"Still life on composter" by allispossible.org.uk is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Let’s Change The Food Waste We Send To Landfills & Reduce Methane Emissions

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In the US, food is the single most common material sent to landfills, comprising 24.1% of municipal solid waste. When food and other organic materials decompose in a landfill where anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions are present, bacteria break down the materials and generate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Municipal solid waste landfills are the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the US, accounting for approximately 14% of methane emissions in 2021.

Wasted food is responsible for 58% of landfill methane emissions. Composting is an easy way for households and food-oriented businesses to significantly reduce methane emissions from landfills — and composting has a whole lot of other side benefits, too.

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Why do we want to keep food out of landfills? Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is emitted from landfills, resulting from the decaying of organic waste over time under anaerobic conditions. Municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions from human activities in the United States. Food waste comprises about 24% of municipal solid waste disposed of in landfills. Due to its quick decay rate, food waste in landfills is contributing to more methane emissions than any other landfilled materials. An estimated 58% of the fugitive methane emissions (i.e., those released to the atmosphere) from municipal solid waste landfills are from landfilled food waste.

Should the nutrients in food waste go somewhere other than landfills? When we send food and other organic materials to landfills or combustion facilities, we throw away the valuable nutrients and carbon contained in those materials. By composting our food scraps and yard trimmings and using the compost produced, we can return those nutrients and carbon to the soil to improve soil quality, support plant growth, and build resilience in our local ecosystems and communities — composting is a fundamentally local process. Organic materials are typically collected and processed into compost near where they are generated, often in the same county, city, or even neighborhood.

Why should we compost? According to the US EPA, compost enriches and builds healthy soil. It adds organic matter to the soil and increases the nutrient content and biodiversity of microbes in soil. By composting — whether with an indoor composter or a yard compost pile — we conserve and reduce water use by helping soils retain moisture, and such water-retaining soils help prevent soil erosion by reducing soil compaction and runoff. Whenever we can, we should eliminate reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and composting naturally improves plant growth and promotes higher yields of agricultural crops, anyway. Better, regenerated soil means improved water quality through filtering stormwater and reducing nutrient and sediment runoff. Composting can even help to remediate soils that have been depleted by overuse or contain contaminants.

How does composting assist with climate adaptation and resilience? Composting improves a community’s ability to adapt to adverse climate impacts by helping soil absorb water and prevent runoff of pollutants during floods. It also helps soil hold more water for longer by mitigating the effects of drought. It sequesters carbon in the soil, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and strengthens sustainable, local food production by using locally generated food scraps and other organic materials to create a valuable soil amendment that supports plant growth.

What’s the legal and regulatory landscape like around composting? Composting is a growing industry, with new community based operations popping up at urban farms and gardens, schools, community centers, restaurants, parks, and other locations nationwide. However, the legal and regulatory landscape for making compost is more complex than most small-scale composters are aware, according to the Sustainable Economies Law Center. They note that every year a growing number of state bills and local ordinances are introduced that mention composting. Many will have little impact on community composters, but some do, so it’s important to track such legislation and give input in proceedings. In some cases, community composters may want to spearhead legislation to proactively address their needs. Ballot initiatives are laws that are voted on by the general public. If passed, they operate just like a law passed by a legislative body.

What are some US states currently doing to ease composting? Many US cities and states are currently developing landfill diversion plans, meaning that compost policy is being shaped right here and now. California is furthest along, as, since 2022, the state has required grocery stores to donate, not throw away, the maximum amount of edible food that would otherwise be disposed, or face fines. This year large California restaurants, hotels, and hospital cafeterias also came under the law, and the legislation also requires every city and county to reduce the volume of organic waste that goes into landfills by 75% by 2025, compared with 2014 levels. That means building more composting facilities or putting in machines that create biogas from organic waste. Washington State requires grocery stores to donate still-safe-to-eat food. Vermont requires its residents to compost food. Maryland offers farmers a tax credit if they donate edible food. Massachusetts limits how much food businesses can send to landfills. New York State requires large food businesses to donate excess edible food and recycle remaining scraps if they are within 25 miles of a composting facility or anaerobic digester.

What is the US federal government doing about food waste? The Biden-Harris administration is looking at compost as well as other means to reduce food waste and its by-product of methane. As reported by the New York Times, the administration says it will fund research into technologies that could extend the shelf life of food, like new seed varieties and better packaging. The government will also invest in research to measure the effectiveness of different consumer messages to encourage households to reduce food waste and help students learn food waste prevention tips, including in school cafeterias, which can be big sources of food waste. The Department of Agriculture says it’s also working with farmers, crop insurance agents, and others to reduce on-farm food loss.

What do other countries do about food waste? For more than 20 years, South Korea has prohibited food or food scraps from going into trash bins. Instead, food waste is used to create compost, animal feed, or biogas. France has a mandatory composting law, which means municipalities must provide residents ways to divert organic waste from landfills — in 2016, France became the first country to require supermarkets to donate still-safe food.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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