You’re at the grocery store, strolling along the aisles in search of your weekly items. Your body goes through the usual motions of plucking them from the shelves and tossing them into your cart. So entrenched is this routine that it feels like you’re on autopilot. You could probably do it in your sleep. You check out, transport your goodies home to the family ... and end up wasting more than you anticipated.
You’ve been here before. Something doesn’t taste the way you imagined it would. You forgot about the half-full milk carton shoved to the back of the fridge. It’s only when you smell something sour the next time you open the door that you realize, with a pang of guilt, that you have no choice but to toss it out. You end up not needing a dozen eggs, the head of lettuce, or the strawberries you just had to have, and it all goes in the trash next to the milk. Of course, you don’t do this on purpose. No one buys milk and thinks, “I can’t wait ‘til this goes bad!” Regardless of our intentions, Americans are criminally wasteful when it comes to food. It’s shameful that American households are responsible for 43 percent of waste. Grocery stores and restaurants are almost equally culpable, wasting about 40 percent of their food. Farms contribute to around 16 percent, with the final 2 percent belonging to food manufacturers.
Where does all of this discarded food go? Sadly, it’s not redistributed to those facing food scarcity. It’s not even disposed of in a way that allows for natural decomposition. As it slowly rots in a landfill, the food we discard feeds only the atmosphere releasing great bubbles of methane. If this doesn’t worry you, it should. Of the two greenhouse gases driving climate change, methane is twice as efficient in trapping heat than carbon dioxide—11 percent, to be exact. It might not sound like much, but that 11 percent has devastating consequences not only on our atmosphere but on human access to food.
According to The Global Food Banking Network, pre-COVID-19, “The prevalence of moderate to severe levels of food insecurity ... was estimated to be about 25.9 percent worldwide, with virtually no country unaffected.” In the United States alone, 40 million people are facing hunger, including 12 million kids. These statistics are as shocking as they are unacceptable.
If you’re wondering if there’s anything you can do that would make any difference, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”
Believe it or not, there’s a very simple thing you can do. You can start today if you want. It doesn’t involve donating money. It doesn’t even include donating food—although donating either or both are always welcome.
If you want to reduce food waste and fight hunger, all you have to do is start composting.
But, you might wonder, isn’t composting only for people living in the country who have the space for it? Actually, composting can be done anywhere. Before we get to the how let’s look at the benefits of turning all that waste into something that’s not only good for the earth but also for humanity.
The first and most apparent benefit of composting is that it reduces food going to landfills and combustion sites. Less food waste in landfills means less methane in the atmosphere. That’s already a huge impact! But, the benefits don’t stop there. Composting lessens the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers that can end up in the soil and in our water supply. It can also help to improve low-quality soil, restore forests, and grow larger, healthier crops and garden produce.
First, you’ll need a bin—a trash can or any size plastic container. It would be best if you drilled holes in the bottom of your bin to allow oxygen to reach your waste matter. Be sure to place it in a dry, shaded area with a water source nearby. You don’t need much room for this. Depending on the size of your container, even a corner in your kitchen, mudroom, or patio will work just fine.
What you put into the container is essential. You can only compost matter that was once living. This matter comes in two forms: brown matter and green matter.
Green matter includes coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, and manure. These items are high in nitrogen. Brown matter includes dead leaves, hay, straw, cardboard, wood ash, and houseplants—in other words, things high in carbon. Combining the nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and water will create a rich environment for fungi, bacteria, and worms to decompose your matter in a natural and healthy way. However, some materials do not compost well. It would be best if you didn’t try composting animal or dairy products, cooking grease, bones, or sawdust. No plastics either, as you’ll risk adding toxins into your mixture. This list is not exhaustive, so I encourage you to do a little of your research before you don your environmental superhero cape.
Next comes the actual composting process. Firstly, the green matter must be separated from the brown matter. When you add matter to the bin, always do so in the following ratio: one part green matter to every three parts brown matter. Do this in layers, being sure to add some water to the green layer each time. You’ll need to turn the compost once a week for aeration.
When you’ve got a bin full of moist, brown compost, you’re ready to add it to your garden.
If you don’t have the space or don’t wish to do the composting yourself, check with your city to see if there are areas to drop off compostable material. You can even start a composting program if your city does not already have one. Our food doesn’t have to go to landfills.
With a simple change to our daily routine, we can wean ourselves away from wasteful habits and reliance on chemicals to grow our food. We may not change our communities or the world overnight, but it’s an excellent place to start. The Global Food Banking Network, in its 2020 update on sustainable development goals, says it plainly, “Food loss and waste is a preventable environmental crisis.” ActionAid USA, an international network dedicated to fighting systems of inequality and climate change, echoes this. “We need a transformation in how we produce, consume, and distribute food, and we need a transformation in the distribution of power and recognition. The right to food must be at the heart of this change.”
The power of transformation is in our hands. All it takes is a bin, some food scraps, and a little determination. Let’s get our gloves on and get composting!
By Natale LaPlante
Volunteer at Student LunchBox.
Edited by Jennifer Wyman
Student LunchBox, Inc