The Milkweed Diaries

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The NEXT C2C revolution: Compost to Compost

I was reading Grit magazine the other day, and came across an article about food waste. I haven't really thought about food waste in a long time. I've composted my kitchen scraps ever since I've had a kitchen of my own, and not wasting food has always been both an economic and an environmental imperative for me.

And through many years of growing, preparing, and savoring food, I've developed what is really an intimate connection with food. When you're intimate with something, throwing it in the landfill doesn't really seem right. So it's been years since I've thought much about why composting is good and wasting food is bad. It just seems like a given. But it's good to revisit the givens from time to time.

According to a study by the Department of Agriculture, a quarter of all edible food in the United States goes to waste. Another study by the EPA found that 30 million tons of food is thrown away every year, with 98% of that ending up in landfills.

Food thrown away by a typical American family each month. Click on the image to see details...

We waste about $100 billion worth of food every year, and we spend about a billion dollars a year to dispose of food waste. Think what we could do with $101 billion! Solar roofs! Health care! Organic food in school cafeterias!

Thinking about all of this reminded me of Pete Seeger's classic rendition of Bill Steele’s Garbage. I probably listened to the version Pete did with Oscar the Grouch hundreds of times with my siblings on the Pete Seeger & Brother Kirk Visit Sesame Street LP back in the day. This is exactly what the album cover looked like. Now I call that successful indoctrination.

Since the days when Pete sang about Mr. Thompson's steak and mashed potatoes heading off to the landfill, things have only gotten worse. The amount of trash buried in landfills has doubled since 1960.

And there's more. I came across a great article by Jonathan Bloom with a lot more information on the environmental, economic, and cultural consequences of our national food-wasting habit. Here's a snip:

"Wasting food squanders the time, energy, and resources — both money and oil — used to produce that food. Increasingly, great amounts of fossil fuel are used to fertilize, apply pesticides to, harvest, and process food. Still more gas is spent transporting food from farm to processor, wholesaler to restaurant, store to households, and finally to the landfill."

Bloom also points out:

"Food rotting in landfills contributes to global warming. Landfills are America’s primary source of methane emissions, and the second-largest component of landfills are organic materials. When food decomposes in a landfill, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, wet food waste is the main threat to groundwater or stream pollution in the event of a liner leak or large storm."

And it can take years for food to biodegrade in a landfill, while it takes weeks or months in the compost bin. And compost is such a precious resource! I hate the thought of perfectly good compost ingredients languishing in the landfill.


With all of the buzz about
Cradle to Cradle design, we need to think of a similarly catchy phrase for eliminating food waste and all of the related problems that come from thinking of food as a cheap and disposable commodity. I propose Compost to Compost or maybe Dirt to Dirt (D2D?).

For further reading....

Here's the Grit article.

Here's the Jonathan Bloom article: The Food Not Eaten.

And here's info about public composting programs in North Carolina.


Dana said...

I have to say, composting is one of my most favorite gardening tasks. I turned the compost at the Mt. Mag Inn the other day and it made me very happy, except when I fully pierced the abdominal skin of a mouse with my pitchfork. The smells are horrendous and make passersby very sad, but the outcome is miraculous. Last time, I found a black snake and a mouse face to face at the bottom of one of the bins. My sister reached in and grabbed the snake by the tail and flicked it out in one fluid motion, like she was some kind of snake flicking pro.

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

A wonderfully informative and nostalgic post. We've been worm composters for years. I just composted our 'Yes We Carve' pumpkin that my wife made in honor of Obama's impending election.

Bet you didn't think I could blend composting and politics in a positive manner now, did ya'?

Milkweed said...

jack of thumbs, YES, I think composting is inherently political, so adding the obama o'lantern to the compost pile sounds like a great little ritual...after all, what better symbol of CHANGE and turning garbage into new life than the alchemy of the compost pile!

and dana-dee, i too have uncovered a wide variety of rodents in compost piles over the years, including a large nest full of baby rats under a pile i had in town. last year, christopher unwittingly speared a vole with a pitchfork, so perhaps you two could have a support group. but NEVER have i witnessed a snake-snapping such as the one you describe. dang.