In an earlier post, Composting 101, we learned about turning our egg shells, coffee grounds, vegetables, fruits, grains, leaves and grass clippings into organic compost. We learned about composting methods and about building a compost bin. But we were also advised in that post to avoid putting meat, dairy, fats and bones into our home composting bins. Particularly at this time of year many of us are left with exactly these types of remains from the holiday feast…and lots of them! So how do we recycle food scraps that are animal, rather than plant-based?
Why recycle food waste?
Before we get into the discussion of how to recycle food waste, it might be best to start with why we would want to do this in the first place. After all, food waste is biodegradable, so what’s the problem with just putting it in the garbage and letting it decompose at the landfill?
Many of you may be familiar with recent concerns over methane emissions and their contributions to global warming. Methane gas is a by-product of organic decomposition in an oxygen-free environment…i.e. the landfill…and its effect on global warming as a greenhouse gas is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide, which is most commonly referred to in GHG discussions. Food waste makes up about 30% of household garbage. Worldwide methane emissions from garbage are estimated at 70 million metric tons annually. By diverting organic waste from the landfill we can significantly decrease, if not eliminate, landfill methane emissions.
How to recycle food waste
So now that we’ve determined that recycling food waste is important, how do we do it? The advice to exclude meat, bones, fat and dairy from your home composting bin stems from the liklihood that it will draw pests, not that these materials cannot be composted. For this reason most people opt to use a commercial composting facility to recycle their food waste. To find a commercial composting facility near you visit www.findacomposter.com.
To limit the pest factor you should use a composter that is fully enclosed with a locking lid. The Earth Machine Home Composting Bin is one such unit and the one I use myself, but there are numerous compost bins on the market. Most pests such as raccoons and rats will be thwarted in their efforts to steal your scraps. A larger animal such as a bear, however, could probably unseat the bin from it’s ground pins and make a mess of your compost pile. If you live in an area where bears are common you will need a much sturdier built-in enclosure, or go the commercial composting route.
Vermiculture, or composting with worms, may be another option. Vermicomposting is clean, despite what you might think. The worms consume the food scraps leaving nothing to decay and create odors. The result is very high quality compost to use as an additive to your garden and plant soils. Vermicomposting bins can be kept right in the kitchen and chances are no one will ever know it’s there unless you tell them. Click here for a great article on vermicomposting by Heather Levin.
There are also microbial products you can add to your compost bin to speed up the composting process and to assist with the breakdown of these non-plant wastes.
Food waste recycling in municipal recycling programs
So far food waste recycling hasn’t caught on with most municipal recycling programs. Less than 3% of food waste is recycled in the U.S. Among the local programs participating in food waste recycling are:
- SanFrancisco, CA
- Tacoma, WA
- Portland, OR
- Minneapolis, MN
- Boulder, CO
- Bellevue, WA
- King County, WA
- Alameda County, CA
Depending on the area where you live you may be able to donate leftovers to a local food bank, shelter or other cooperative. One such program is the d.c. central kitchen which collects those leftovers and converts them to “meals for the hungry and at-risk” persons in the local community. In 2009 d.c. central kitchen was able to distribute1.76 million meals in the D.C. metropolitan area. Check your local outreach programs to see if similar options are available in your area.
Time Magazine Science, Recycling Food Scraps
Sustainable Coast, The Garbage Project
US EPA, Municipal Solid Waste Facts and Figures 2010