By: Quan Nguyen
December 1, 2021
Almost everyone is guilty of digging through the fridge or pantry to find food they bought weeks—or even months—ago, now ridden with green fuzzy spots. Typically, those moldy foods get thrown in the trash with all other household garbage. It’s nearly impossible for ordinary people and restaurants to use up their entire food stock, but that doesn’t mean it has to end up in a landfill.
Globally, people waste 1.4 billion tons of food every year, with the United States leading the ranks at nearly 40 million tons annually. This issue stems from food vendors and supermarkets selling oversized portions, people selecting only the best quality foods and consumers over-purchasing, especially during the pandemic’s food shortage scare. Food waste is also caused by expiration dates that label some foods with “enjoy by” or “use before” dates. These labels can confuse consumers into premature disposal or even deter them from taking it off the market’s shelves.
The factors that contribute to food waste make it unsurprising that landfills are struggling to keep up. The US hosts over 3,000 active landfills and 10,000 closed landfills, which threaten environmental security. Landfills produce large amounts of hazardous waste and greenhouse gases like methane, which is 84 times worse than carbon dioxide and can contribute to climate change. One solution to reducing emissions is not so new: composting.
Composting much more effectively decomposes natural waste. The practice is not limited to food, either; it includes yard waste, cardboard, sawdust, etc. In fact, proper compost needs browns (such as dead leaves or branches), greens (such as fruit scraps or grass clippings) and water. Even if society was able to effectively reduce waste, food scraps like banana peels and yard waste would still serve better as compost for agricultural purposes.
Ideally, food waste should not be generated in the first place, but this is not always possible. Composting is actually a less desirable result as better uses for discarded food might be to feed hungry people and animals or even for industrial uses. However, composting is one step up from landfills and incineration plants and can make a positive impact on environmental issues.
The city of San Francisco demonstrates the effectiveness of composting. Recology, a waste management company in San Francisco, handles waste for the residents of its city. The company has urged San Franciscans to separate their waste bins and compostables for the past 15 years. With residents’ compliance, Recology recovers about 650 tons of organics daily, half of which is food waste. San Francisco is also one of many cities that enforces refuse rates, a charge that varies based on the amount of waste a business or resident produces, incentivizing composting and recycling.
Businesses and local events also comply with these regulations. Waste management plans offer 32-gallon compost and 64-gallon recycling bins, but prices vary significantly depending on trash bin sizes. This encourages Recology customers to minimize waste by choosing a smaller and cheaper trash bin.
Boston also shares San Francisco’s goals. The city runs “Project Oscar,” which offers centralized drop-off locations for food and yard waste instead of Recology’s curbside pickup. This alternative challenged residents’ understanding of “yard waste” as the city has found lawn chairs and fences in compost bins. However, it is headed in the right direction to reduce landfill waste.
Instead of being taken to landfills, composting programs like Recology take compostables to an industrial composting facility. Here, a 60-day composting process occurs in which waste is screened and filtered for plastics that might have been accidentally mixed into composting bins. The waste goes through a machine for screening and then is filtered manually by workers for metal, plastic, wood or items too large to break down.
Filtered waste then goes to a composting yard where the waste is frequently watered and given heat and oxygen treatments, unlike landfills. This allows microorganisms to break down the waste over the course of two months. Pipes also run under the waste to extract by-products like harmful gases. Instead of being released into the atmosphere, the gases are discharged into biofilters like chopped-up almond trees which have microbes to destroy the gases.
Food in landfills can take years to decompose because of the unkempt condition and processes, whereas composting facilities turn one ton of waste into roughly 900 lbs of compost in months because most of the weight has evaporated.
Quan Nguyen is a senior studying professional and public writing. He also currently works as a technical writer and aims to continue with that career path. When not writing, he plays guitar, plays video games, longboards or messes around with tech stuff.