Keeping Your Food Waste Out of Landfills and Other Alternatives to Plain Old Recycling

Sandra Folzer, Weavers Way Environment Committee

Please do not put food or garden waste in the garbage. It’s more important than any “recycling” you might do.

I have to admit, I get a nervous twitch when I see loads of paper leaf bags outside on trash day. They are all going into landfills — except in the fall, when the city collects bags at designated locations.

When you put organic material into your compost, it breaks down and enriches the soil.

In landfills, that same organic material is starved of oxygen, so it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 50 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Municipal solid-waste landfills are the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States — 14.1% in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Don’t buy more food than you can use before it spoils. Compost what you don’t eat. If you don’t have a composter, you can use any large container or set up a fenced-in area in your yard for food, grass and leaves. If you put no meat or dairy products in it, you should not attract vermin. (I can’t make any promises about raccoons.)

If you live in an apartment, you have more of a challenge. There are companies, like Bennett Compost in Allegheny West, who will pick up your bucket of food waste every week for a fee. For a list of compost companies and other recycling vendors, go to

The Recycling Landscape Has Changed

Once upon a time, the United States was adept at recycling waste. But after China began accepting it in the 1990s, Americans became lazy, throwing everything in recycling bins. While you thought you were being virtuous, impoverished “recyclers” in China threw millions of metric tons of your plastic waste into the ocean each year.

Trash has become big business, dominated by corporations like Waste Management, who do not have to invest in infrastructure. In 1998, their executives were indicted for fraud, overstating profits because their compensation was tied to earnings. They also paid $7.5 million in fines for breaking environmental laws. Yet in 2017, Waste Management was listed, for the 10th year, as one of the world’s most ethical companies, according to the Ethisphere, a for-profit company. Some 600 companies, who nominated themselves and paid a fee, were considered for inclusion in Ethisphere’s listings.

In 2018, China began refusing dirty recycling, so profits dwindled. A ton of mixed paper went from $155 a ton to less than $10. Rather than getting paid, cities had to pay to have their recyclables removed.

Food Waste and Recyclable Packaging

It is time our country improved the process of waste collection. For example, Philadelphia should have automated bins that weigh and recycle food waste, like South Korea does; they recycle 95% of theirs. The Korea Zero Waste Movement Network used activism to educate residents on benefits of recycling food waste.

New York City deposits one million tons of organic waste in landfills every year. I remember visiting my daughter in Brooklyn a decade ago, when she was given a bucket for food waste. Currently, about one-third of residents in New York may sign up for organic recycling, but few people realize they have that option, so only 10% of the waste gets recycled.

Recyclable packaging, once thought to be a solution, has become more controversial of late. David Allaway, a senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, coauthored a controversial report in 2018 that cast doubt on whether choosing recyclable packaging was always the best choice in terms of environmental impact. He contends that the packaging may require more energy and resources to manufacture.

One alternative is to promote a more extensive program of refundable deposits on beverage containers throughout the country. Berkeley, CA, for example, recently passed a law imposing a 25-cent charge on all disposable cups. According to, the presence of a bottle bill in a state generally results in much higher materials recovery rates. This benefits the ecosystem by reducing litter and supports the recycling industry, which depends on a constant stream of recyclable materials.

Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, came up with another solution in 2018. Collecting five plastic bottles or 10 plastic cups will earn you a two-hour bus ticket. Each bus collects 7.5 tons of plastic each month, which is recycled.

Indonesia is second only to China for being the greatest source of plastic ocean pollution, according to the Danish company Ocean Waste Plastics. The country also operates 2,000 collection sites for organic waste and recycling, which can be exchanged for cash or credit. The government partners with the country’s two largest Islamic organizations to use religious values to fight plastic waste, according to the Sierra Club.

We need to change the way we dispose of trash, and make the connection between food and garden waste and climate change. Recycling alone is not the answer.