How Wasted Food Could Save the Planet | Opinion

More than one-third of the world's food is wasted or thrown away. This adds up to a staggering 1.3 billion tons of waste a year, most of which rots in landfills, emitting methane and contributing to climate change. And that is not the only problem posed by food waste.

Lots of packaging is also disposed of along with food; as packaging is often essential when it comes to moving food around and protecting it on the shelf. This results in large amounts of discarded plastic, which never disappears, and paper or cardboard, which, if put in a landfill also produces methane as it degrades.

Throwing away so much food and packaging—and having that waste produce planet-warming greenhouse gases—is especially problematic when many studies show that it is becoming harder to grow enough food to feed an increasing population due to climate change and soil degradation. Essential crops, including wheat and rice, are among those most at risk; and these climate-related challenges are already impacting some of the world's poorest countries, including those in sub-Saharan Africa and South America. But all areas, including the United States, will eventually face significant hurdles to growing enough food.

But one of the most promising and simple solutions lies in the problem itself: this wasted food—if composted—could slow climate change and improve soil quality and quantity. When food waste, along with packaging like paper, cardboard and other compostable options, break down in composting facilities or even in backyard compost piles, they don't produce methane, and they result in carbon-rich soil that can be used everywhere from potted plants to commercial agricultural fields.

Higher quality soil also continues to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, helping to fertilize plants and contributing further to combating climate change. Increasing the amount of carbon in the world's soil by just 0.4 percent a year would halt the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Returning one ton of organic matter to each hectare of soil would increase production of cereal crops each year in Africa, Asia and South America by millions of tons.

If given the same investment and publicity that recycling has received during the past four decades, composting could become a mainstream practice, literally changing the world. In fact, it has even more game-changing potential than recycling, which struggles with financial viability and other issues, to positively impact the environment, global food supply and human health, but has not received the same publicity or attention as recycling.

While it is true that people can compost in their yards, community gardens, schools or even on their kitchen counters, larger-scale efforts, including infrastructure and incentives for consumers, would take it to the next level. This is how recycling became embraced by the masses. Imagine if consumers could just leave food scraps in a bin on the curb for pickup, or drop them off at a local store, earning a few cents a bucket, just like what has been offered for recycling bottles or newspapers.

A Recology worker
A Recology worker prepares to dump compostable materials into his truck on Dec. 10, 2010, in San Francisco, Calif. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Moreover, in the case of composting, the payment incentive system would be sustainable because the end-product of compost can be sold to farmers, making it an economically-viable model, something that often lacks in recycling, especially for certain materials, like many types of plastics.

Eventually, more widespread composting of food would pave the way for solutions to additional waste challenges, including the disposal of packaging, clothing and other items. There would also be a trickle-down effect; if more consumers compost, companies will be more inspired to make and use compostable packaging, clothing, and other products. While more compostable items are starting to emerge today, additional composting will further drive demand and innovation, and offer a game-changing solution for the planet, in terms of reducing methane, microplastics and in improving agriculture conditions.

There have been important steps recently toward keeping food waste out of landfills—including bans on food in the trash in California, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and dozens of other bills across the nation to try to reduce food waste through measures like tax incentives for donated food. But food still makes up the largest part of municipal landfills. Until that changes through increased composting, we are wasting a lot more than food. We are wasting the opportunity to mitigate climate change and ensure adequate future food supply for the world.

Daphna Nissenbaum is CEO and co-founder of TIPA.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.