Garbage Disposal vs Composting vs Trash: What's the Best Way to Throw Away Food?
How do you dispose of food waste in your kitchen? We looked into the garbage disposal vs composting vs trash debate. Here's what you need to know.
Many of us are stuck in our routines, and it can be difficult to break those habits. That includes how we dispose of waste—specifically, food waste. While you may be used to tossing food scraps in the trash, many consider the compost bin or even the garbage disposal to be the more eco options. But when it comes to garbage disposal vs composting vs trash, which option reigns?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 63 million tons of food waste were generated across commercial, institutional, and residential sectors in 2018. That's nearly 22% of total municipal solid waste generation.
The problem? When food is sent to landfills, it doesn't have the oxygen necessary to properly biodegrade. Instead, food scraps release harmful greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide or languish in the plastic bags used for trash disposal, which never really break down. There has to be a better way, right?
It's nearly impossible to live a completely zero-waste lifestyle, understanding the general impact of your choices can help you make better ones. With that in mind, here's what you need to know about the garbage disposal vs composting vs trash debate.
Throwing Food Waste in the Trash
The EPA's food recovery hierarchy chart, above, is an inverted triangle, showing the most preferred methods of recovering food waste—source reduction, feeding those struggling with food insecurity, and feeding animals—at the top. The farther down you go, the least favorable the disposal method is. And at the tip of the triangle—aka the bottom of the hierarchy—is the least favorable method of disposing of food waste: trashing it and thus sending it to a landfill or incinerator.
According to the EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of human-produced methane emissions in the U.S. In 2020, methane emissions from landfills were equivalent to driving 20.3 million passenger vehicles for one year.
In short, throwing food in the trash has the greatest negative environmental impact.
Composting Food Scraps and Organic Waste
While throwing food in the trash is at the very bottom of the hierarchy, composting organic waste is only one tier above it. If you were unable to divert food waste or reduce your waste production to zero, composting is a more eco-friendly alternative to throwing it in the trash.
In 2018, almost 25 million tons of municipal solid waste were recovered through composting in the U.S., according to the EPA. And in 2017, food composting curbside collection programs served 6.1 million households.
While composting doesn't rank high on the hierarchy, it's true that proper compost practices can decrease greenhouse gas emissions—and help combat global warming. One report finds that more composting programs can reduce landfill and incinerator waste in the U.S. by at least 30%. The best part? A new guard of high-tech options is helping to make at-home composting a more convenient (and far less messy) reality.
Tossing Food Scraps in the Garbage Disposal
Your kitchen sink's garbage disposal might be the most convenient way to get rid of food waste, but it's not necessarily the most environmentally sound—though it does have its benefits.
"When you use a disposer, food scraps—which are mainly water—are ground into very small particles and transported by indoor plumbing and municipal sewers to the local wastewater treatment plants," says Michael Keleman, manager of environmental engineering at InSinkErator. Once your food waste arrives at the aforementioned wastewater treatment plants, it can be used to create fertilizer and clean energy. In addition, the anaerobic digestion that occurs in-process helps to capture the methane that comes with decomposition.
But when one considers the electrical and water footprints that come with disposal use—the average consumer uses 2-5 gallons of water with each run, though many disposal companies insist that number is inflated—as well as the resources needed to pump the wastewater, it becomes clear that there really are no winners here.
When it comes down to it, the best way to combat our food waste problem is to avoid creating it in the first place. Practice conscious food-buying habits, learn to upcycle food scraps, and opt for low-waste recipes. With a few small changes, you can have a major impact on the environment.
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