Why Composting Is Crucial

If you celebrated Thanksgiving, I hope you had a happy one. Ideally you don’t need to get rid of any leftovers. But if you do, I hope you compost them, and take part in what is — I promise — a beautiful, regenerative process. 

Last week I looked at the issue of avoiding food waste in the first place. This week, I’ll dive into why throwing compostable materials into landfills is actually really harmful. (Speaking of diving in, I used to dive into my dad’s leaf compost pile when I was little, so I was clearly obsessed from early on.)

Why should you care?

It’s easy to understand why throwing a glass bottle into a landfill is bad, but many people don’t understand why throwing food into a landfill is harmful. Doesn’t it just compost slowly? No, it doesn’t. 

Organic material needs the right mixture of oxygen, heat and microbes in order to become compost. That magical combination isn’t present in a landfill, so instead the food waste decomposes and produces methane, which is up to 34 times more damaging than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, 25% of the manmade global warming we're experiencing is caused by methane emissions, and the EPA says landfills are the third largest source of methane in the US.

The composting process converts organic material into nutrient-rich fertilizer and captures carbon from the atmosphere, which helps reverse the damage from greenhouse gas emissions. The end result, often called black gold, is a wonderful alternative to chemical fertilizers that helps trees and plants to prosper and sequester more carbon. And all of this is done without emitting the harmful methane. 

Magical, right?

How can change happen?

I get excited about composting because it’s a straightforward way for everyone to have an impact without making a huge sacrifice. You may be wondering, “Can keeping my food waste out of a landfill really make a difference?” 

The answer, like many things involving the climate crisis, is that large-scale change starts with individual action. According to the Composting Council, yard and food waste make up, on average, 25% to 50% of a household’s weekly trash output. So if you reduce your garbage by that amount, you’re reducing the amount of fuel needed to cart away your waste, and the emissions that come from that. Composting will also make you more aware of how much food you’re wasting. And then there are the no-methane benefits.

When I get depressed about whether large-scale change is possible, I think of what has happened in South Korea. In 2005, the government there outlawed sending food to landfills. Residents must now either buy special bags for their food waste to be collected, or pay to deposit it in large metal receptacles outfitted with a scale and an RFID chip reader. A fee is calculated based on weight, and residents pay right there, using a card. 

Since then South Korea has increased the percentage of food waste that is “recycled” from 2% to 95%, and food waste in Seoul has decreased by 47,000 tons in six years, according to city officials

Of course, changing laws and charging people for their food waste is certain to change behaviors, and a handful of U.S. states are enacting new laws on this front. But voluntary actions are on the rise. According to the EPA, the composting of food in the US rose from 1.8 million tons in 2013 to 2.6 million tons in 2017.

There is also a crop of non-profit microhaulers that are carting compost from homes and businesses via bike or electric vehicle, diverting food from landfills with minimal carbon footprint. In New York City, BK Rot, BK Green Cart, Sure We Can and Roho Compost are a few of the cool organizations doing this.

What can you do this week to have an impact?

Start composting! Every country, city and town is different, so apologies that my tips are New York-centric. 

In New York City, 3.5 million residents have access to curbside compost pick-up. Eventually the Department of Sanitation hopes to provide the service to everyone, but participation is not as high as it should be, and they are trying to increase awareness.

If you live in a building with 10+ units, follow my tips on how to get your building added to the program. If your neighborhood or building isn’t yet enrolled, you can check out this map to find a drop-off location near you. Just keep your compost in the freezer if you’re afraid of it smelling before you drop it off.

One of the biggest reasons that New Yorkers aren’t using the curbside program is the idea that doing so will attract rats and other pests. That’s a myth. The Department of Sanitation says putting food waste into trash bags is actually what fuels the pest problem. Rats can nibble through plastic trash bags, but the city’s brown bins are impenetrable if closed properly. 

Confused about what to compost? Check with your dropoff site, because they all have  different rules. New Yorkers with curbside pickup should follow these rules. Tissue paper, paper towels, meat bones and shellfish shells should all be composted for curbside pickup. Tea bags are OK but avoid using plastic ones. And no dog poop, please. 

What about all those new compostable plastic forks, knives and cups? It’s complicated. Don’t assume municipal composting facilities can handle them, and they are unlikely to break down in your backyard.   

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a municipal composting pick-up service, you could look for a private company that will pick up your organic waste, or better yet, set up a composting site in your backyard or a nearby greenspace. MakeSoil is a great platform for finding nearby composting sites or starting your own for your neighbors to contribute to. They have great tips on all things compost, including what bins to buy and how to avoid it being stinky or attracting pests. If you’re feeling ambitious, you should build one of their soil maker boxes. Food52 is also a good source for tips and stylish bins.

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Thanks, Fiona