Can you recycle that?

By Kate Whitbeck

Keep food out of landfills

When it comes to the zero waste movement, the recent buzz locally has all been associated with food waste. You might be thinking, food waste just decomposes over time, so why should we care?

Food waste, in fact, is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)—13% of GHG emissions are related to the production and transport of food, and the decomposition of foodwaste in landfills (22% of our municipal solid waste is food!). When food waste is buried at your local landfill, it breaks down anaerobically (without oxygen), producing methane gas which is 40 times more potent than C02 over time.

In addition, 40% of food produced is wasted, and landfills are our leading source of methane.  So, what can we do about it?

As with any conversation concerning waste, identifying ways that we can reduce food waste should be our top priority. One of the first steps we can take is to eliminate waste in production and transport.

As a humble consumer, this means that growing your own fruit and vegetables or buying from your local farmers when possible does make a difference. Buy what’s in season locally and buy only what you need and will use or preserve.

Planning your meals, shopping with lists, and being creative with scraps and leftovers are also great ways to avoid unnecessary waste. A side benefit of this disciplined approach is that you’ll reduce your expenditures overall. I admit there are times when I feel overwhelmed by leftovers, an overly productive garden or an generous CSA share. Juggling work and the schedules of two kids, among other responsibilities, limits the time I have to spend canning,  or dehydrating food to ensure the excess doesn’t spoil. However, I have learned that the crockpot and freezer provide quick and easy solutions to these challenges. Washing and cutting produce and throwing it in the freezer or crockpot (then freezing it) reduces waste and associated food waste guilt. (Editor’s note: Fermenting is another extremely easy and tasty way to deal with excess produce.)

Sending leftovers home with guests or giving away produce to friends who don’t have gardens or CSAs is another alternative to letting things go to waste. We are also fortunate to have neighbors who accept our perishables when we leave for a trip. Cultivating relationships with fellow zero waste-minded people is a great way to prevent your perishables, and theirs, from going to waste.

Of course, there are times when food hides in the back of the refrigerator and seizes the opportunity to rot or mold. At these times, I defer to the food waste use hierarchy which directs us to feed hungry humans and animals first, then divert to compost or anaerobic digestion operations. In our household, after the dog, that means feeding the worms (indoor vermicomposting bin) and then the backyard compost bin. Friends who have chickens, of course, have an additional option. If you are unfamiliar with vermicomposting—check out Wasatch Community Gardens’ workshop schedule to learn how to make your own bin and produce the best soil supplements in worm tea and castings.

In addition to the indoor vermicomposting bin, we have a compost bin outside which we we continue to fill and turn all year. The active breakdown of material slows down in winter when the temperatures plummet but things pick up again in the spring.

If you don’t have the opportunity or desire to manage a compost bin (or a bunch of worms), consider Salt Lake City’s yard waste (brown) bin. (If you live outside of SLC, check with your city to make sure they allow kitchen scraps in your yard waste bins.) Many people are not aware that they can place fruit, vegetable scraps and coffee grounds along with the yard waste in these bins.

When yard waste service is suspended for the winter, you might ask a composting neighbor to contribute to their bin, or contact a nearby community garden to see if they will allow you to deliver your scraps to the common bins there until the City starts up yard waste collection service come spring. Or maybe now’s the time to rethink composting, and maybe give it a try.

Next month we’ll take a look at  the new anaerobic digester under construction in North Salt Lake and how it can contribute to greater food waste diversion while producing pipeline-grade renewable natural gas!

Kate Whitbeck is a founder and owner of Momentum Recycling in Salt Lake City, a full-service zero waste company offering comprehensive recycling collection services to organizations and residences along the Wasatch Front. She remains passionate about zero waste and strives every day to make conscientious decisions about reducing the impact of her family of five (including dog) on the environment.

This article was originally published on October 31, 2018.