I have always known that composting is a good practice for people to adopt, but as I continue to work with Clemson’s composting program it is becoming all the more apparent just how beneficial composting really is. To understand why composting is such a vital process, it is best to first become aware of some troubling facts about food waste:
- All the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe.
- The UK, US and Europe have nearly twice as much food as is required by the nutritional needs of their populations. Up to half the entire food supply is wasted between the farm and the fork.
- If crops wastefully fed to livestock are included, European countries have more than three times more food than they need, while the US has around four times more food than is needed, and up to three-quarters of the nutritional value is lost before it reaches people’s mouths.
- The bread and other cereal products thrown away in UK households alone would have been enough to lift 30 million of the world’s hungry people out of malnourishment.
- 24 to 35% of school lunches end up in the bin.
- An estimated 20 to 40% of UK fruit and vegetables are rejected even before they reach the shops – mostly because they do not match the supermarkets’ excessively strict cosmetic standards.
- 2.3 million tons of fish are discarded in the North Atlantic and the North Sea each year; 40 to 60% of all fish caught in Europe are discarded – either because they are the wrong size, species, or because of the ill-governed European quota system.
- There are nearly one billion malnourished people in the world, but the approximately 40 million tons of food wasted by US households, retailers and food services each year would be enough to satisfy the hunger of every one of them.
WOW. That is a monumental amount of food waste! It really breaks my heart to know how wasteful we are when there are so many people in the world who have so little and would give so much to have just the tiniest fraction of food that we aren’t even eating. That to me is perhaps the most unnerving reality of the situation. Unfortunately, it’s not just food that we are wasting. We’re sacrificing money, energy, land, water, and even the well-being of the environment to produce nearly four times more food than is needed. There are tremendous negative effects that this massive amount of food waste is causing. Below are just a handful of facts regarding the ripple effects of food waste:
- The irrigation water used globally to grow food that is wasted would be enough for the domestic needs (at 200 liters per person per day) of 9 billion people – the number expected on the planet by 2050.
- If we planted trees on land currently used to grow unnecessary surplus and wasted food, this would offset a theoretical maximum of 100% of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion.
- 10% of rich countries’ greenhouse gas emissions come from growing food that is never eaten.
- 8.3 million hectares of land required to produce just the meat and dairy products wasted in UK homes and in US homes, shops and restaurants. That is 7 times the amount of Amazon rainforest destroyed in Brazil in one year, largely for cattle grazing and soy production to export for livestock feed.
- Between 2 and 500 times more carbon dioxide can be saved by feeding food waste to pigs rather than sending it for anaerobic digestion (the UK government’s preferred option). But under European laws feeding food waste to pigs is banned. In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, by contrast, it is mandatory to feed some food waste to pigs.
Not to mention that most food products have excessive packaging, adding to the unnecessary amount of non-biodegradable waste that inevitably ends up in landfills (unless you recycle!). To avoid even further waste, it is important to understand how expiration dates and sell-by dates are intended to work. A surprising amount of food waste comes from food that is thrown out by households that believe it to be past it’s expiration date, when in reality it is still okay to eat.
With the mention of non-biodegradable waste, one might question the real dangers of biodegradable waste, being that it is in fact biodegradable. However, what most people fail to realize is that food waste, left rotting in a landfill, will release a substantial amount of methane gas, a greenhouse gas that has largely contributed to global warming.
At this time I find it imperative that the general population begins making serious efforts to reduce waste. I also find composting to be an essential practice for reversing and reducing some of the serious problems that excessive food waste has brought about. Among the many benefits of composting, some of the most important (according to the EPA) are the following:
- Compost enriches soils. Compost has the ability to break down organic matter and create humus – a rich nutrient-filled material. This can increase moisture in soil. Compost also has the ability to suppress diseases and pests, which can eliminate the need for chemicals and fertilizers.
- Compost can clean up contaminated soils. The scientific explanation of this can be found at http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/rrr/composting/benefits.htm
- By diverting food waste from landfills, composting greatly reduces pollution. Composting also has the ability to prevent pollutants in storm water runoff from reaching surface water resources.
- Composting also has some considerable economic benefits. Using compost can reduce the need for water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Composting also extends municipal landfill life by diverting organic materials from landfills and provides a less costly alternative to conventional methods of cleaning contaminated soil.
So there you have it! Composting may seem like a trivial practice to those unaware of how destructive years and years of too much food waste have been, but composting provides an alternative solution to that problem. It is for that reason we are so passionate about improving our own composting program here at Clemson University. Big change starts at the individual level and the more people we can convince to get on board with composting, the better chance we have of making a difference on a larger scale before the story of our planet ends up like the unfortunate tale of Wall-E. Just something to think about…