Food Waste and Our Soil: Why everyone should compost for a healthier future

It’s called “black gold” – no, it’s not oil, it’s compost and it is valuable. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize just how precious this commodity really is for our earth.  I’ve written about how-to compost in the past. It’s not a very glamorous topic, talking about how people should throw away their trash but it’s a very important one. Compost can help revitalize infertile soils which is major problem not only in the U.S but throughout the world.

Soil Erosion is a Global Issue

The U.S. and most of the world’s inventory of arable topsoil has been lost to erosion, overuse of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, and other farming practices that have left the soil depleted. Topsoil is the most fertile arable land on earth and some experts fear, we could even run out of it to grow food in within the next 60 years[1]! Soil erosion is 2nd to population growth as the environments biggest problem[2]. But soil isn’t sexy.

How Does Compost Help the soil?

The majority of people who compost are gardeners who know all the benefits composting can produce for their gardens, lawns and lives. Compost helps build soil structure which enables soil to retain nutrients, water and air – all key ingredients to growing healthy plants. It also helps protect land against drought and plants from disease. Compost is filled with life – microorganisms, earthworms and insects – a synergistic force of nature. It acts as a PH buffer, neutralizing various soil toxins and metals (lead and cadmium) by bonding with them so plants will not. Now think about places like California that have had a tremendous amount of soil erosion and degradation due to wildfires and mudslides and how they could benefit a build up compost.

It’s Not just for Country Folk – Urban Dwellers benefit too

However, composting is a practice of sustainable living which should be practiced by everyone.  There is little in this world that we have control over, and composting is one of the things that can do that is within our control to make our planet a healthier place.  It doesn’t require government intervention or corporate governance; it simply takes a little effort by individuals.  A new habit of how we throw away our trash needs to be formed.

Today, there are more and more compost services which take the hassle out of what traditionally was something only avid gardeners and farmers practiced. We have friends who live in Portland, Maine who use a compost pick-up service which provides them with beautiful compost. A quick search on the internet was able to provide me with a number of businesses throughout the United States that provide either curbside or drop-off composting. That’s great for citizens to be able to have those options available to them and I believe that more people would compost if they knew more about how it would help our environment.

Urban dwellers who would like to be environmentally conscientious in the past have not been able to compost or have had to struggle with composting. Composting can be messy and smelly; it can bring about rats, and other unwanted and hazardous pests if not done properly. Fortunately, more and more businesses have turned their energy and efforts towards this problem and are making it easy for communities including city-dwellers to compost. But why should they want to compost? They don’t have gardens or lawns they could use the compost on.

How Does Composting Help the Environment?

When food waste ends up in landfills, it produces methane gas, the greenhouse gas which traps heat within our atmosphere which is 23x more potent than carbon dioxide.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste is responsible for 34% of all the methane emissions in the U.S.[3] Landfills are so densely packed that much of the degradation happens during a slow, anaerobic process. Anaerobic processes create a tremendous amount of methane gas. One way to ease the amount of food waste that ends up in the landfills is for the food waste to be converted into compost.  We need to be more consciences about how we throw away food.  Americans throw away food more than any other single material, more than paper, even more than plastic![4]

Set up a system

We moved to New Hampshire a few years ago and live in a very rural area that does not have curb-side or community drop-off yet in our area, although it does exist in the state. Our town however, has very strict recycling rules and our garbage has to be well sorted before going to the dump.  Our kitchen has seven (7) 13-gallon trash containers which take up three of my under cabinets. We primarily sort out: burnables, cardboard, metal, aluminum foil, plastic, glass, magazines. You may think seven sounds like a lot but we actually could use a few more for a few other categories like batteries and light bulbs. There are at least two trash containers at my desk, as well as two in every bedroom and bathroom. So, you can imagine with all the different trash we deal with being able to sort out our food waste from the other “burnables” would be desirable. The dump isn’t far away but sometimes the weather can make things difficult to get down the mountain on the days the dump is open – which is only Friday-Sunday; Mondays included during the summer months. However, composting up here on the mountain the traditional way would require an electric fence to keep bears, coyotes and the rest of the surrounding wildlife away.  It was hard enough running out to the side yard in Connecticut sometimes, so the thought of having to breach an electric fence made the idea impossible. That all changed when I found the FoodCycler™ FC-30, a in-home composting unit which has been a complete game-changer in our household. Check out our Product Review on this wonderful little unit.

As individuals, we can make a difference in the health of our planet by making smart choices of how we discard our household food waste in the future. We must learn to strike a balance between our lifestyles and our impact on nature.

Facts to consider

The average US citizen creates 4 lbs of trash per day [EPA]

The average US citizen throws away about 1200 lbs of organic garbage annually that could be repurposed as compost. Americans as a whole throw away 43,000 tons of food every day. [EPA]

The EPA estimates that 75% of American waste is recyclable yet only 30% is actually recycled. [EPA]

Americans generate 21.5 million tons of food waste annually – composting it would reduce greenhouse emissions equivalent to removing 2 million cars from the road [Carnegie Mellon CEE Green Team . -April 15, 2015]

Footnotes:

[1]What If the World’s Soil Runs Out?” Time, 14 Dec 12

[2] D. Pimentel, “Soil Erosion: A Food and Environmental Threat,” Environ. Devel. Sustain. 8, 119 (2006)

[3] Waste Land: Does the Large Amount of Food Discarded in the U.S. Take a Toll on the Environment? Scientific America March 10, 2010

[4] Upper Valley Business Finding ‘Pay Dirt’ in Food Scraps nhpr.org February 13, 2018

Further Recommended Reading:

CompostNow.org

SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction – fao.org

11 Facts About Recycling – dosomething.org

Soil Erosion and Degradation – World Wildlife Federation

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