Household Waste. We simply throw it away or flush it away and then it is out of sight, out of mind. We pay taxes so that someone else can deal with our waste. In my case, that “someone” is the Town of Cary and Wake County.
Our local governments are responsible for dealing with our waste. Here in Cary, they provide us with bins for our landfill waste and separate bins for our recyclable waste and then conveniently empty the bins right in front of our homes. The town contracts with recycling companies to deal with our recyclable waste. They provide a sewer system and treatment plants to deal with our waste water. They provide convenient weekly pick-ups of yard waste and then add services when we have excess waste due to storm damage. They make it very easy for citizens to think “away is away” but have we really stopped to consider that our every day actions effect what “away” truly means?
A confession that I was wrong . . .
I used to preach that keeping as much solid waste out of the sewer system was the right thing to do. When asked, I told my friends to put as little down their disposal as possible so that the town’s water pipes can stay as clear as possible. Then I read this and that assumption became a bit fuzzy so I did a little digging about what our best options are here where I live.
As a result of some research on how waste is handled in my town, I am now revising my answer to the Landfill vs Disposal question. The following is my assessment of the hierarchy for food waste disposal in my own town and it is most likely the same in surrounding cities like Apex, Holly Springs, and Morrisville.
I am not a scientist or an environmental economist or a waste water expert. But I do know at some point as an average citizen, I have to do my best to deal with my household food waste in a way that does the least damage to the environment.
Prevent Food From Being Wasted - Purchasing just what food we think we will need and actually consuming that food is the first line of defense in dealing with excess organic waste. This seems so simple but take time to really look at how much food you are tossing out. Consider the contents of your crammed refrigerator or overstocked pantry where you keep the back up food.
Realistically, we will all generate food waste at some point. So what do we do with it?
Composting - Recycling food waste into nutrient rich compost is by far the first strategy for dealing with food waste. Organic waste can be easily composted in a backyard bin. My family diverts several pounds of broccoli stalks, fruit peels, coffee grounds and egg shells each week into our compost bin. Sadly we are in the minority and only 8 percent of Americans compost leading to tons of organic waste being tossed into landfills across the country. I have heard many valid reasons for not composting but as composting services become more mainstream and as citizens become more educated on the limitations of landfills, the dangers of methane gas and the realities of climate change, there is hope that many more will move toward composting waste instead of landfilling it. Here is a great article to address those excuses.
Commercial Composting -Backyard composting is great but it doesn’t always completely cover our composting needs. Because of the potential for odors and attracting animals, meats and greasy food scraps should not go in a backyard compost bin. There is also a recent increase in the availability of affordable compostable plastic cups and utensils. All of these items can go to a commercial composting center but the carbon emissions used to get a small amount of commercial compostables to the service center might not make sense. It does make sense when several compostable bags full of compostable waste can be delivered. I did this in March when I met my goal of hosting a landfill waste free neighborhood party.
In-Sink Disposal - This is where things get complicated but understanding that the landfill should always be the very last resort for any waste guides this recommendation. The disposal in my sink is a useful tool to grind up those food scraps that are not compostable in my backyard bin. So, along with all of the other waste that leaves my house in the water pipes, this waste starts its journey to the waste water treatment plant that is run by Wake County. On the way, the ground up food gets consumed by bacteria and the resulting sludge is processed into pellets that are then used to fertilize fields. It goes back into the earth to continue the environmental cycle. To learn more about water treatment sludge, check this out.
Landfill - At some point we end up with a food waste item that really can’t be dealt with in any other way in our homes. In my house, chicken bones are that item. These go in my trash bin and then off to the landfill along with other items that are not recyclable in my municipality. The trash bin for my family of four never fills up before the weekly pick up and often there is a single bag of landfill trash in the bin. Yes, I am bragging because I am proud of this. It represents the result of years of habit changing by my entire family.
The final word on Landfills . . .
Luckily, the county I live in has adopted the practice of making the best use of the methane gas from the landfill and it is collected to produce alternative “green” energy. This energy allows 24 salvaged diesel engines to run 24/7, producing 6MW (on average) that goes back to the Duke Energy Grid. Regardless of this side benefit, a landfill has a finite amount of space and time that it can accept our garbage.
The Wake County landfill that my trash goes into is projected to reach capacity sometime in 2045 with no new landfill location identified. After that, the next one must go in someone’s backyard. Perhaps that won’t be as “away” as we would like.