Food waste solutions

I recently hosted a backyard barbecue at my apartment in Brooklyn. I put out three containers for waste: A trash can, a recycling bin and a compost bin. As my friends helped me clean up at the end of the night, I learned that we had very different ideas of what was compostable. Vegetable scraps? Definitely compostable. But what about meat? Used paper plates? Paper towels?

When I checked the rules, I found out that a lot of stuff was in the wrong bin. So, I re-sorted everything the next morning.

As my colleague Somini Sengupta reported this week, states across the country are passing laws to divert food waste from landfills. As these measures become more common, more cities are starting compost programs like the one I recently joined in New York.

That’s good for the environment because food waste, when it rots in a landfill, produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Composting sharply reduces those emissions. Plus, compost can replace chemical fertilizers.

So, regardless of whether it’s required in your state, you might want to start composting at home. It won’t solve the climate crisis, but it’ll cut your personal emissions. Here are a few things I’ve learned since I started composting.

The easiest option to get started: a municipal program

In the United States, almost all waste and recycling management happens at a local government level. Check with your municipality to see if you have access to a curbside pickup or drop-off compost program. In my case, I requested a free curbside bin.

Throughout the week, I collect scraps like vegetable peels (but no stickers, rubber bands or twist-ties), fruit pits, egg shells, food-soiled paper towels and coffee grounds with paper filters. It all goes in a small plastic pail I keep next to the sink in my kitchen. Because New York City uses an industrial composting facility, I can also include fish, meat, dairy products and bones. Every city has different rules, so double-check what you can include. Many big cities have detailed guides online.

Whenever the pail fills up, I empty it straight into my curbside container, which gets picked up by the city once a week.

I’ll admit, when I started I was worried about smells and pests. But emptying my kitchen bin regularly and cleaning it every few weeks has kept the process odor-free. And outside, my sealed bin hasn’t attracted any rats or raccoons.

Vincent Gragnani, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Sanitation, says separating food scraps from the general trash is actually better for combating vermin. “You’re not going to have rats breaking into black bags if the black bags don’t have food waste,” he said. “Putting your food waste in a sealed container instead of a bag,” he added, should help “shut down the rat buffet.”

Another easy option: community drop-off points

If you don’t have a citywide option, you can check with other local organizations, like a farmers’ market, to see if they allow drop-offs. Before I had a curbside container, I brought food scraps to my local community garden. Again, double-check what you’re allowed to include. (See below for a general rule of thumb).

On your own? It’s not that hard.

If you have a yard, you can check out different options in this Wirecutter guide. It covers methods you could use and a few of the common mistakes. No yard? No problem. You can follow this guide from my colleague Hiroko Tabuchi. She’s been composting in her living room for almost a decade!

The rule of thumb: “If it grows, it goes”

You can generally compost food, yard scraps and food-soiled paper. But look out for a few items that are usually not compostable:

  • 🩸 Sanitary products and diapers.

  • 💩 Animal waste. Even if you buy dog poop bags that claim to be compostable, most compost facilities do not process feces because of the pathogens they may contain.

There are ways to help reduce food waste before it’s even time for the bins — like meal planning and better storage. Composting at my home has made me more mindful of the food I regularly waste (sorry to all the limp carrots I’ve tossed over the years!) so I can cut it out of my shopping list altogether.

There’s an energy crisis looming in France, so some very fit and nimble young activists are swinging into action. And we really mean swinging: They practice Parkour — a sport that consists of running, climbing and jumping over urban obstacles — and they’ve been darting around Paris and other cities late at night switching off shop signs to save electricity. You can see a video and read all about it here.

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Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.

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