Q My friend refuses to separate his compost even though his apartment has a green bin. His view is that food waste decomposes anyway in the landfill. What do I say?
A I'm sorry to say your friend isn't alone. Plenty of people aren't using their green bins at all or enough or are throwing really weird stuff in there that just doesn't belong (socks aren't compostable, people!).
I was just invited to evaluate a very sweet TV host's low-rise apartment to determine how green he really is. I was shocked and awed to see he wasn't using the half-dozen municipal green bins sitting right outside his back door. But at least the dude claimed ignorance and pledged to change his ways ASAP. How do you win an argument with a strident compost refusenik?
For one, your friend's full of crap. Food waste may decompose in landfill (if it's lucky, that is 40-year-old hot dogs have been found preserved in sunless, airless landfills where the rotting process is next to impossible), but as it breaks down without access to air it creates seriously potent greenhouse gases. On top of plenty of carbon dioxide, it puts out the stinkiest of the GHGs, methane. It not only reeks, but it's the most climate-changing gas there is it's more than 20 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Not only that, but methane lingers in the atmosphere for a good nine to 15 years, and landfills are the biggest human-related source of this gas. Not so eco after all.
Many dumps flare off the methane to keep it from exploding (as you can imagine, landfill fires aren't pretty), but thanks to all the chemicals in trash heaps, the process often flushes some pollutants into the air.
Rotting food in dumps is also the major cause of leachate, a nasty stew of juices (picture a mix of rotted food, chemical cleaners, paints, etc) that can seep from landfill to contaminate groundwater.
Now, some dumps are smart and turn all that stinky gas into a vibrant power source. In fact, Hydro Ottawa collects enough of the stuff from one old landfill to power roughly 5,000 homes. Michigan's Carleton Farms does this, too, and Toronto plans to do the same at its Green Lane dump near London by next year. (Despite residential green bins, errant organics still make their way into landfill.)
Not that that's a reason to toss your apple core in the trash bin! Methane can also be captured from composting facilities (which generally produce much smaller amounts). Some municipalities in Nova Scotia harness power from old landfills while strictly banning organic material in the garbage stream. That means that if waste collectors see a hunk of bread in your garbage, they'll give you a warning, then a fine.
Nova Scotia is so serious about it that it's hired people to tear open every garbage bag just to make sure there are no banana peels in there. If Toronto decided to get that hardcore about its diversion rates, I'd get up and give it a standing ovation and your friend would be in deep trouble.
But there are other reasons beyond the fear of fines to keep food waste out of landfill. Probably the biggest is that composting food waste can mean a 35 to 50 per cent decrease in junk going to the dump. In Toronto so far, that means about 110,000 tonnes of green bin waste and 90,000 tonnes of yard waste a year are spared the trip to Death Row, Michigan.
Since landfill space is at a premium and building new ones is never a popular move, we want to fill our dumps as slowly as humanly possible. Turning food scraps into nutrient-rich compost and selling it to soil mix companies is one excellent way to do that. That soil can also be used for old mine site restoration, slope stabilization and other enviro projects.
Is Toronto's system perfect? Definitely not. Because we allow plastic diapers and shopping bags in green bins, few facilities can handle our shit and we end up trucking a good deal of it to Quebec. Of course, it's just as long a distance to truck our garbage to Michigan. The good news is, new facilities are being built in and around Toronto to handle our food waste locally.
The bottom line is if Ontario wants to meet its 60 per cent waste diversion target, the province has to start aggressively pushing the concept everywhere, and residents have to get on board. Besides bringing in packaging reduction laws and producer take-back responsibility regs, this is our best hope.
By the way, backyard composting (if you have a yard) is the greenest act of all, since it's as local as you can get and you don't need trucks to cart it from your kitchen to your bin. Even apartment-dwellers can compost with vermiculture (worm-based) bins. Of course, convincing your friend to start using the municipal system might be enough work. Let's leave the worms out of it for now, shall we?