Compost Food Waste

Compost Food Waste Instead of Throwing It Away

One of the best things you can do to live in a greener and more eco-friendly way is to compost food waste instead of throwing it away. Composting is far easier than you may imagine. Even if you don't have a garden or any outside space at all, we cover the options below so you can compost food scraps without the carbon footprint.

Why Should We Compost Food Waste?

Food waste is a global issue. It may surprise you to learn that we lose (or send to waste) around 1/3 of all the food produced on our planet. This amounts to around 1.3 billion tonnes each year3. Food waste occurs at all stages of the food supply chain, from agricultural production all the way through to individual households.

When we waste food, it is not only about the food itself. It is also a waste of the energy, water, land, and other resources that went into producing it in the first place. These forms of waste are particularly concerning when we consider some of the food waste facts, including:

  • If food waste were a country, it would be the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter (after China and the United States).
  • Farmers use a quarter of the world's fresh water supply to grow wasted food that we eventually will not eat1.
  • Globally, farmers use an area the size of China to grow food we never eat4.
  • Food waste also represents a massive financial loss. The value of food wasted globally each year is $1 trillion.

All this waste is particularly shocking considering the number of hungry or malnourished people around the world. There are nearly one billion hungry people in our world, and the world can feed all of those people on less than a quarter of the food waste from the US, UK, and Europe.

Of course, reducing food waste is not just for individuals. Governments, farmers, and businesses also have to play a role. But in the developed world, over half of all food waste occurs in households. You can also do your bit by helping to raise awareness in and around the food waste problem.

Where Food Waste Goes

The US recycles an estimated 95% of its 21 million tons of annual industrial food waste2, primarily for animal feed. But it only recycles 10% of the 52 million tons of food waste derived from consumer-facing businesses– so this is a much more pressing problem.

When food waste ends up in landfills, it often decomposes anaerobically, creating a big stink. Further, this organic material releases quantities of greenhouse gas emissions from landfill disposal. Specifically, methane emissions – a potent greenhouse gas – more potent than carbon dioxide - contribute to global warming.

Certain local authorities divert this organic waste into a separate waste stream and either compost it for the municipality or community use. Or their plants turn the waste into fuel and farming fertilizers. But even when they commercially compost food waste, there's still the problem of burning fossil fuels when transporting and processing the materials.

So we all need to think about how we can deal with food waste at home. Of course, the first step is to reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place. Of course, we should ideally aim for zero food waste. We should compost as much of what we haven't used for food as possible rather than wastefully discarding it.

What is Composting?

What is composting
Photo by Christian Joudrey on Unsplash

When it comes down to it, we can think of composting as nature's recycling system. It involves using natural processes to break down food scraps and other organic, compostable material.

Composting does not just allow us to reduce food waste and lessen our negative impact on the planet and people. It also allows us to make valuable material to grow our food, either in our gardens or even inside our homes.

How to Compost Food Waste?

Wherever you are composting, it is important to understand the fundamentals. You should have a basic understanding of how composting works and of what you are trying to achieve. Composting is not difficult. But it is important to understand the basics before you get started to get the best results.

  • Composting is a living system. It requires micro-organisms, and sometimes also other creatures like worms, to work. Thinking about the needs of our little helpers and providing the right environment for them is crucial to good compost creation.
  • There are two main types of composting – with oxygen (aerobic) or without oxygen (anaerobic) decomposition. When we create compost at home, we aim for aerobic decomposition. Aerobic microbes use oxygen in the compost pile to process waste efficiently and effectively.
  • Temperature is another critical factor. It can influence how well and how quickly food waste breaks down. (Though the temperatures we aim for will depend on which type of aerobic composting we choose).
  • Moisture is also important. Successful compost creation means ensuring the materials are not too wet or too dry.
  • Creating a balance between nitrogen and carbon in a composting system, and ensuring a good mix of both types of material, is one of the most important things in home composting. For nitrogen-rich food waste to break down and make good compost, we need to add carbon-rich materials too. Carbon-rich materials include untreated cardboard and paper, wood chips, dry leaves, and straw. The perfect ratio between these two types of material will depend on the composting method or methods you choose.

Related: We've also a complete breakdown of urban composting for people in city environments, including small compost bin options for those without access to gardens or limited outdoor space.

What Can We Compost?

What can we compost?
Photo: Public Domain

The materials we can add to the compost system will vary depending on your chosen method. Certain composting practices or methods involve taking much more care than others. But here are some examples of composting material typically used at home:

Nitrogen and nutrient-rich materials include:

  • fruit and vegetable scraps
  • eggshells
  • coffee grounds/ plastic-free teabags
  • green leaves & green waste
  • fresh grass clippings
  • weeds (that have not set seed and which do not regrow from root sections)
  • animal manures
  • seaweed

Carbon-rich materials include:

  • cardboard & untreated paper
  • cotton and other natural fibers
  • straw
  • twiggy material
  • organic yard waste
  • yard trimmings
  • wood chips
  • bark
  • sawdust
  • dead leaves.

Food waste to avoid in your compost

Compost heaps like organic materials. Don't add plastics and other non-biodegradable materials to your compost. This includes things like lint from washing machines and the contents of vacuum cleaners, which usually contain microplastics from synthetic materials. (Though there is now compostable plastic packaging that we can add to a composting system).

Similarly, pet waste doesn't make for suitable compost material. Cooked food waste is generally ok; however, across the board, you're best to avoid anything that might attract pests, such as meat and so on. Additionally, avoid contaminating your compost with any food waste or other matter exposed or heavy in chemical fertilizers.

You should also take care not to introduce composting materials that could pass pathogens into your food production areas, which will take too long to break down, or which will pollute the environment.

Further Reading: What Not to Compost? (and What You Can)

Methods of Home Composting to Consider

To start composting at home, you will need to decide which method to use. Which one is right for you will depend on where you live, how much space is available, and whether you are just composting household waste or have garden waste to deal with too.

Backyard composting

If you have a garden, one of the simplest ways to compost food waste and other organic matter at home is by composting in place. Composting in place can be as simple as digging a hole or trench and adding organic waste directly to it before covering it over with soil.

You can also consider using a composting process in place to make a new growing area, so you can start growing your food. You don't have to dig to create a new growing area; you can simply layer food waste and other compostable materials on top of the soil to make a 'lasagna bed' or hugelkultur mound.

Heaps, hot, cold, and other composting at-home options

If you want to use compost elsewhere in your garden, you can also create a simple cold composting heap, a composting bin, or other container made from a range of reclaimed materials.

A carefully designed heap or special bin or container can also become, either inside or outside, a hot composting system.

Hot composting is simply about composting at higher temperatures. It speeds up the process considerably and allows you to deal with scraps from meat that you usually cannot add to a typical cold composting system. It can also help destroy weed seeds and other nasties you don't want in a healthy compost heap. Using a compost tumbler can also potentially speed up and improve the decomposition process.

Whether or not you have a garden, there is a range of specific composting containers you can choose from. A simple bucket system under a kitchen sink can be effective. Or you can develop a more elaborate system and set up a vermicomposting or worm composting system. A homemade worm bin where composting happens with the help of special worms who eat through remains to help it process.

Finally, you can consider fermentation before composting. Using a bokashi system will speed up the process of compost creation.

Other composting options

If all of the above is beyond reach for whatever reason, you might find that your local authority undertakes municipal solid waste compost as part of its waste management. If so, you likely already have a dedicated container for composting food waste that they collect alongside your standard curbside waste for processing at an industrial composting facility.

You can also undertake a quick search online to find out if you have a community composting program near you. These shared heaps or facilities are often coupled with community gardens or urban agriculture projects. Whereas exactly how they work can vary, for the most part, it's simply a matter of tipping up with your food waste compost material and contributing to a shared compost heap.

Conclusion

Choose the right method for food waste composting food scraps where you live, and you will soon begin to see the benefits of composting. If you do not already have your own compost system set up, you'll find many reasons to create one.

It really is one of the best things you can do to move closer to a truly sustainable, ethical, and eco-friendly way of life. And of course, a rich finished compost will only support growing your own vegetables and produce or help to ensure a healthy garden, complete with the environmental benefits of reducing food waste.

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1Hall KD, Guo J, Dore M, Chow CC (2009) The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact. PLoS ONE 4(11): e7940. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0007940
2Rockerfella Foundation, 2016: A ROADMAP TO REDUCE U.S. FOOD WASTE BY 20 PERCENT
3State of Food and Agriculture. FAO (UN), 2019
4Food wastage footprints. FOA (UN)

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Main Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash
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