Following paper, food waste is the biggest part of our waste stream, comprising 14.5% of everything we throw away. Like almost everything that goes into our trash, food is recyclable. In fact, it is one of the easiest things we can recycle at home. The best way to recycle food waste is to compost it. Compost is a great resource that can help fruits and vegetables, flowers and even house plants grow better. It allows gardeners and farmers to use less water. Creating compost rather than putting food waste in a landfill has a big impact on global warming as well. When food waste breaks down in landfills, it produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Any way you slice it, recycling your kitchen leftovers is a really good idea.
What is compost and how is it made?Compost is decayed organic matter that has been broken down to the point where it resembles rich, dark-colored dirt. Within that crumbly substance are nutrients like potassium, nitrogen and zinc that plants can easily access and use to grow strong. There are beneficial bacteria that can fight off invaders intent on damaging plants and compounds that will improve soil quality. The list of compost’s advantages goes on and on. Even the U.S. Army uses it to detoxify soils contaminated with chemicals from explosives. A host of tiny organisms are responsible for making compost. They range from microscopic bacteria and fungi to common garden critters like worms, sow bugs and soldier flies. In a garden or forest, aerobic bacteria (or bacteria that need oxygen to survive) do most of the work. It is also possible to use anaerobic bacteria (those that do not require oxygen) to create compost. Anaerobic bacteria can harm people and plants, so they are used only in “in-vessel” composting facilities that require large machines to produce compost. The side benefit of using anaerobic bacteria is that they produce methane, which is a great fuel if it can be captured.
What kinds of food waste can be recycled?It depends on whether you are composting food waste at home or sending it to a commercial facility. Composters using in-vessel systems can handle some materials home gardeners should avoid. Assuming you are composting at home, plan to put these types of food waste in your compost pile:
- Fruits and vegetables — this includes trimmings such as carrot tops, potato peels and stems from fresh herbs
- Bread, pizza crusts and other baked goods
- Pasta, oatmeal and other grain-based products (as long as they do not have too much oil on them)
- Crushed egg shells (these have the added bonus of helping keep compost from getting too acidic)
- Coffee and coffee filters
- Tea and tea bags
- Meat and seafood
- Fats and oils
- Dairy products
- Hot peppers (sweet bell peppers are OK)