Just like you and me, plants need nutrients to grow, reproduce, and eventually end up in the produce area of our nearest Safeway grocery store. From there, we bring the broccoli home, and it hangs out in our fridge with its carrot friends while we end up ordering pizza or going to our cousin’s friend’s partner’s birthday dinner. Eventually, someone in our household decides that broccoli is lowering the real estate value of our refrigerator, and in 72% of American households, our broccoli friend ends up in the landfill bin (“regular” trash). So, end of story, right? Wrong.
These “green trees”, as my mother called them, then make their way from your streetside trash can to the local landfill, which is basically a big ditch that’s dug only to be filled in by dump trucks of trash. and dirt over and over until you have a mountain. Broccoli is visited by bacteria, which find it quite tasty. In their feast, these microbes produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more potent than carbon dioxide. These tiny microbes in landfills around the world produce the same combined annual emissions as 21.6 million internal combustion cars. While all of this might be super impressive microbial biology, it’s not good news for fighting climate change. This linear path from refrigerator to trash to landfill could instead be circularized, with broccoli entering a municipal compost program and reaching the farm as fertilizer. What if we could give broccoli a different eulogy?
I hold a doctorate. student at Stanford University studying soil nutrient cycling in agriculture. I firmly believe that it is absurd that our organic materials “full of valuable nutrients” end up in landfill, while we use fossil fuels and excessive amounts of energy to produce new fertilizers. Apparently, I am not alone in this frustration. A group of scientists compiled the most effective strategies for fighting climate change in Project Drawdown and calculated that reducing food waste would be the third most effective strategy – but we’re still not doing it. According to a survey by the National Waste & Recycling Association, 77% of Americans say they understand the importance of separating food and yard waste from general waste, and 68% say they would be willing to manage another trash can for organic waste. if necessary. so. And that opportunity is now available to California residents, as SB 1383 requires all jurisdictions to provide organic waste collection services to households and businesses.
Food crops need nitrogen to grow, which usually comes in two forms: synthetic or organic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers are very energy intensive to produce, and after they are applied, they quickly drain out of the soil and into the surface water systems that you and I, and our friends the fish, rely on. The life cycle of agricultural nutrients should be circular. Turning food waste into organic fertilizer provides a diverse diet for soil biology while adding organic matter to the soil, which improves water and nutrient holding capacity as well as carbon storage.
Some might worry that designing a “sustainable” destination for food waste will discourage the need to reduce it in the first place. I would say, though, that separating food waste into organic bins is finally making people realize that they’re basically leaving the grocery store with three bags and just dropping one in the parking lot – indeed, the average American household wastes 31.9% of the food he buys, or about $1,866 per year. That’s a lot of dough!
So you might be thinking, well, yeah, that all makes sense, but what can I do about it? Wherever you go, just ask where the organic waste bin is. In fact, I did this – waving my banana peel while asking for the organics bin – knowing full well that there was no bin in sight. If you live in an apartment or complex without an organic bin, ask the reception to provide you with one. If you are a landlord or landlord, ask your city government to include organic trash cans in the city’s collection program. In other words, without strong citizen demand, governments will be reluctant to fund collection and composting programs.
Those of us who are already part of “club compost” might say it can be leaky and smelly. And if left too long, it turns into a habitat for many (many) bacterial friends. Well, I completely agree with you. When I lived in Sweden, this problem was avoided thanks to their paper bag system provided by the municipality. This system led to more frequent elimination and fewer messy situations overall. There are options. Let’s give our broccoli friend a happier story that ends with making sure our leftover broccoli ends up in the organic bin.