Think You’re a Good Recycler? Think Again.


image cc Anne Norman

In the U.S., only a fifth of the aluminum we toss each year is recycled, according to the report Stop Trashing the Climate. (pdf) Paper isn’t much better – we’re only recycling about half of all our newspapers, boxes, magazines and paperboard.

If you’re a regular reader of, however, you’re probably already doing your best to recycle aluminum, paper and glass, all of which require large amount of energy – and therefore greenhouse gasses – to produce. (Together, the production of all three of these materials accounts for a third of annual U.S. CO2 emissions.)

But what you might not realize is that, like most households in America, every day you’re failing to recycle a kind of waste whose trip to the landfill is tremendously damaging to the climate: food.

Half of typical household waste is food scraps – half! When that food goes to the landfill, it gets buried under other trash in an oxygen-free environment. This means that it is broken down by bacteria anaerobically, which turns it into methane instead of CO2. Over a twenty year time-scale, methane is 72 times as powerful as CO2 as a greenhouse gas!

Scientists estimate that because of the biomass they contain, landfills are the number one source of methane in the country – greater even than all that livestock that some vegetarians avoid in the name of protecting the climate.

Fortunately, the transformation of last week’s leftovers into methane is not a foregone conclusion. Seattle and San Francisco have recently instituted mandatory curbside recycling of food scraps. But what can you do if you don’t live in either of those cities?

1. Waste less food. Half of all the food produced in America is never consumed. Planning your menus, shopping with a list, learning to love leftovers and eating in rather than eating out are all ways to waste less food – and save yourself money, to boot.

2. If you have a yard, start composting. The thing that most of us don’t realize is that composting is easy. You don’t even need one of those fancy composting drums to do it. All you need is a patch of ground. If you want to keep your pile tidy, put up a fence of chicken wire. Now throw your food scraps on the heap. Every couple of weeks, the pile has to be ‘turned’ – that means grabbing a pitchfork and moving the contents of the pile a foot or two in any direction, in order to aerate the pile, a process that should take you 5-10 minutes, tops. That’s it! In a year or two you will have dirt.

3. If you don’t have a yard but you do have a basement or utility room, get a worm bin. This is a little trickier because you have to keep your worms alive, but a plastic worm bin with the proper inhabitants can break down an average apartment’s worth of food scraps no problem. Because the worms are so good at aerating the compost, it won’t even smell.

4. Compost with your neighbors. No yard or room for a worm bin? No problem! Community-based composting initiatives are sprouting up all over the country. Your food scraps are valuable and doubly so once they’ve been turned into rich, garden-nourishing dirt. If you live in Philadelphia, for instance, you can use the website Philly Compost to find someone near you who wants your food scraps for their compost heap.

Many farmer’s markets have also become a nexus of composting, such as this one in Northfield, Minnesota, or this one in Brooklyn, New York. Finally, you always have the option to start your own community composting initiative – all you really need is a neighbor who is willing to let you add to their pile.

So now that you know how easy it is to recycle your food waste, what’s stopping you? There are solutions that are workable for every living situation, and in the long run healthy soil, like clean air, is one of those things we simply can’t afford to waste.

One thought on “Think You’re a Good Recycler? Think Again.

  1. I could cry “citation needed” in a couple of places like a wikipedia troll, but instead I’ll say…

    Or, you could do what I do. And so you ask, “what do you do, O Schwazz?” Why, I stash my bio-scraps in an air-tight container, throw the container into my satchel come morning-time, hop on the bicycle with my satchel slung over my shoulder, ride to my eco-conscious job, then finally dump out said scraps into the large, steaming community pile of brown, poop-like goo that we call a compost heap. Not only do I bring down my own personal carbon index by a tiny fraction of a percentage point, but I also get to feel justified when I make smarmy comments on people’s blogs. It’s win-win!

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