Molly Beauchemin

Composting: Good For Your Garden, Bad For Our Landfills

Composting is often described as nature’s way of “recycling” organic matter like food waste into an extremely useful humus-like substance that can be used to enrich soil without artificial chemicals. The process is as easy as it is efficient, with millions of micro-organisms including bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes breaking down waste in the presence of oxygen.

Still, considering how easy and common composting is amongst home gardeners, very few Americans put it into practice, and our nation’s mounting food waste problem is causing major issues at global landfills. Most Americans assume that if they don’t compost their food waste themselves, it will degrade in a landfill without causing much harm to the environment. Reports, however, suggest that this is not true. According to a brief filed in CBS News:

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Food that goes out with the trash is usually trapped in plastic bags and, often, also in packaging or take-out containers that don’t let light or air in to finish the natural breakdown. What would normally be organic matter that breaks down quickly becomes artificially preserved in these dark catacombs of containers, sometimes for decades.

The report continues:

Most food waste comes from homes and food-based businesses like restaurants and grocers. Part of the problem is that many people aren’t sure if their food is still fresh or get rid of it when it reaches its sell-by date, even though it would still be safe to eat.

To address environmental concerns about food piling up in landfills, several municipalities including Seattle, San Francisco, New York City, and Massachusetts have implemented composting programs asking businesses and residents to put food waste in separate bins. Some college cafeterias and landfills themselves are working to sort compostable materials from the rest of the trash, as well. But the most recent statistics from the EPA, through 2013, show that still, only five percent of food waste is composted.

Keeping food compost separated from the main trash haul has two big advantages: reducing the waste pile-up in already overburdened landfills and adding a secondary source of funding to the local economy, who ultimately benefit from local compost production.

There are two advantages to composting beyond the benefits it gives to gardeners: first, it reduces waste pile up in our already-overfilled trash facilities, and second, it adds value to the end product, as some companies have started selling their “recycled” food waste to farmers and other growers as a chemical-free alternative to fertilizer.

Food waste contributes to methane in landfills, and landfills account for more than 20 percent of methane emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA. Methane, in turn, contributes to global warming.

Food that is purposefully composted in bio-reactors (cylinder-shaped machines that look like silos and decompose food waste at high speed) produces two energy products that can actually make money for cities. According to the report,

Bioreactors capture the methane and other bio-gas that’s emitted by the decomposing food, which can be used as a power supply. The final product of the compost is a fertilizer that is often sold back to cities to help maintain their public green spaces.

Non-profit organizations like City Harvest in New York City also help to limit food waste by reclaiming discarded food from stores and restaurants and using it to feed the hungry. City Harvest has been in practice for 30 years now, and they claim to rescue at least 136,000 pounds of food each day, which feeds more than 1.4 million New Yorkers each year.

Still, not everyone is able to repurpose or use all of their groceries before they spoil, so composting remains a valuable alternative to sending this waste to a landfill. Most gardeners find that composting adds a rich, DIY aspect to their gardening while making them more conscious about how much food they are wasting to begin with– a discovery that is ultimately better for our wallets and our world.

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