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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Melbourne restaurants to begin dehydrating food waste for fertilizer

An innovative program in Melbourne, Australia is tackling greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste while cleaning up popular restaurant areas. The 90 businesses in the well-known Degraves street area are switching from compost-only to a food recycling program that dehydrates food waste and turns it into fertilizer. The fertilizer is then used in local parks as well as farm in the surrounding area.

Invented in Korea, this process of dehydrating food waste results in less methane and CO2 emissions than standard composting. The smell that the dehydrating produces is much less imposing than composting food, which will be appreciated by the restaurants who currently compost outside of their buildings.

The city hopes to install similar dehydration machines in apartment buildings, which may encourage residents to recycle more of their food waste scraps.

Read more on Melbourne’s changing composting scene here.

Coffee Pods – a Waste Nightmare

I am amazed at some of the things we see thrown out.  It is unbelievable the types of food we see in the garbage.  As we learn more about food waste there will be things we can do to reduce it.  We will never completely eliminate it but we can definitely make progress.  I am a big proponent of reduction but today’s rant is about unavoidable waste – coffee – and more specifically about individual serving coffee pods.  We can’t reduce it unless we drink less coffee and I won’t begrudge anyone their cup of coffee.  I think though we can do better on making sure that all of those grounds don’t end up in landfill.  Coffee grounds are an unavoidable waste but these coffee pods end up in the garbage stream. Its egregious.  The containers are recyclable and the grounds are compostable but together they end up in the garbage stream most of the time.  Its got to stop.  In out audits we looked at household organic waste production.  We saw a huge volume of these coffee pods in the garbage.  They are rarely separated.  Is the convenience really worth the huge volume of garbage we’re generating?  You’re not saving money.  I hope the municipalities with waste bans enforce them on coffee pods.  I wish we could charge a garbage tax on these sorts of products where they end up unnecessarily in the garbage.

coffee pods

There are starting to be programs through which you can pay a premium and ship the pods back through a recycling system.  That hardly seems sustainable with all that extra shipping.  And are people who won’t separate the plastic from grounds are unlikely to pay extra, store them and then ship them back.  This seems like green washing.

This seems so simple.  It drives me crazy.  I won’t use them.  Do you?

Find a Composter

So you want to dispose of your inedible organic waste in a better way than sending it to the landfill, but you can’t compost at home. What do you do? How can you find out where to compost your waste? Check out Biocycle’s site (www.findacomposter.com) to do just that. It locates composters across North America based on your location. If you know a facility that isn’t listed, you can add it to the site and help your neighbours get on board with composting too.

Biocycle - Find a Composter

Inspiring Local Solutions

While the Essex Windsor Solid Waste Authority was considering possibilities for a regional compostable waste collection system, one young resident decided she wouldn’t wait for the city to make composting more accessible in her neighbourhood. Lina Chaker started small by biking around to pick up food waste on her street, which she then took to a community garden for composting. This compost was then applied to the garden, which provided food to the local food bank.

“Lina Chaker receives her conservation champion award from Chair Joe Bachetti.”

Since she started this program, Greening Kenilworth (as she calls the project) has grown and participation has increased. At the same time, the city of Windsor has decided not to pursue an organics program. However, a city-implemented program isn’t the only possible solution, and getting more communities on board with programs like the one Chaker began could potentially be just as, if not more, effective. Locally-based solutions can be sustainable at lower costs with reduced emissions, and can provide free compost and (in this case) food for the food insecure, as well as helping to bring the community together. At our recent visit with York Region, one of the auditors said that he felt that the anonymity of the waste system was one of the biggest factors contributing to contamination in source-separated organics. Community composting may lead to reduced contamination as people can see who is reusing their food scraps. This personal connection may also provide motivation to reduce food waste as well.

 

Backyard and community composting is cheaper for residents and for the city, and by reducing transport and processing of organic materials, can also have less of an environmental cost while extending the life of the landfill. As in the case of Chaker’s community, the benefits can be multifaceted: reducing the community’s environmental footprint, creating compost that in turn feeds the community, and bringing the community together as they become informed and involved.  Hopefully more communities will seek out solutions like this that can help reduce the amount of organic waste they are sending to landfill.