Let Your Food Rot: How and Why Everyone Should Compost

Whether you are bunkered down in your dorm room or home for the rest of the semester, you are still producing food waste. Without the three color-coordinated trash cans in the dining hall, it can be difficult to know what waste should be recycled, thrown out, or composted. And while many have a basic knowledge of the items that can be recycled, composting can be an unknown frontier. 

The average person produces 219 pounds of food waste per year, the majority of which ends up in landfills. Items rotting in landfills are then incinerated, which produces almost one-fourth of all methane emissions in the US. However, if all eligible food and produce scraps were composted, landfills nationwide would be a quarter less full. 

Composting household produce is a simple task that all family units should strive to make a common practice. With basic knowledge of how and what to compost, a small-scale movement to reduce personal carbon emissions has the ability to drastically reduce the national carbon footprint. 

Compost is simply organic items that can break down and be used to fertilize soil and help plants grow. This loose definition sets the tone for the wide array of things that can be composted. All uncooked fruits and vegetables, egg shells, coffee grinds, tea bags, paper, cardboard, leaves, hair and fur, and house plants should not be thrown into the trash, as they can naturally break down. This long list of compostable items is matched with an equally lengthy list of things that should  strictly be tossed into the trash, however. Meat or fish scraps, dairy products, oils, and pet wastes cannot be composted because of their odors, which attract pests. 

Image courtesy of The Guardian

With “organic food items” defined, the at-home process of composting comes together nicely, as those produce scraps can be kept in any closed container. This prevents bugs from potentially being attracted to the food. There are also compostable bags that eliminate odor and allow for easy removal from the container. This little bin or bag can be kept in any easily-accessible place in your home or apartment. 

The unwanted produce, however, does not decompose into compost for months. As most people do not want food quite literally rotting in their apartments for long periods of time, there are many ways to dispose of the collected scraps, so that they can transform into compost eventually. 

Most apartment buildings have a compost collection system or have a nearby community garden that collects food scraps. Alternatively, many restaurants and grocery stores will accept food scraps. Some suburban towns, like Newton, MA, have even started a compost collection service alongside their trash and recycling programs. This gives households the ability to collect food scraps for a month, and then have it whisked away to a site somewhere in their community that collects and distributes the compost.

By actively collecting and properly disposing of food scraps, households can quickly slash their contributions to the massive landfills in the U.S. that are rapidly releasing methane. 

Methane is produced alongside carbon dioxide in landfills but has quickly become a more urgent worry for environmentalists, as it is 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide. This gas has a larger impact on the ozone layer than the other omnipresent gases in the atmosphere. Composting organic food scraps ultimately cuts down on the amount of methane released from landfills, which helps reduce the nation’s contribution to the rapid and harmful processes of climate change. 

It is worth noting, however, that this small step is not enough to completely eliminate the emissions of all greenhouse gases, specifically methane. Oil companies are the largest contributors of methane emissions in the U.S., and they need to be held accountable for their  environmental impact. 

Even though these emissions are due to the actions of large companies, everyday people can make palatable, small changes to help reduce the worldwide impact of these emissions. While one person’s actions may not make an enormous impact directly, the collective effort of consumers to reduce their trash productions and increase their compost production can add up to greatly reduce individuals’ contributions to climate change. 

Cover photo courtesy of City of Ames

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