How long does it take for a head of lettuce to decompose in a landfill? Really, give a guess out loud before scrolling down.
The answer? At least 25 years. Yeah, I know, its crazy! A University of Arizona project excavating landfills found a head of lettuce that was perfectly intact 25 years down in a landfill, and this wasn’t an anomaly. They found newspapers that were still readable from decades previous and all kinds of intact foods. You can read more about it in the book Rubbish! by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy which describes the project’s findings. The reason is, nothing biodegrades easily in a landfill. A well managed landfill seals off its contents like a tomb, often by piling dirt or another sealant on it. Biodegradation requires oxygen and microbes, both of which are in short supply in a landfill.
All those years, I had been scraping spoiled food and vegetable peelings into the trash thinking that, somehow, they would become dirt again one day. I never stopped to think how unrealistic this was considering they would be mixed in with everything else in a landfill–like motor oil, leftover medications, and other stuff you wouldn’t want in your garden soil. I never stopped to think that by scraping food into the trash, I was asking my kids, and their kids, and every generation after me to maintain those scraps in a landfill forever. Not super great parenting skills on my part!
It gets worse.
Some food in a landfill DOES start to break down, but since there isn’t any oxygen, it breaks up anaerobically. This produces methane, a flammable gas which then seeps up to the surface. Some landfills collect part of the gas to turn into energy (less than 10% of landfills in the USA have this capability according to the book Outsmart Waste). The rest is released into the atmosphere, where it is a greenhouse gas 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Methane is also the gas responsible when old landfills have suddenly exploded (it would be funny if old landfills weren’t frequently topped with playgrounds.) Even in Chattanooga the Montague Park on E 23rd street was shut down for several years in 2003 for methane leaks from the old landfill on which it is built.
And that brings up my final reason putting food in the trash is unwise–it isn’t economical. Landfills–especially ones that are already full–are expensive. They require constant monitoring to make sure the plastic lining below hasn’t developed holes and that methane isn’t leaking out. If anything does start to biodegrade it causes settling and makes the surface unstable and start to leak. In our city of Chattanooga, an old landfill off Amnicola Highway cost our city so much that the EPA had to give special funding in order to clean it up and stop the leaks of toxic chemicals that were pouring into the Tennessee River. The people who put their stuff into the landfill are no longer around, but we had to pay the bill. Not only this, but when food is put in a landfill, it isn’t allowed to return to the natural cycle of biodegrading into new soil. It does not make economic sense to take something that could become a valuable product (soil) and instead make it a financial liability. I would rather my grandkids’ tax money go towards creating better schools instead of towards monitoring the methane output of my vegetable peels.
So, when you are scraping off that food into the trash can you are, at best, dooming all of the generations to come to preserving that food forever to be sealed off in a landfill, never to be a part of nature again. Or at worst, creating a deadly explosion for unsuspecting children as they play at the park. Ok, that second one is exaggerating a little, but you get the point. Landfills were not designed to contain anything that can biodegrade.
What is a person to do? I have one word for you: Compost! It is a fairly simple solution for a seemingly complex problem.
If you google “how to compost,” there are all sorts of how-to’s I won’t repeat here. However, don’t be fooled into thinking you need a degree in biology to be a good composter. The system we use is really simple: we throw our compostable stuff in a pile in the backyard. Yes, it’s about that simple. We do try to put lots of leaves in to make sure we have enough brown-to-green ratio because if you put in only food scraps it becomes a slimy mess. And I think my husband uses a shovel to mix the pile up every other week (to give it a good oxygenation). You don’t need any special compost bin or starter.
You could stop with the pile in the yard, but since we also have a garden and want everything to go faster, we also have a compost tumbler bin which we fill from the partially decomposed pile a few times a year. This just makes it break down faster and isn’t needed if your only goal is to avoid the landfill.
But what if you don’t have a yard? Or, like my in-laws, your home association doesn’t allow composting? Never fear, you still don’t have to set explosion traps for unwitting toddlers at the park, there are other options 🙂
One awesome resource Chattanooga has is Compost House (and no, they didn’t sponsor this post). For a small monthly fee, they will come to your house and swap out a kitchen compost bin for a clean one each week. If you live outside the zip codes they service you can still have a clean bin each week, you just have to do the swap yourself at a drop-off site. An added benefit of using Compost House is that they can take items not typically ideal in a backyard pile, like the waxed paper french fries come in and meat scraps.
If that isn’t in your budget, there is ShareWaste, a free app that connects people who have compost bins (or chickens) with people who have food scraps they don’t want to end up in a landfill. You just keep a container in your freezer with your food scraps until you can bring your load to your (new) friend.
One more word about composting, there are SO many things I never thought to compost. Heck, we even buy compostable toothbrushes! Grass clippings from the lawnmower and fallen leaves have the same effects on a landfill as thrown-away food. They can be composted, or leaves can be used as mulch in your yard. Chattanooga does collect leaves and brush–call 311 to schedule a pick-up at your house (this is turned into free mulch for residents of Chattanooga). Also, when you sweep or vacuum the floor, does that dirt really need to be sealed off in a landfill? Of course not, it’s dirt! Just throw it outside or in your new lovely compost pile.
Any questions or thoughts about composting? Share them by commenting below!