In the 1960s, General Electric released an infomercial for an innovation set to transform the way Americans disposed of their waste. “Goodbye to Garbage” flashes up on screen, and we see an actress standing in a pristine kitchen attempting to wrap food waste in newspaper to take it to the trash. In true infomercial style, crisis strikes when the paper breaks and the countertop is littered with food scraps. General Electric’s answer is the Disposall, a bone-crunching garbage disposal that lets families literally flush food down the kitchen drain.
This infomercial was as much an advert for the Disposall as it was for the new convenience culture sweeping the western world. New technologies were springing up with an answer to many of life’s inconvenient challenges, and the take-make-dispose model of living was lauded. Flushing food down the drain may have been wasteful, but waste didn’t matter like it does today.
The U.S. throws away more food than any other country in the world, amounting to approximately 103 million tons, or 30-40% of our food supply. The average family of four throws out $1,500 worth every year. Not only is this a crisis in the context of the 35 million Americans that face hunger, it’s a profound environmental challenge often overlooked.
The vast bulk of our food waste goes to landfill, taking up more space there than anything else we throw out. In landfill it rots and releases methane which is approximately 80 times more powerful at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. This methane begins getting released before the landfill is capped meaning it cannot be captured. The carbon footprint of our food waste alone is greater than the entire airline industry.
If we stopped wasting food on a global scale, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8%. Reducing food waste, improving expiration dates and participating in food sharing programs are all necessary parts of the solution. But even with the best of efforts however, food waste will still occur.
With the Biden Administration now committed to reaching the Paris Climate Agreement, food waste must be diverted away from landfill to reduce emissions. The EPA Warm study gave an equivalent credit of 1 ton of CO2 for each ton of food scraps taken out of landfill. The best place for it is in composting facilities where it can be recycled into nutrient-rich soils.
Maryland is one state pioneering this transition. Just this year it banned food waste from going to landfill. Instead, it collects it separately and sends it to compost. Today, national action is on the horizon with the newly introduced Compost Act. The sweeping Federal Bill will classify composting as a conservation practice, and provide both grants and loans to support industrial and small-scale composting.
It’s a major step towards a greener nation, but to succeed it will not only need the support of our politicians and people, it will need a change in the way we package our food too.
By switching from plastic packaging to compostable packaging, people are encouraged to separate their food waste. With compostable packaging you don’t have to get your hands dirty separating old food from its plastic packaging to ensure it goes in your food waste bin, you can simply dispose of the packaging alongside the food.
Innovations in compostable packaging are also constantly occurring, and it can now reduce food waste in another way — by extending the shelf-life of fresh produce. Two peer reviewed studies found certified compostable packaging provided better protection for the freshness of both bell peppers and cucumbers.
It may be more than half a century since General Electric’s Disposall ad, but our attitudes to waste are only just changing. We have a chance to be a global leader on using food waste as a resource, slashing emissions in the process. The Compost Act is our route to achieving this. It’s now time the nation put its weight behind it.
For more information, visit compostinfrastructure.com/take-action.