Updated: Nov 26, 2022
By: Amanda Davidson
Image Courtesy of Unsplash
Whether we choose to eat foods that are organic, vegan, or highly processed, society’s relationship with food is complicated to say the least. However, there are solutions we can incorporate into our daily eating routine to keep their food waste from heating up the planet. The world currently wastes 33% to 40% of total global food production, while food insecurity is on the rise. This contrast needs to be emphasized because more people believe society can do a better job at being conscientious with their food. Besides finishing your plate or sharing food with others, compost is one of the easiest ways to reduce one's individual garbage and keep food waste out of the municipal solid waste (MCW) stream. Additionally, farmers can close the loop on agriculture waste by adding organic matter (OM) back into the soil.
The stats on food waste in the average U.S. landfills are revealing; it’s estimated that households waste 15% to 25% of the food they buy. When food waste decomposes in landfills it releases methane (CH4) gas and carbon dioxide (CO2). These noxious gasses are some of the most harmful greenhouse gasses and are one of the main emissions responsible for the depletion of the stratospheric ozone.
Chemicals from pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and preservatives are used in the production and processing of food. Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, are toxic anthropogenic chemicals that are persistent organic pollutants, meaning they don’t break down and accumulate over time. These are used in both food packaging and the production of meat, dairy, and vegetables, as well as disposable dinnerware. This not only affects human consumption, but also allows toxins to enter marine ecosystems within the food web. These chemicals from food waste bioaccumulate in the food chain of oceanic species and steadily cycle back onto the seafood plates of the initial source: humans. This disturbing feedback loop is a problem society can improve through composting.
So, what is compost? Compost consists of two ingredients, nitrogen (N) and carbon (C). Nitrogen comes from coffee grounds, eggshells, grass clippings, and vegetable and fruit peelings, while carbon comes from sources such as dead leaves, evergreen needles, bark chips, and dryer lint. These scraps from yard and kitchen waste can be added in layers to a basic box with a ventilation system, such as air holes. Food waste that is piled up goes through an anaerobic process meaning there is a lack of oxygen causing a by-product of methane and carbon; even biosolids such as toxic sewage sludge. On the other hand, food that is composted is cycled back into the environment and biodegraded through an aerobic process where it is turned or folded so air can be introduced. Compost can be made as a by-product of food waste by separating it from MSW, and this is the best nutrient and soil conditioner for crops.
Climate change increases scorching droughts and torrential rains, and farmers have been struggling to manage their crops. To combat a reduction of crop yields caused by washed out nutrients (runoff), farmers have resorted to increasing nitrogen fertilizers in the soil. Nitrogen emits nitrous oxide (N20) and this is a major problem for chemical toxins released into the atmosphere and waterway ecosystems. CH4, N20, and CO2 collectively contribute to 14.5% of all GHGs. Additionally, pollutant nutrients from food waste in the ocean can cause eutrophication, a phenomenon in which high nutrient concentration in water causes algae bloom. This toxic disturbance in marine ecosystems causes phytoplankton to grow and reproduce rapidly, blocking out the sun and absorbing all the oxygen in the water.
Compost can add nutrients to the soil and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), adding compost to soil helps retain moisture and suppresses plant diseases and pests. The agriculture industry is the largest contributor to U.S. water use, accounting for 42%. With increasing droughts every year, the challenge for farmers to supply water resources is difficult. Adding merily 1% organic materials (OM or compost) back into the soil will retain as much as 20,000 gallons of water per square acre. Adding compost will condition and nutrify soils that have been depleted from monocropping and excess nitrogen fertilizers. This would mean a reduction in the water needed to grow food as well as an alternative use for chemical fertilizers, which is good for the health of humans, plants, and animals.
Start your own composting routine today or find a composter near you. You can also get involved in the composting movement by checking out this inspirational guide on how to start a community composting project in your neighborhood.