Make Dirt, Not Methane

Why are we spending tax dollars and garbage collection fees turning food waste into climate-changing methane gas?

Five Figures to Consider

8% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by food waste
20 pounds of food wasted per person per month in the U.S.
22% of landfill tonnage is food waste
$0 - $349 cost of countertop composter
3 hours daily cooking time with fuel from food scraps with Homebiogas

Consider the potential of an apple peel. Toss it in the garbage, and you will pay (by tax or fee) someone to cart it many miles in a carbon dioxide emitting truck to dump it in a landfill where it will produce methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Feed that peel to your garbage disposal, and your waste treatment facility will filter it out and either landfill it or, far less likely, convert it to fertilizer and biofuel. Compost that peel on your countertop, your deck or your backyard, and instead you create healthy soil. If you think an apple peel doesn’t make a difference, you’re wrong. About 8% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by food waste, including apple peels. Changing our food waste habits is one of the easiest and least expensive things individuals can do to help right the climate.

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an ominous report by 91 scientists from 40 countries drawing on research from 6,000 studies. The climate forecast is worse than we thought. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current levels, the planet could warm by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit over pre-industrial levels by 2040. To prevent the catastrophic effects (droughts, increasingly severe storms, mass migrations, disease, ecosystem peril and the disappearance of island nations), greenhouse gas emissions will need to fall 45% from 2010 levels within 12 years and be totally eliminated by 2050. That’s right. Carbon-free by 2050. Investors hoping for the development of new carbon capture technologies are offering millions of dollars to companies like Global Thermostat and Carbon Engineering. But their tech is still pie-in-the-sky. Individual choices matter. Your electricity source (#1 carbon producer), transportation habits (#2 carbon producer) and even your food waste matter.

Landfills are the third largest human source of methane emissions in the U.S., and that is largely attributable to the decomposable material such as food and paper that go into landfills. (About 22% of landfill tonnage is food waste.) When these items decompose without oxygen as they do in landfills, they produce methane. While some landfills install wells to capture gas and convert that methane to pipeline gas or electricity, most do not. Here’s where you come in. The U.S. wastes 20 pounds of food per person per month. Over the past few years the USDA and the EPA have led the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, an initiative to cut food waste by 50% by 2030. The program has over 4,000 participating organizations from schools to food producers. One participant is ConAgra, which now powers part of a factory with the discarded peels from its frozen sweet potato fry production. Other participants are preventing loss by redirecting food to food-insecure communities. How can you get in the spirit of the Food Waste Challenge? Try composting or, if you are really ambitious, making and cooking with your own biofuel.

There is a composting method for every household, from apartment dweller to suburban gardener. You could buy the high-end, countertop Food-Cycler. It turns your table scraps into a soil amendment in three hours. Or you could start a wire- or wood-enclosed pile in your yard, adding fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, paper napkins, torn-up newspaper and dried leaves. An odor-free, carbon-filtered countertop compost pail keeps the scraps until you are ready to take them out to the pile. If you want an enclosed container, you could buy a compost tumbler or, if you are not squeamish, you could invest in a worm-powered composter. Want to really impress your crunchy neighbors? Buy a Homebiogas system that breaks down your food into biofuel to power your own kitchen stove. Dump your food scraps down its funnel and get as much as three hours of cooking gas per day. Really.

There is a financial incentive to composting for anyone living in the 7,100 communities in the country that have adopted pay-as-you-throw garbage collection programs. In these communities, you pay for each bag or bin you fill with waste. The programs have on average reduced waste tonnage by 15%-20%, increased recycling by 50% and cost little to nothing to start-up. Vermont is going even further. It’s banning all food scraps from landfills. Beginning this year New York City restaurants and grocery stores of a certain size are no longer allowed to send their food waste to landfills. The new rule is expected to divert 50,000 tons of food waste. The city, which reports that one-third of residential garbage is compostable food scraps and yard waste, is now providing organics pick-up for 3.5 million residents.

Another way for the U.S. to reduce methane emissions from our food system is to increase the number of landfills, farms and food production facilities that, like ConAgra, generate renewable energy from the decomposition of organic materials. This is common in Europe, which has 10,000 biogas production sites compared with 2,200 in the U.S. According to the American Biogas Council, there are 13,500 sites ready for development today that could power 7.5 million homes and produce greenhouse gas emission reductions equivalent to removing 15.4 million cars from the road. Those open manure lagoons that were breached in Hurricane Florence, contaminating water and farmland? They would be eliminated in a system in which pig manure was fed into an anaerobic (oxygen-free) digester that converted the manure into biofuel that could provide power to the electricity grid or the farm itself. The Senate version of the Farm Bill includes funding and technical assistance for such farm biogas systems.

Here’s some good news. U.S. annual greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 11% since peaking in 2007, primarily as natural gas and renewable energy sources have replaced coal in electricity generation. Meanwhile, municipal solid waste generation per person peaked in 2000. There is no deus ex machina to save the planet, though, as we reported earlier, a dividend-paying carbon tax, could do a lot. Recycling your apple peels and supporting biofuel projects can help, too.

It is time to rethink organic waste in your home kitchen, at the landfill and on the farm. Composting and biofuel production reduce both methane emissions and fossil fuel use. Get your bucket, your worm farm, your tumbler, your biogas system or your food-cycler today. 



American Biogas Council, Econservation Institute, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Food Waste Reduction Alliance, Further with Food Center for Food Loss and Waste Solutions, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Iowa Waste Reduction Center, Mailman School of Public Health, National Conference of State Legislatures, National Resources Defense Council, New York City Department of Sanitation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency