I’ve been talking about waste, recycling, and composting with my students this week. Every year when I cover this topic I am shocked at the numbers, this year is no different. According to the EPA we collectively generate over 260 million tons of waste every year in the United States. Food waste is 16% of that total and only 0.8% is composted.
Mini-science lesson: When food waste is composted properly it is turned over frequently to provide aeration to bacteria which need oxygen to use the food waste as their own food source. This process creates carbon dioxide (just like we do when we “burn” our food) and fertile soil. When food waste is sent to a landfill it decomposes in a very low oxygen environment (there’s no turning over of a garbage dump). The bacteria that function in a low oxygen environment produce methane instead of carbon dioxide. On a short time scale (20 years), methane traps approximately 85 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (EPA) and on a longer time scale (100 years) methane traps approximately 32 times more heat than carbon dioxide (EPA).
I moved into my house in the summer of 2017. For the previous decade I had just been throwing my food waste into the wooded area behind my condo building, usually early morning before my neighbors were up and able to complain about it (we had lots of wildlife that we were encourage not to feed, so I had to be covert). Without food waste and with recycling lots of things, we ended up throwing one small bag of garbage out every month instead of a bag every week. It was great. When we moved to the house, I wanted to start composting but was a bit intimidated by the work to actually do it right (building a compost bin, turning it over frequently, getting the right balance of materials, etc) and I was already overwhelmed by the move itself, all the things that needed doing around the house, and yard upkeep. I definitely did not want to just throw food waste in a corner of my yard and I’m not a gardener, so compost is not something that I need in my life. Imagine how excited I was to find out that we had inherited participation in a curbside composting pick-up trial our town was running. I was thrilled to start “legit” composting with the town.
This fall the trial ended but service continued seamlessly with a private company. Now we have to pay to compost (but it works out to less than $2 per week) but they take more stuff, like pizza boxes, tissues, hair/pet fur, etc that you can’t recycle and would normally go in the trash. So now, between composting and recycling, we generate a small “kitchen” bag of waste every 3-ish months.
OK. Refer to the mini-science lesson above. Landfills create lots of methane, which traps way more heat than carbon dioxide. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of stuff you send to a landfill will help to reduce methane emissions. Composting is a huge part of that because it makes up a significant percent of waste in landfills. Project Drawdown has identified food waste reduction as one of the top 5 things to work on (along with plant-based diets!) to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This puts reducing food waste ahead of solar and other renewable energy sources as solutions.
Check out if your town/city has curbside composting or a town drop-off site. If you live in the Boston Metro area, check to see if Black Earth Compost picks up in your town, if it doesn’t, approach your town sustainability coordinator or waste management division and encourage them to check it out. Composting actually saves towns money. Sending things to a landfill is much more expensive than composting, which can actually make money because people will pay for compost for their gardens. Like I’ve said before, motivation is often linked to money, which I’m ok with if it encourages people to do the right thing for the environment.