Wait a Sec: Food Scraps Don’t Break Down in Landfills?

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"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."

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 unfortunate reality is that the landfill environment isn’t made to help organic materials break down. It just gives them a place to sit and release gases that harm the planet.

Kathryn Kellogg, creator of the blog Going Zero Waste and author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, is breaking it all down in an Instagram post. “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,” says says. “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. In fact, landfills are to blame for at least 16 percent of all methane emissions in the United States.

“There’s no oxygen in a landfill, so organic matter like food scraps are stuck in a limbo state, releasing methane. 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.”

— Kathryn Kellogg

“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.”

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 out 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, coffee grounds and filters, etc.) that can be composted, either. Other organic materials that can be composted include paper, wood, cardboard, dry pet food, grass clippings, leaves, and more.

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.

Curious about a zero waste lifestyle? Want to know what the “circular economy” really means? Subscribe to Brightly’s top-rated podcast, Good Together. Every 30-minute episode features daily, actionable tips to help you live your life more sustainably.

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.

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