To the editor:
Currently, Feeding America (a US nonprofit, working towards ensuring equitable food access for all) estimates that about 119 pounds of food are wasted every year per person, in the US alone. This is about 103 billion meals or $408 billion spent on food that is thrown away. Most of this food is thrown into landfills, where it is unable to decompose for decades despite it being organic material. Many people assume that food they throw into the trash will just decompose in a matter of weeks, but a single head of lettuce in a landfill can take up to 25 years to decompose.
On top of this, the landfill conditions means the food breakdown releases methane, a greenhouse gas. The decomposition of food waste and organic materials also releases helpful particles like nitrogen and phosphorus. In landfills, these nutrients gather in the leachate—the liquid that seeps through the solid waste—which is then collected and moved to a water treatment plant. Adding to this, farmers will often add fertilizer to their crops to add back in nutrients. This fertilizer often includes synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus, which could have been added naturally from organic matter. All in all, landfills are the last place food waste should end up.
Here in Natick, like many of the surrounding towns, our trash is sent to Millbury to be incinerated. This does not make throwing food in the trash any better. Incineration is done to lessen the landfill space needed, but it is not ideal, especially for food waste. Incineration can lead to toxic and harmful substances being released into the atmosphere, which can impact human life (World Health Organization, 2018). There are options to help reduce these emissions, but they do not work perfectly and are only installed on newer incinerators. Food waste is mostly made of water so it requires a lot of energy to be incinerated. Often incineration can be used as a way to generate power, but with food waste the power generated is net neutral or even negative. Neither incineration nor landfills are the ideal place for food waste to end up.
The Pyramid of Food Recovery details the five preferred methods of preventing food waste before putting it in landfills or incineration. The first is source reduction, which includes both growing less food and buying less food. In the US, about 61% of all food waste is commercial food waste, meaning it comes from supermarkets and restaurants (Feeding America, 2022). Often in stores when a food no longer looks appealing or is coming close to the expiration date it will be thrown out, despite it still being fine for human consumption. Many European countries have started penalizing stores for throwing food away, and instead they have to find a way to use it. Stores can also work to buy less products—then there is less to throw out. By changing how much stores are buying and how they are disposing of it, food waste in the US could be reduced drastically.
The next level in the Pyramid of Food Recovery is to feed food waste to humans, then feed it to animals. The priority is to feed it to humans, but sometimes this isn’t possible so feeding it to livestock is the next best option. As of March 2023, about 19% of households in Massachusetts reported food insecurity according to Project Bread; this number has doubled since before the pandemic. Because of this, whenever possible leftover food should be packaged and donated to local food banks or food pantries. Due to health and safety issues, this may not be something that everyday residents can do, but it is definitely something large restaurants and supermarkets can do. Any foods that are not sold, but are still completely fine for consumption can be donated for others to eat.
However, the general public can definitely work to give leftover food to livestock, as health and safety is less of an issue. However, in Natick there are not many places with livestock willing to take food scraps. Ideally, they could go to residential livestock, like a neighbor with chickens or goats, but this is not common here. There are also no farms in the area that allow for residents to feed food waste to their animals. However, if this is ever available to you where you are, it is definitely preferable to composting.
There is another potential option for larger restaurants and supermarkets that takes precedence over composting; this is using it to create energy for industrial uses. Basically, all these large amounts of food waste are collected and go through the process of anaerobic digestion, where microorganisms break it down. The leftover product is then used to create biofuel to power generators. Another option is the creation of biodiesel or soap and animal fuel through the process of rendering. In these situations the food is again being reused, as opposed to just breaking down, so it is preferable to composting.
That said, composting is not a bad option and is preferable to throwing food away. Unlike in landfills, food waste in compost is exposed to oxygen, allowing it to break down quickly and properly, in a way that doesn’t release greenhouse gasses. Here in Natick there is a composting program that allows residents to be a part of a town-run composting program, or have a bin in their own backyard. Visit the public works tab of the town website for more information about these options. Even if you are not able to afford the fees associated with these programs, composting can be very easy and cheap. It is a great option and by far the most accessible for most people.
While composting may be the least preferred method of food recovery, it is still preferred to throwing food to be taken to the landfill. Any actions we as individuals can make have a huge impact. Not only do these food recovery options help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they also produce a secondary product we can utilize, like nutrient rich soil or decreased poverty rates. We should all be working together as a community to build a better future for ourselves, and thinking of where your food scraps go is an easy way to do so.
Natick High School, Class of 2024, AP Environmental Science student