The 4 R’s of Sustainable Management #5

As Extension Master Gardeners, we are passionate about sharing the many ways each of us can have a positive impact by following sustainable environmental practices. Among them are the 4 R’s of Waste Management: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot (i.e. compost). This post focuses on food waste and composting.

According to the USDA and EPA, Americans discard some 30-40 percent of the food produced each year. U.S. consumers, farms, and businesses spend $218 billion annually to grow, process, transport, and dispose of food that is never eaten. Of the 63 million tons of food waste generated each year, nearly 85 percent occurs downstream at the consumer level, including 43 percent in individual households. As much as 219 pounds of food is thrown away per person per year. Just imagine the benefit of redirecting this food to the one in seven Americans who are food insecure!

The EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills and combustion facilities than any other single trash material. It makes up 22 percent of municipal solid waste. When left to decompose in landfills (typically in plastic bags) food waste produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

The most effective way to reduce food waste is to prevent it in the first place! Check out these EPA tools, and take a look at Get Smart: Take the Challenge to conduct a food waste audit. Individuals and businesses can take simple steps to avoid waste, such as planning meals more carefully, inventorying supplies before shopping, buying only what’s needed, and freezing food that won’t be eaten right away. For more tips and tools, visit the Save The Food website.

It may not be possible to eliminate all food waste, but much of it can be composted—either at home or at a composting facility—rather than sent to a landfill. Properly composted food scraps and yard waste enhance soil health and structure by adding nutrient-rich organic material, improving water retention, and stimulating microbial activity. All of which reduce the need for fertilizers and help build healthier soils. Healthier soils help grow stronger, healthier plants.

For guidance on how to compost at home, see Backyard Composting With Practical Tips From the Pros, an article in PMG’s Garden Shed newsletter. The City of Charlottesville also offers a list of what to include and not include in the home compost pile.

If composting at home isn’t possible, the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority (RSWA) and Black Bear Composting both offer composting programs in the Charlottesville-Albemarle County area.  Although the programs differ, each provides a pretty simple process, with the added benefit of giving you access to compost for your home landscape and gardens. RSWA offers separate programs for food scraps and yard waste; Black Bear processes both together.

RSWA accepts household food waste for composting at both its Ivy and McIntire recycling sites. Compostable food scraps can be bagged and stored in the freezer until you are ready to recycle them. Use compostable bags purchased from grocery stores or complimentary bags available at the composting kiosks at the recycling sites. The Ivy site sells bulk compost produced by McGill Environmental Systems in Waverly, Va., which composts food waste from the McIntire Recycling Center and biosolids from the Moores Creek Advanced Water Resource Recovery facility. More information can be found on the McGill website.

Yard waste is the other organic material that we need to recycle into mulch or compost rather than send to the landfill. RSWA produces mulch by recycling wood and yard waste such as stumps, brush, pallets, or other organic debris that would otherwise be landfilled. The mulch is made available for sale to the public. Panorama Paydirt offers a variety of products, including leaf and poultry litter compost as well as mulch from yard debris and hardwood bark.

Black Bear Composting offers both residential and businesses recycling of food scraps and yard waste. For subscribers to its residential curbside service, a five-gallon sealed bin of compostables is collected weekly and five gallons of finished compost are dropped off each month. The company also offers weekly pickup of a 65-gallon wheeled bin for food and yard waste and provides 10 gallons of compost per month in return. Larger scale options are available for businesses.

Nationally in 2017, only 6.3 percent of food waste was composted, according to the EPA. We can do better. When it’s not possible to avoid food waste or to use excess food to feed hungry families and animals, or deploy it for industrial purposes, composting gives us an effective and constructive way to reuse this material that is entirely natural.

When we toss food in the trash, we are throwing away much more: all the water, energy, gasoline, land, fertilizers, and human labor that went into making it. As the largest collective source of discarded food, consumers can make a big difference in reducing this waste of resources. It’s about everyone doing their part, from individuals to large corporations. By taking responsibility and making small changes, we can create meaningful benefits for the planet and move toward a more sustainable future.