to mitigate NH3 emission with a ME median value of 33.5% [44][35][45]. The loss of texture improves the aerobic conditions and,, therefore, the biodegradation of the organic matter as a consequence. In this regard, it was noticed that CO2 emissions were increased, whereas a decrease in ammonia emissions and nitrous oxide was noticed as well as a sink of methane in treatments with earthworms [46][47]. Similar results were obtained by Chan et al. [45] and Velasco-Velasco et al. [48]. Combining pre-composting and vermicomposting with additions of reed straw and zeolite resulted also in a significant reduction of ammonia, nitrous oxide, and methane during composting of duck manure [34][48].

4.4. Using Different Additives

The addition of phosphogypsum results in decreasing the pH of the composting mixture. The high sulphide concentrations and acidic conditions due to the use of phosphogypsum could inhibit methanogenesis and the action of N2O reductase, thus reducing CH4 and N2O emissions [12][35][49][50]. Additionally, adjustment of pH has been practiced to reduce the emissions of NH3. About 55.7% of NH3 emissions was decreased due to the reduction in volatilization when phosphogypsum was applied [51]. Additionally, the addition of both K2HPO4/MgSO4 and KH2PO4/MgSO4 as a pH buffer agent’s additive contributed to reducing NH3 emissions [36]. However, health risks due to high hydrogen sulphide concentrations have to be considered when this mitigation method is to be used [35][52]. Manure acidification significantly (up to 93%) decreased the emissions during storage and composting processes [53][54]. Excessive acidification (pH = 5), on the other hand, increased N2O emissions (18.6%) during composting. When manure was acidified to pH of 6, N2O (17.6%) and CH4 (20%) emissions, as well as GHG emissions, represented as global warming potential (GWP) (9.6%) were reduced during composting [55]. The addition of calcium magnesium phosphate fertilizer (CaMgP) also demonstrated its effectiveness in reducing emissions’ rates during the composting process [56]. In this regard, Zhang et al. [57] reported that CaMgP could reduce H2S emissions by 65%. Similar results were obtained when the effect of calcium magnesium phosphate fertilizer (CaMgP), biochar, and spent mushroom substrate (SMS) additives was investigated on compost maturity and gaseous emissions during pig manure composting. Ammonia (NH3), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), dimethyl sulfide (Me2S), and dimethyl disulfide (Me2SS) emissions could all be reduced using the three additives. However, when it came to reducing NH3 emissions, the effect of adding CaMgP was the most noticeable (42.90%). CaMgP to H2S emission reduction was similar to SMS, which was 34.91% and 32.88%, respectively. The three additives had obvious emission reduction effects on Me2S and Me2SS, all of which were greater than 50%. Adding SMS, on the other hand, reduced N2O emissions by 37.08% [58].
Struvite could also be used to reduce emissions as struvite crystallization enhances nitrogen (ammonium) conservation during composting, which thereby reduces NH3 emissions [59][60]. However, this approach increases the salinity of the produced compost [5][33], but this limitation could be mitigated by using other additives like lime or zeolite [61][62]. In this regard, the addition of 10% of zeolite decreased the salinity to 2.8 mS cm−1 and improved compost maturity; meanwhile, about 18% of NH3 loss was achieved [62].

4.5. Compressing and Covering

This approach depends on reducing the amount of O2 supplied to the mixture, thus lowering the microbial activity and ammonization, which reduce CO2 and NH3 emissions during the composting process [37][63]. Additionally, covering reduces gaseous diffusion into the air and enhances the absorption of some gas emissions. Analysis revealed that this approach could reach a mitigation efficiency of 10.1% for CO2 and 24.3% for NH3 emission. However, it should be noted that this approach would increase the anaerobic conditions that ultimately promote the production of CH4 [44][35][43][46]. Different materials are used as a cover for composting mixture. These materials include sawdust, plastic, soil, paper waste, woodchip, wheat straw, peat, and zeolite, among others. Sawdust or straw has a good performance in absorption of CO2 and NH3, whereas plastic cover renders the gas exchange, which reduces the dissipation of the emissions [44][35][46][64][65]. Different forms of zeolite were used as a cover or even mixed with the composting mixture and proved higher efficiency in reducing emission compared to other cover materials with almost no effect on the microbial activity [5][57][40][66][67]. This material contributes to increasing the pH and initial NH3/NH4+ concentration, which reduces NH3 losses such that a reduction of 44–60% of the NH3 was obtained during poultry manure composting [68]. Similar results were observed by Madrini et al. [66] in composting of leftover food. It should be noted that the type of zeolite and its percentage within the mixture affects the reduction rate of emissions [5][67].

4.6. Biofiltration

Biofilters, which depend on adsorption or biodegradation of pollutants, have proven their relative efficiency in reducing emissions from the composting process, especially with NH3, where almost about 90% of this gas was reduced [35][69]. Actually, ammonia emissions in a composting process of organic fraction of municipal solid wastes varied between 18 to 150 g NH3·Mg1 waste [70], while ammonia concentrations up to 700 mg NH3·m3 have been reported in exhaust gases from sludge composting [4]. As documented by Pagans et al. [71], the biofilter achieved a global ammonia removal efficiency of 95.9% at a loading rate range of 846–67100 mg NH3·m3 biofilter·h1, whereas higher removal rates were seen when the waste gas had high NH3 concentrations (more than 2000 mg NH3·m3). However, this approach is more feasible compared to other technologies when it is used in closed systems with collection equipment [44]. Furthermore, the complexity and uncertainty measures in operating the system, as well as understanding the biodegradation process, are critical for optimal performance. [9]. Concerning CH4, CO2, and N2O emissions, the literature is lacking information about the efficiency of biofilter for treatment of these emissions [35].

4.7. Addition of Biochar

Biochar as an additive has been used in different research to mitigate the emissions resulting from composting processes [33][36][58][72][73]. This additive has been used as a sole material or mixed with other additives [74]. Noteworthy, under almost all studied conditions, promising results were obtained, despite the lack of clarity regarding its mechanism on promoting nitrogen assimilation and nitrification [5][31][38][75]. The change in nitrogen functional groups on the biochar surface was evidence for adsorption and microbial transformation of NH3/NH4+ [76]. As indicated in several works, the biochar promoted microbial activity during the composting process, as it increases the nitrogen source and decreases toxicity of free NH3 on the microbial activity [77]; hence, a high respiration rate as well as a fast decomposition of organic matter were recorded [75][77][78]. Additionally, this was associated with an increase in the temperature and NO3 concentration along with a decrease in the pH and NH4+ concentrations [71][73]. Emissions of NH3 and nitrogen losses were reduced by 64% and 52%, respectively, when biochar was mixed with poultry litters [37]. Similar results were observed when cornstalk biochar was used where cumulative NH3 emissions were reduced by 24.8% [79]. The presence of the biochar boosted the activity of nitrifiers due to its high sorption capacity for gases and the high cation exchange capacity. According to Zhou et al. [80], adding modified biochar could significantly reduce NH3 emissions by increasing the number of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB), inhibiting urease activity, and decreasing the abundance of nitrogen functional genes such as narG and nirS, facilitating the conversion of NH+4-N into NO3-N and decreasing nitrogen loss. These conditions were responsible for promoting N2O reduction up to 59.8% [81]. The effects of bamboo charcoal (BC) and bamboo vinegar (BV) on lowering NH3 and N2O emissions during aerobic composting (Wheat straw and pig manure) revealed that both BC and BV enhanced nitrogen conversion and compost quality, with the combination BC + BV treatment achieving the greatest results. The BC, BV, and BC + BV treatments decreased NH3 emissions by 14.35%, 17.90%, and 29.83%, respectively, and the N2O emissions by 44.83%, 55.96%, and 74.53%. BC and BV reduced the NH3 and N2O emissions during composting [82]. Similarly, Biochar (BC) and bean dregs’ (BD) effects on nitrifiers and denitrifiers, as well as contributions to NH3 and N2O emissions, were investigated by Yang et al. [83]. When comparing the BD + BC treatment to the BD treatment, the highest value of NH3 and N2O emission was reduced by 32.92% and 46.61%, respectively. The number and structure of nitrogen functional genes were shown to be closely related to the synthesis of NH3 and N2O in the study. In this case, it was discovered that BD + BC enhanced the abundance of the AOB amoA gene, resulting in a reduction in NH3 emission. The presence of nirS was more closely linked to the presence of N2O. When compared to the BD treatment, the abundance of nirS in the BD + BC treatment was reduced by 18.93%, lowering N2O emissions after composting. Furthermore, the nosZ-type gene was the most functional denitrification bacterial community to influence N2O emissions. [83]. Noteworthy, when biochar is to be used, it is important to keep in mind that its characteristics have a major role on its efficiency.

5. Conclusions

Composting is a favorable technology to treat organic waste, but gaseous emissions are an issue of major concern for its development. Among them, GHG emissions are an important problem as they are responsible for the global warming effect. Carbon dioxide is not often considered, as it is considered biogenic. However, methane and nitrous oxide, related to anaerobic and anoxic conditions, must be accounted for when analyzing any composting process. Another important point is the release in the form of gaseous emissions of a vast family of compounds such as VOCs. These gases can be harmful, possess negative impacts, and, especially, are responsible for unpleasant odors. The origin of these gases is double (they can come from the substrate or be biologically or even chemically formed during the process) and they need the development of mitigation strategies based on relatively consolidated technologies (such as biofiltration) or new approaches, such as the use of materials as biochar. However, there is still a lack of reliable and full-scale data from composting emissions to have consistent mitigation strategies.

This entry is adapted from the peer-reviewed paper 10.3390/pr9101844


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