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How Do We Get People to Compost?

Composting is good for everything and everyone, but food waste continues to be a major problem

Carrot and potato peels, other vegetable scraps, and egg shells in a compost bin, with two hands cupping compost dirt. Marina Lohrbach/Shutterstock

In the United States, food waste amounts to a whopping 30 to 40 percent of the food supply. “This figure, based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010,” the Food and Drug Administration reports. The bulk of our landfills are taken up by thrown-out food, which is doubly wasteful — because composting, the natural process of turning food into fertilizer, could be the answer to so many of our pressing energy woes.

On this week’s Gastropod, hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber go knee-deep in the compost pile, investigating the history of composting (which dates back at least 4,000 years), the current state and local initiatives to encourage composting, and the innovations currently being developed to combat our food waste problem.

“Doing something useful with our food waste is actually a solution for a whole bunch of problems at once, not least of which is climate change,” Twilley says. Exploring new solutions to food waste takes the hosts to some of “the most high-tech facilities in the country,” like Waste Management, where they’re developing a system to separate food from plastic (a big hurdle in recycling). At another facility, a food slurry produced by Waste Management’s equipment is mixed with raw sewage, creating a shitty (in a good way) solution not just for food waste, but for treating waste water.

What remains challenging, though, is convincing households and food waste-heavy businesses to participate in various forms of composting because, no matter the current and developing solutions, it does take extra effort. Some cities have taken a punitive method to encourage composting, like Seattle where you can get fined for throwing away food (or conversely, you pay less for trash removal when you produce less garbage). New York City, on the other hand, introduced a curbside composting program that failed completely because there was little incentive to participate.

“There are cities and states that have figured out the right mix of bans and incentives and other policies to make food scrap diversion work,” says Twilley.

“That said, this stuff is still complicated, there are still challenges to be solved,” Graber adds. “Nicky and I had so many questions about how much energy different processes take, how useful the results are, what the benefits are of one process compared to the other, and honestly, nobody really had super definitive answers. This is something people are working on.”

Learn more about these developments in reducing food waste on this week’s Gastropod.

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