Why Is It so Hard to Compost Our Waste?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

composting food waste

Story at-a-glance -

  • Composting conserves limited landfill space, reduces methane gas emissions and pulls carbon dioxide out of the air, sequestering it in the soil
  • Compost improves water retention, reduces chemical use, improves soil quality and structure and fights topsoil loss and erosion through adding valuable organic matter
  • A great deal of the U.S. food supply is wasted, including in school lunch programs, and most goes to landfills
  • South Korea and some communities in the U.S. are demonstrating that composting can be effective and economical
  • Anyone can easily compost with a box or a ready-made tumbling composter bin that can cost as little as $100

Food waste might be considered the stepchild of recycling. Conscientious people and even countries have embraced recycling as an urgent measure to stop environmental pollution, but the problem of food waste is often ignored. Yet, thrown-away food — as much as 40% of all food1 — is mostly dumped in landfills where it generates destructive methane emissions.

With a few exceptions, most governments have not invested in large-scale composting or biogas generation operations because that would require political consensus, and public investment and awareness of the problem have not become acute yet. But there is something individuals can do: compost.

Most people do not compost their food but many say they would if the process were convenient.2 But, it is convenient! All you need to get started is a tumbling composter bin and a mix of organic materials like yard trimmings, coffee grounds and vegetable peels. I will give you details later.

Personal composting may not sound like an influential act, yet it conserves limited landfill space, which mostly contains food waste, and reduces methane gas emissions, thus pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, sequestering it in the soil. Compost also improves water retention, reduces chemical use, improves soil quality and structure and fights topsoil loss and erosion through adding valuable organic matter.

The Food Waste Problem in the US

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that up to 40% of the food supply is wasted, 31% of it by consumers and retailers.3 Wasted food in the U.S. amounts to billions of pounds, says the USDA, and billions of dollars in "land, water, labor, energy and other inputs … used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing and disposing of discarded food."4

About 28% of U.S. trash is food and yard trimmings, says the Christian Science Monitor,5 but people are much more likely to recycle their yard waste than their food. Yet composting food makes a lot of sense, writes the Monitor:6

"From an environmental point of view, composting is a much better option than the alternative: overstuffed landfills, often located in poor neighborhoods, where rotting food spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The third largest source of United States emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas significantly more potent than carbon dioxide, are landfills, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. If diverted from trash, compost produced from leaves, branches, and food scraps can help fertilize soil on gardens, farms, gold courses, and elsewhere."

Recycling of food — organics — may be even more important than recycling of plastics, metal or paper, according to an article in The New Yorker, which reiterates the landfill harms:7

"Composting transforms raw organic waste into a humus-like substance that enriches soil and enhances carbon capture. In landfills, starved of oxygen, decomposing organics release methane, a greenhouse gas whose warming effects, in the long run, are fifty-six times those of CO2.

The United States has greater landfill emissions than any other country, the equivalent of thirty-seven million cars on the road each year."

Even though food and yard waste can make up about a third of all trash, in many cities recycling of organics is voluntary.8 As a result, in places like New York City, 95% of organics go to landfills. We can do better.

Advertisement
Click here to learn moreClick here to learn more

US School Lunch Food Waste

Waste from school lunches is often in the news but only accounts for $1.2 billion of the more than $218 billion in wasted food in the U.S. each year, according to Food Tank, a think tank for food.9 Still, no waste is acceptable if there are ways it could be lessened. The group suggests these improvements could significantly reduce school lunch waste:10

Giving children more time to eat — After queuing to get their meal and finding a seat, students often don't have not enough time to finish their meal.

Changing the lunchroom layout — Shifting the placement of items and adding a "healthy choices only" line has shown positive benefits.

Improving food appeal — Devising creative names like “X-ray Vision Carrots” and “Super Strength Spinach” can discourage food waste by encouraging students to eat the healthy foods on their plate.

Improving food presentation — Just slicing apples rather than serving them whole has made a difference in the past in what is wasted.

Providing more choices — Giving students a choice of picking three of five items (if they are fruits or vegetables) can reduce food waste.

Creating a "share table” — Food items that are unwanted by some students may end up being appealing to other students in a kind of "food exchange."

Moving recess to before lunch — A study found when recess occurred before lunch, children ate 50% more fruits and vegetables. Recess before lunch allows children to work up an appetite and not rush through lunch to participate in recess.

Donating uneaten food — Food directors can donate unopened milk, bags of carrots, whole fruit and packaged foods to community groups, who often welcome them.

Composting Grows in South Korea

South Korea recycles 95% of its food waste today but 25 years ago almost nothing was recycled, says The New Yorker.11 In the 1990s, thanks to rapid industrialization and urbanization, the food waste problem became so bad that the government found it had to intervene.12

“We had people lying down in the road in front of the garbage trucks to prevent more being brought to the landfills,” said Kim Mi-Hwa, the head of the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network.13 "The government saw that it had to do something.” This is what the government did, according to the New Yorker:14

"In 1995, South Korea replaced its flat tax for waste disposal with a new system. Recycling materials were picked up free of charge, but for all other trash the city imposed a fee, which was calculated by measuring the size and number of bags. By 2006, it was illegal to send food waste to landfills and dumps; citizens were required to separate it out.

The new waste policies were supported with grants to the then nascent recycling industry. These measures have led to a decrease in food waste, per person, of about three-quarters of a pound a day — the weight of a Big Mac and fries, or a couple of grapefruits. The country estimates the economic benefits of these policies to be, over the years, in the billions of dollars."

The program has been especially successful in Seoul where the charges end up being reasonable.15

"Residents of Seoul can buy designated biodegradable bags for their food scraps, which are disposed of in automated bins, usually situated in an apartment building’s parking area. The bins weigh and charge per kilogram of organic waste … For a Seoul family, the cost of food-scrap recycling averages around six dollars a month."

What Makes a Composting Program Successful?

Composting may be catching on, albeit slowly. In a 2014 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance it was estimated that more than 180 communities in the U.S. collect residential food scraps.16

Mi-Hwa says for a composting program to be successful there needs to be an intermediary group between the government and the public such as her group, Zero Waste. In Korea, people worried that composting sites would be sources of disease or that they would smell, says Mi-Hwa, so public education is an important part of raising composting awareness and cooperation.17

Lee Eun-Su, founder of the Nowon Urban Farming Network, thinks there is another component to a successful composting program: making wasting "uncool" and making "not wasting" cool — in other words, social pressure and public opinion. For example, she says when the government wanted to reduce consumption of bottled water, it "branded" tap water "arisu," a word signifying refreshing, which made tap water cooler.18

One challenge to successful composting, however, is what Samantha MacBride, director of research and operations at New York City’s Department of Sanitation, calls a chicken-and-egg problem. "Firms are not going to invest in plants unless there’s a guaranteed supply, but cities won't start [composting] until they know there’s a processor" to handle the waste, she says.19

How You Can Begin Composting

Are you ready to begin reaping the benefits of compost in your own backyard? You can compost in a pile, a box or a ready-made tumbling composter bin. The bin is very convenient and can be purchased at home improvement stores for anywhere from $100 to $200. Less-expensive options include making your own from wood, recycled plastic or even chicken wire.

Tumblers (rotating drums) are ideal because they make the aeration that compost needs a breeze — all you have to do is turn the drum every few days, which takes less effort than turning a pile with a fork or shovel. Tumblers are also much faster to compost; you can get great compost in as little as one to two weeks, while the piles may take many months to digest.

Many local municipalities also have bins available for a reasonable price. For the best moisture and temperature regulation, select bins that hold at least 1 cubic yard.

Composting is not an exact science, but if you create the proper balance of materials, you'll have aerobic conditions, and the microorganisms that thrive there will break down scraps with little to no odor. The formula experts refer to is 2 to 3 parts "browns" to 1 part "greens."

Browns Greens

Shredded newspaper and other paper

Fruit and vegetable scraps

Dead leaves

Breads and grains

Food-soiled paper (but not coated paper)

Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags

Cardboard

Grass clippings

Branches and twigs

Crushed eggshells

Your compost zone should be conveniently located, as close as possible to your source of raw materials (kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, soiled paper products) where it won't be too much of an eyesore. If you are using piles or bins, I recommend having two of them as then you'll have a place to put fresh scraps while one full "batch" of compost finishes curing.

The key to creating compost without unpleasant odors or attracting rodents lies in its makeup. If you're serious about composting, or want to turn your food scraps into veritable black gold faster, just add worms, which can be purchased online. While it's not necessary to add worms to create compost, doing so may help you create high- quality compost faster.

Worms' digestive process naturally excretes beneficial microbes into the soil, which drastically alter the soil's composition. The compost you create can be used on your flowerbeds, vegetable garden, trees and shrubs. If you don't have a place to put your compost, donate it to a school, church or park.

On a larger scale, support the small farmers in your area who are also creating and using compost on their soil in lieu of chemical inputs, helping to grow healthier food and create a healthier environment for everyone. Most conscientious people and communities now recycle. The next step is composting.