In the U.S., we waste about 40 percent of all of the food we produce. A lot of that food winds up rotting in landfills and releasing air pollution. But many cities are trying to turn it into something more valuable and less harmful to the environment. EarthFix reporter Cassandra Profita kicks off our series of reports this week on food waste by exploring the virtues of curbside composting:
Jessie Hanna is cooking up some tofu while her husband Stephen Gardiner chops vegetables in their home in Portland.
Hanna: "So, dinner tonight, we're making a stir fry."
Hanna says stir fry is a good way to use up the odds and ends of things left in the fridge at the end of the week. But some things like carrot peels and onion skins won't get eaten. Gardiner puts these items in a tupperware container on the counter.
Gardiner: "I'm chopping up garlic and taking the skin off the garlic and throwing that in the bin. I have this little tub I got at Goodwill, and that's where the compost goes."
Three years ago, Portland joined the ranks of more than a hundred and eighty cities and towns offering curbside compost pickup. The idea was to stop sending food waste to the landfill where it generates harmful methane gas pollution and start turning it into something useful – like compost that people can use to enrich the soil.
Gardiner: "It's pretty full. It's gotta go. The time is now."
When the tub on the counter fills up, all Gardiner has to do is take it outside and dump it in the green compost bin next to the trash can on his driveway.
Once a week, a compost truck comes by to empty that bin. Since Portland started curbside compost collection in 2011, the city's garbage heap has dropped by more than a third. Hanna says that makes sense given how many different food items can now go in the compost bin.
Hanna: "I remember when they started the curbside composting. Us and our friends and all our neighbors got that little flier telling us we could compost meat and dairy and bones and pizza boxes that still had cheese on them. That was pretty impressive, I thought. It does make it really easy."
Pulling food waste out of the trash and putting it in its own bin opens up a new world of possibilities. If it's placed in a methane digester, food waste can be turned into electricity or even fuel for cars and trucks.
Food waste that's picked up at the curb can also head to a commercial composting facility. In Portland, household food scraps go to the suburban composter Nature's Needs. In the city of Seattle, they go to a similar facility known as Cedar Grove.
Banchero: "This is beautiful compost actually. It's nice and hot."
Stephan Banchero is the CEO of Cedar Grove. And right now, he's plunging his hand into a warm pile of fresh compost.
In less than two months, his company can turn a stinky pile of food waste into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Banchero says a lot of that product gets sold to local farmers who then use it to grow more food.
Banchero: "I don't think a lot of people understand how closed loop of a system this is. I think it creates the most local renewable resource around. And I think it takes a really dramatic impact from landfilling."
David Allaway analyzes environmental problems for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. He says while cities like Portland and Seattle make it easy to compost food waste, that doesn't mean their residents should keep wasting food.
That's because most of the environmental impacts of food waste don't come from putting it in a landfill.
Allaway: "Even though food in a landfill is a pretty bad thing, the impacts of producing the food in the first place is typically 10 to 30 times higher. There's a tremendous amount of resources and pollution that come from the production of food."
Allaway says a quarter of all the fresh water withdrawals in the U.S. and as much as 5 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions come from producing food that never gets eaten. Composting doesn't do anything to reduce those impacts.
Allaway: "When you compost food waste, you're reducing the environmental impacts of food by a fraction."
So, he says while composting is better than landfilling, it would be much better not to waste food in the first place.
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