In 2018, the U.S. produced nearly 300 million tons of trash, about 4.9 pounds per person. After paper products, food was the second highest category of waste, comprising about 21 percent of what we throw away and increasing the size of landfills, the source of 34 percent of methane emissions.
We waste close to 40% of our food in the U.S. It goes to waste at every stage of food production and distribution - from farmers to packers and shippers, from manufacturers to retailers to our homes.
In 2015 the USDA joined with the EPA to set a goal to cut our nation’s food waste by 50% by 2030.
How much are we responsible for in our homes?
- Food waste in our homes makes up about 39% of all food waste - about 42 billion pounds of food waste, the rest commercially.
Where does food waste go?
Generally, it ends up in a landfill where it decomposes and produces methane, which is up to 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a century. Or it is incinerated, not a good answer either.
Is there a better solution?
- Reducing food waste in your kitchen is the best personal solution, but food scraps will always remain.
- Diverting those to compost is the next best thing.
How does composting deal a blow to global warming?
- By avoiding the landfill, the composting process converts rotting garbage into a valuable soil enhancer that helps plants thrive. Farmers call it “black gold.” This results in carbon sequestration and decreases the production of methane gas. •Composting could reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills and incinerators in the U.S. by at least 30 percent.
- One estimate from the Natural Resources Defense Council finds that San Francisco’s composting laws reduced the equivalent of 90,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, the same number of emissions as about 20,000 passenger vehicles.
- When compost is returned to the soil, it adds nutrients, retains water, increases yields when growing food and stores carbon. Using compost on lawns and gardens also reduces pesticide use, reduces stormwater run-off, and returns important nutrients to the soil so more fruits, vegetables, trees, grasses and other plants can thrive. It also helps bind soil particles together and holds more water. Better soil helps support plant growth, which can help sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Stronger, nutrient-rich soil also reduces the need for fertilizer and pesticides, which are pollutants themselves and are often produced with destructive mining practices and a high carbon footprint.
What does compost consist of?
A compost pile should consist of three things: food scraps, water, and dry, woody material like yard trimmings or raked leaves. Yard trimmings are frequently referred to as “browns” and are high in carbon. Food scraps are called “greens” and are high in nitrogen. A compost pile should typically have twice as many browns as it does greens. Once those ingredients become compost and are added to soil, it helps plants thrive.
Are municipalities seeing any benefits to composting?
- Municipal composting programs are up 65 percent in the last six years. San Francisco has led the way, having made composting the city’s waste mandatory in 2009; they have since reduced the amount of trash sent to landfills by 80 percent and compost 255,500 tons of organic material each year. In Seattle it is illegal to put compostable and recyclable materials in garbage. They send 125,000 tons of food and yard waste to composting facilities each year, turning those scraps into compost for local parks and gardens. New York City is currently rolling out a mandatory composting program that will soon be effect in Brooklyn and throughout Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan. Washington, D.C. and Chicago are piloting curbside composting programs.
What about the states?
- Nine states – California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington – also are getting into composting. They have enacted laws over the past decade that divert organic waste from landfills to composting facilities, though composting requirements and opportunities for residents and businesses vary by state.
January 1, 2022, California began enacting a law requiring that municipalities set up mandatory curbside organic waste pickup and composting. Waste haulers are now diverting the organic material away from traditional landfills to facilities that will turn the biological mishmash into products such as compost, mulch and natural gas.
What about businesses?
Businesses also are producing compostable solutions. Seattle grocer PCC is making all of its deli packaging compostable by 2022, including white foam trays and clear plastic clamshells. A compostable plastic wrap made from shellfish shells that is biodegradable and antimicrobial is in the works.
And what about composting at home?
- You don’t need a yard or a compost bin. Composting can be done at your house or apartment. Find tips on getting started here, including what not to compost, how to compost with worms (and without), and what to do with biodegradable or compostable food packaging.
- There are several electric composters on the market from the Lomi to Vitamix’s FoodCycler. Treehugger tested four of them. Read their recommendations here. Or check out what Consumer Reports has to say about size, capacity, price and more here.
In addition to reducing landfill emissions, compost makes soil healthier. When layered on top of soil in a garden or on a farm, the organic matter found in compost improves unhealthy soils. It also helps bind soil particles together and holds more water. Better soil helps support plant growth, which can help sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Stronger, nutrient-rich soil also reduces the need for fertilizer and pesticides, which are pollutants themselves and are often produced with destructive mining practices and a high carbon footprint.
One estimate from the Natural Resources Defense Council finds that San Francisco’s composting laws reduced the equivalent of 90,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, the same number of emissions as about 20,000 passenger vehicles.
The following comes from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.ilsr.org), a national nonprofit organization working to strengthen local economies, and redirect waste into local recycling, composting, and reuse industries. It is reprinted here with permission.