Saturday, April 21, 2018

An Ode to Composting

I have my short but shining collegiate journalism career to thank for introducing me to composting and turning me into a hard core composter over the span of a few months. As a staff writer for my university's newspaper, each week was an exercise in covering the random array of lectures, events, and happenings that took place on the busy campus.

One assignment I pulled was to cover a screening of Wasted, a documentary that detailed the massive problem of food waste around the world and offered solutions for this growing problem. In the moment I wasn't moved to make a dramatic shift to composting, but since graduating I moved to Washington DC, where composting has a visible presence at several farmers markets I frequent. The sobering truth about the danger of food waste has stuck with me from writing a story about it, and I have quickly become a fully fledged composting convert. With Earth Day happening tomorrow, I figured it was as good a time as any to share my experience, to show that composting is a little thing you can do to combat the massive problem of food waste.

So why is food waste a problem in the first place? Here are some stats from the nonprofit organization Feeding America (source):

  • Every American generates 400 lbs of food waste per year.
  • Altogether, $218 billion worth of food is thrown away each year between farms, stores, and consumers.
  • Food waste makes up 21% of landfill volume.
  • If we reduce food waste by 20% we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18 million tons.
Simply put, food waste is a problem because when thrown out, the fermentation of the food adds greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. 

It wasn't until I started collecting my own food waste (I can fill 1-2 gallon size bags in a week) that I realized how much waste I generate even though I live alone. Banana peels, egg shells, and other plant-based remnants from cooking add up, and it's incredible to look back and realize just how much would have been thrown out before I began to compost. Another anecdote from my shift to composting is that my trash can has to be emptied less often. With recyclables and food waste redirected, I toss few things in the can, and without food present it rarely if ever smells bad. A less glamorous byproduct of food waste for sure, but definitely one to note! 

I like farmers' market days because I get my freezer space back!

So how do I compost as city dweller? I collect scraps in a gallon size plastic bag in my fridge until a bag is full (then it goes into the freezer for odor and space management). I reuse the plastic bags to reduce waste, and find that they are convenient and portable to taking my scraps to the market. Composting itself is low maintenance, and didn't require a lifestyle adjustment at all.

In my city, DC's Department of Works manages food waste collection across the district, and runs pick up sites at farmers markets in every ward that are completely free. I can easily coordinate dropping off food waste with errands depending on which neighborhood I would be visiting. They outline what waste items are accepted- and not- and the scraps are composted into nutrient-dense soil (that is also available to residents). 

Other cities may have a similar set up, or you could also seek out companies that will pick up food waste on a regular basis for free. Looking for a more DIY approach? Here's the EPA's guide to outdoor and indoor composting. 

Food waste at the market getting ready to transform into soil.

While I am lucky to live in a place where food waste is taken so seriously and composting is made affordable and accessible by the DC's government, I know not everyone has composting outlets that are convenient. Other ways you can reduce the food waste you generate are:
  • Take an inventory of food in your kitchen before grocery shopping. While this seems like a no-brainer, taking stock of what you have can give you a better idea of what you need, or can spark creativity to use ingredients already on hand so that they are not wasted.
  • Buy ugly produce. Just as you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, don't dismiss fruits and veggies because they have a nick or a dent. Uglier produce is less likely to be bought, and is at high risk of getting thrown out. Check out Hungry Harvest, who offers doorstep delivery of ugly produce in several cities. 
  • Learn to read labels. Just because a product has passed an expiration or sell-by date doesn't automatically mean it should be thrown out. Click here to get the USDA's guide to what exactly those labels mean.
  • Donate, if possible. If you have shelf-stable items, donate them to your local food bank, church pantry, or other organizations working with food insecure families. If you are in Maryland, I highly recommend donating gluten-free items to Safe Food Pantry. Sometimes these organization can take food that is beyond the "best buy" date. 
What started as a journalism assignment that I rolled my eyes at has become an established part of my life. Once I have gotten in the habit of composting, I can't imagine reverting back to wasting so much food. It's easy, cost-free, and is one more way I can live more sustainably. Little things can make a big difference, and I am very much a believer that food waste is an issue we all can do our part to tackle.

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