January 06, 2023
Raise your hand if you’ve ever thought something like this: It’s fine to toss this banana peel in the trash can. It’ll naturally rot and turn into dirt, so it doesn’t matter. Or maybe you’ve never given much thought to what happens to your trash after you throw it away!
No. Landfilling should be a last resort for lots of categories of waste, including food. Food waste takes up a huge portion of landfill space, where it would otherwise give valuable nutrients to soils.
Springfield’s commercial and residential waste goes to the Noble Hill Sanitary Landfill located northwest of town, and a statewide study found that food waste makes up about 12% of its composition. The 2016 Waste Composition Study inspected more than 1,000 tons of municipal solid waste and found more than 30,000 pounds of food waste. The two most commonly occurring materials sorted at Springfield’s landfill—food waste and compostable paper, both of which don’t belong in the landfill—account for more than a fifth of its contents.
In other words, if everyone immediately ceased throwing paper products and food waste in the trash, we’d decrease the amount of municipal solid waste dumped in the landfill by a whopping 20%.
Your banana peels—plus your apple cores, wilted lettuce, carrot tops, stale bread, eggshells, cherry stems, avocado pits, corn husks, orange peels, onion skins, coffee grounds, tea leaves, garden scraps, lawn trimmings, twigs, mulch, and every other kind of household organic waste—don’t belong in landfills. They don’t turn to soil when landfilled, and they even cause harm when they’re wasted.
The harm in tossing food waste in the landfill is threefold.
Ashley Krug is the Market Development Coordinator with the City of Springfield Environmental Services. She says while it’s easy to confuse the process of natural decomposition and what happens in the landfill, the two are very different.
If you toss a banana peel into the grass at your neighborhood park, where it’s exposed to sun, rain, air, and all the necessary elements for decomposition, it will release the carbon it had accumulated over its lifetime and decompose quickly—in around 30 days.
Conversely, a landfill environment is very different. The goal is to compress waste down to the smallest volume possible because space is the premium. For a landfill to last as long as possible, we need to cram as much in there as possible, Krug said. Rolling over trash with heavy machines creates an anaerobic environment—an environment without air.
Decomposition in landfills is much slower because you’ve removed a crucial part of the process: air. Compression creates a tomb around waste, so what would normally take a very short amount of time to break down in nature takes a very long time to break down in a landfill.
Krug said a perfect example of delayed decomposition is illustrated in an anthropological study from the University of Arizona that unearthed decades-old newspapers heaped under hundreds of layers of trash. Surprisingly, the papers were pristine and perfectly legible. This demonstrates that landfills “are not vast composters; rather, they are vast mummifiers,” as reported by The Washington Post.
The University of Arizona researchers found much more than newspapers in their digs. Hot dogs, lettuce, and even guacamole look just as they did the day they were thrown out in 1967.
Slower rates of decomposition as a result of entombment is one of the biggest reasons why the City wants to direct its residents toward waste diversion, particularly food waste diversion, Krug said.
To be a part of the solution, Krug recommended a change in perspective. Instead of viewing the landfill as a place to put everything, think of it as a resource to put waste that does not have a “higher and best use” to be disposed of safely, she said. Better uses for food waste include feeding hungry bellies, composting, aerobic digestion, and biogas.
Krug said to think about food waste in a hierarchy: Composting is going to help to benefit us as gardeners and as people. It helps decarbonize greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering (or capturing) carbon in soil. And it keeps our landfills open longer.
“The landfill is never the highest and best use for food waste,” Krug said.
Some single-use plastic products, like cups or flatware, have compostable alternatives. But not all compostables are created equal.
Compostable plastics in particular are rarely easy to compost. It’s not as simple as tossing a biodegradable banana peel in with other green and brown organic matter.
Compostable products are easily confused with biodegradable ones because we often use the terms interchangeably. But there are several key differences, Krug explained.
Biodegradable products, like paper plates or paper napkins, compost easily because they are made of organic matter. Compostable products, on the other hand, are often a blend of organic matter and plastic. This blend enables the product to break down, but only in large-scale, commercial composters that are vastly different from a backyard composting setup. In the end, a compostable product still leaves leftover plastic in the compost.
Springfield’s composters don’t accept compostable items like these because of the presence of PFAS—polyfluoroalkyl substances—which are long-lasting chemicals in many consumer products and commercial applications like nonstick cookware, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant carpet and furniture, cosmetics, and water-repellant clothes.
These chemicals are endocrine disruptors, which means they interfere with the function of the body’s hormones and other biological processes. PFAS can be dangerous because they are linked to reproductive problems, cancers and weakened childhood immunity.
The City doesn’t want PFAS in their compost at the Yardwaste Recycling Center, Krug says, which leaves residents with no avenue to take compostables.
Eco-conscious folks know single-use plastics can be a big problem, and many of us are liable to turn to compostable alternatives, she said. But without a disposal site, compostables just end up in the landfill anyway.
Krug finds residents are well-intentioned and want to do the right thing, but buying compostable dishware or cutlery might not be the best outlet. You’ll face the same challenges of tossing compostable products in the trash because there’s nowhere else for them to go.
Krug’s solution? Rely on reusables when possible. Bring metal cutlery on a picnic or pack tomorrow’s lunch in a washable container. And don’t throw compostable products in the recycling bin: They won’t get recycled.
“If I have the choice to throw away a plastic plate or … a biodegradable plate, sure, the biodegradable plate is going to be better because it’ll eventually break down,” Krug said. “But both are going to take a very long time, and compost in the landfill doesn’t do (the) planet any good.”
Methane is one of the more powerful greenhouse gasses—it is more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat from the sun in earth’s atmosphere. Methane makes up around 11% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, mostly as a primary ingredient in natural gas used for heating and electricity.
By itself, methane is non-toxic, but when concentrated in the atmosphere it is potent, ample and often dangerous. Landfills generate large amounts of methane through anaerobic decomposition. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated landfills emitted more than 100 million tons of methane into the atmosphere in 2020. (All waste decomposition generates some methane, but food waste is the biggest contributor because of its organic makeup.)
Many new landfills have methane capture strategies in place to meet air quality standards, for use in power generation or for disposal via flaring. Safely harnessing pockets of methane in the landfill is important because it is flammable. On site at Noble Hill, there is a five-megawatt generator (a megawatt is a million watts; an average household lightbulb uses about 60 watts) that uses methane to produce energy.
The City needs to flare its gas regularly due to the age of the equipment, though, as the dirty gas generated from trash is often hard on engines. Flaring isn’t ideal, Krug said, but when engines go down it’s an appropriate alternative compared to emitting methane into the atmosphere.
Diana Dudenhoeffer is a multimedia journalist from Springfield, Missouri. She studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling at Missouri State University. She is the current media intern at OHRD, writing blogposts like this one.
Graphics 1 and 2 credit: Illustrations by HeadsOfBirds, Ardi Fernan, Nikita Kozin, The Deserve, Fernanddo Santtander, Vectorstall, Nursila, Lars Meiertoberens and Vectors Market on The Noun Project.
Graphic 3 credit: Images via Unsplash.
Featured image and social media promo: Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on Pexels.