Many of us find comfort in the vague knowledge that somewhere out there, someone is recycling our waste. But have you ever asked, “what happens to my recycled food waste?” Food waste is a major issue. Each year, people around the globe throw away vast quantities of food.
Often, we do not deal with food waste in the most sustainable ways. We send them to landfills or incinerators. Both options can result in damage to our environment.
Most regions of the world are not doing enough when it comes to recycling food waste. England, for example, only recycles 12% of the food waste collected each year1.
But we all can play our part to help move our world in the right direction. By educating ourselves about this issue, reducing waste wherever we can, and dealing responsibly with our food waste. As you will learn in this article – you can take your recycled food waste into your own hands. You can begin to see it as a valuable resource, rather than as a problem.
Check out our full list of food waste facts here.
We deal with consumer food waste using different methods. What happens to your recycled food waste will depend on where you live.
Unfortunately, it may still ultimately end up in a landfill. Waste collecting agencies may also incinerate food waste. One somewhat preferable alternative is that they send it for municipal hot composting. Or to anaerobic digestion plants, where they will turn it into a soil-improver and can even be used to generate an eco-friendly fuel.
But even commercial composting is not always the ideal option. As you will discover below, the best option is always to recycle your food waste at home, through a home composting system.
Food often ends up in landfills when we do not separate it from general household refuse. Or where there are not currently alternatives.
When food waste ends up in landfill, it often decomposes anaerobically, creating a big stink, and releasing waste quantities of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – more potent than carbon dioxide - that contributes to global warming. The food becomes trapped and entangled with a range of other harmful material. In the absence of oxygen and anaerobic decomposition occurs. The material methane pockets and releases the gas, often unpredictably, into the air.
A huge quantity of food waste ends up in landfill each year, and this accounts for a large proportion of the high impact of food waste on global warming.
In many other municipalities, they do not send the food waste (which they separate into a separate waste) stream to landfill sites. Rather, they incinerate the materials. But burning food waste is not an environmentally friendly solution either.
Incineration of food waste consisting of high moisture content results in the release of dioxins, which may further lead to several environmental problems. Of course, incineration often also involves burning high quantities of fossil fuels for the energy required for the process.
Incineration is not a sustainable solution for the management of food waste. But unfortunately, in many regions, that is what happens with food waste – even when consumers imagine that they are recycling responsibly.
Certain jurisdictions, however, have implemented better environmentally friendly ways of dealing with food waste.
Hot composting systems are sometimes used to decompose food waste commercially. Waste agencies sometimes simply enclose food waste in large vessels. Then they heat the food waste to speed up the process and to kill pathogens.
Over 2-4 weeks, the material breaks down aerobically. It is then left outside to mature for a further 1-3 months, being turned and checked regularly. The resulting compost can then be used to amend the soil in gardens, public lands, or parklands.
Several local authorities in various countries have recognized that composting food waste not only leads to environmental benefits and a reduction in emissions but also brings benefits. Recycling food waste through composting shows that we should not fully consider food waste to be a problem. Rather, we can view it as a valuable commodity. It can be used to enrich the soil and boost community resilience.
Some compost created from a community's recycled food waste is used to enrich community spaces such as parks, allotments, or gardens. Some communities sell the compost back to members to use in their own spaces. Or even distributed it for individual use free of charge.
Some regions often send their food waste for anaerobic digestion. There are two main types of composting – aerobic (as above) and anaerobic. In aerobic decomposition, the process breaks down food waste in the presence of oxygen. In anaerobic digestion, it breaks down in an oxygen-free environment, often a digester tank.
When we separate food waste from other forms of waste, it can liquefy and turn into a slurry (nutrient-rich digestate) in an anaerobic digester. As food waste decomposes anaerobically, it releases methane. But unlike in landfills, we can collect this methane and convert it to biogas, which can be used to fuel our homes and businesses, or for transportation.
We can also use the slurry as a natural fertilizer in agriculture or the management of other areas of land.
However, even when we apply one of these latter two options, sending food waste away for processing is never entirely without cost to the environment. Bear in mind that there will be a carbon cost associated with the transportation of the waste to the sites where they manage the waste.
And these places need the energy to power the digesters and often to heat a hot composting system. The solution, therefore, is only as green and eco-friendly as the energy used. Unless 100% green, or with the use of renewable energy, the process of waste recycling can still be harmful to our planet.
Of course, reducing food waste in the first place should always be a top priority. Remember the waste hierarchy. Before we even think about recycling, we should have exhausted our options when it comes to refusing, reducing, and reusing.
For example, we should make sure we refuse to buy food from wasteful and damaging systems. We should always aim to enjoy a healthy and balanced diet, buying enough – but not too much. And buying better. We should avoid overconsumption and impulse buying.
We should grow our own, and truly value what we have. Remember, even food scraps and leftovers can often make delicious meals. And we can even regrow vegetables from scraps.
But there will always be some food waste to deal with. That food waste is always best dealt with yourself in a home composting system. Whether or not you have a garden, you can compost food waste at home. This is always the best way to go.
Remember, composting your food waste at home will mean that you don't have to rely on municipal systems to 'get it right'. But more than this, composting your food waste at home will also allow you to cut emissions associated with the transportation of waste and waste management.
And even more, it will also allow you to make use of food waste as a resource. It can provide you with a compost that you can use to improve the soil in your garden if you have one or to start growing your food indoors.
The best way to know what happens to your recycled food waste is to consult your local authority to find out how and where they deal with food waste in your area. But better yet, consider taking the process into your own hands.
|The Waste and Resources Action Programme, UK: A Food Waste Recycling Action Plan for England|
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.