The Compost Paradox

Ahhh, compost. The long revered alternative to throwing food in the garbage. Once known only to the most enthusiastic environmentalists, this practice is now becoming increasingly mainstream.

As awareness of food waste grows and municipalities across Canada begin implementing green bin collection programs, it is interesting to consider the implications of composting.

For those less familiar with the topic, composting is the process of breaking down organic matter and transforming it into nutrient rich soil. The result is a valuable product that has wide agricultural use. It is a vastly preferable alternative to sending uneaten food to landfill.

However, some studies suggest that it may not all be good and green. Cue: the compost paradox.

In a study conducted in the United States, 41% of composters indicated that because they compost, discarding food does not bother them. Given their existing practices, these individuals felt less concerned and less guilty about the food they wasted (Neff, Spiker, & Truant, 2015).

It seems the paradoxical consequence of persuading people to do something good for the environment can result in them feeling like they are already “doing their part” and therefore do not need to make further pro-environmental efforts. The concern here is whether composting can result in greater food waste generation.

In this context, it is also worth considering the fluidity and socio-cultural variability in foods that are perceived as waste. Perhaps the saying one person’s trash is another person’s treasure does not wholly apply here; however, perceptions of what is waste do vary. Some may argue that ultimately, if food is not consumed by humans (arguably, its intended purpose) then it is waste, whether the spoiled food is composted or not.

It is not yet clear whether viewing composting as an option for uneaten food increases food waste generation. However, the topic is a good reminder to “dig a little deeper” into some of these greener solutions and as always, highlight prevention of food waste over diversion.

References

Neff, R. A., Spiker, M. L., & Truant, P. L. (2015). Wasted food: U.S. consumers’ reported awareness, attitudes, and behaviors. PLoS ONE, 10(6), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127881

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