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Do Food Scraps Break Down in Landfills?

Contrary to popular belief, food scraps don't break down in landfills. Here's everything you need to know before tossing them in the trash.

Written by
Stephanie Osmanski
Published
November 19, 2021

While most people don’t really think about what happens to the food they put in the trash—it’s organic, it will biodegrade!—the landfill environment isn't made to help organic materials break down.

Instead, landfills give food scraps a place to sit and release gases that harm the planet. Gases that contribute to global warming. Here's what actually happens to food waste after you toss it.

What Happens to Food Waste After You Toss It?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 70 billion pounds of food waste enters landfills every year. Kathryn Kellogg, author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, shared exactly what happens once it enters a landfill.

"Most people I meet assume their food waste will compost in a landfill, which makes sense because landfills are giant holes in the ground. But it doesn't," she said in an Instagram post. "Organics can't break down in a landfill because they're designed for storage, not decomposition."

A lack of oxygen in landfills also impedes organic materials from biodegrading. "There's no oxygen in a landfill, so organic matter like paper, wood, and food scraps are stuck in a limbo state, releasing methane," Kellogg adds. That methane is a big part of the problem: It contributes to climate change and pollutes the air quality.

Landfills are to blame for 15 percent of all methane emissions in the United States. According to the EPA, that's the equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from 21.6 million passenger vehicles driven for one year.

"Methane is a gas 30 times more powerful than carbon, which is far more devastating to the climate because of how effectively it absorbs heat,” she says. "Making food waste, if it were a country, the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions behind China and the U.S."

How to Properly Dispose of Food Waste

So what’s a zero-waste wannabe to do? Kellogg has a simple solution: "If you want to make a serious impact and reduce 50 percent of your household waste with just one swap, start composting," she says.

Instead of throwing compostable items like food scraps into the garbage, add them to a compost bin. Over time, your organic materials will turn into soil. That soil can then be used for gardening.

It’s not just organic food (like eggshells, produce scraps, peels, bread, and coffee grounds) that can be composted, either. If you're wondering what you can compost that's not food-related, you can also add paper, wood, cardboard, grass clippings, leaves, and more to your pile.

The next time you consider tossing out your food scraps, reach for your compost bin instead. It's one of the most effortless—and fun!—ways to better the planet.