It's International Compost Awareness Week! A huge mouthful of an event, which is only appropriate considering that the week is all about food waste - education, prevention and responsible collection. Read on for juicy tips about all those banana peels, PB&J crusts and pizza boxes accumulating in your office trash, and how you can keep them from piling up in landfill.
The Facts About Food Waste
There's a lot we know about food waste - and it all stinks. We purchase and ultimately waste a large percentage of the food we grow, which has a big impact on our planet:
- About 24% of all calories currently produced for consumption are lost or wasted.
- The United States generates about 37 million tons of food waste every year, according to the EPA.
- Only about 5% of this was diverted from landfill. (For comparison, consider that paper diversion is at about 65%.)
- This means that food is the number one material - representing 21% - of our municipal solid waste stream.
- This waste costs the world nearly $1 trillion dollars per year.
- If food loss and waste were measured like its own country, it would tally as the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, trailing only China and the United States.
What is Compost Anyway?
All that wasted food we mentioned just above... well, composting is widely acknowledged as the most earth-friendly way to recycle it. At its most basic, composting is a natural way to recycle organic materials into a nutrient-dense fertilizer for soil. Grass clippings, leaves, plant materials, food scraps, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peels = and in some cases, even paper products, egg shells and bones - may be added to a compost pile. Gardeners love the resulting rich additive so much they lovingly refer to it as "Black Gold."
Why Is It So Bad to Feed the Landfill?
If food decomposes in our compost bins and backyards anyway, why is it so bad for it to do the same at landfill?
One word: methane. Food thrown away into landfill never has the chance to make it back into nature. Nutrients that would benefit soil and help fuel the growing cycle rot and produce greenhouse gases, including methane. To make matters worse, methane is more detrimental to the atmosphere - 21x more harmful to ozone - than that other notorious greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
It is true that a poorly managed compost pile also releases methane into the atmosphere, like if the pile's anaerobic conditions mimic that of landfill. Read: no oxygen and an improper chemical balance. However, Sally Brown, an Associate Research Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, calculated the differences in carbon dioxide emissions between landfill, a well-maintained compost, and a wet, poorly managed pile. The differences are significant:
- Landfill emits about 0.5 tons of CO2 for each ton of food waste.
- Poorly maintained compost piles release about 0.21 tons.
- Whereas well-maintained, aerobic piles release only about 0.02 tons.
Plus, food is the direct result of countless other processes and resources. Wasting food means also wasting water, gasoline, energy, labor, chemicals and soil health. Composting is considered a viable form of recycling when the old materials are reused, creating value from materials that would otherwise go wasted and rot in landfill.
Best Practices for Food Waste Recycling at the Office
The best thing your workplace, school, golf course, club or market can do is help prevent waste in the first place. But when that's not possible, here are a few ways that you'll be able to recover and responsibly recycle food and other organic matter:
Golf courses: To maintain the perfectly manicured courses, golf clubs generate a lot of organic waste! Grass clippings, wood chips, weeds, rotting leaves and other plant matter may be recycled. Plus, the resulting compost will aid the longterm lawn health!
Schools: Cafeterias and school lunches produce a lot of extra food that need not go to waste. The additional food can be donated to local food banks and shelters, or also collected and separated into compost bins that provide great fodder for both early environmental education programs and school gardens.
Universities: All that late night pizza need not send greasy boxes to cause landfill indigestion. They can actually be collected and composted through new university programs!
Does your workplace produce a lot of extra food waste? Let us know in the comments below how your organization's office program is going. Stay tuned for a blog post on starting your own compost pile!