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Organic waste disposal deserves careful consideration

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“One if by land; two if by sea.” This famous quote is as relevant today as it was on the eve of the American Revolution. Except now it’s relevant to the fate of organic waste generated in our kitchens (presumably using Revere Ware). Is land disposal the first choice for an apple core, or should we send it down the drain? Inquiring minds and bookies want to know.

It’s no surprise landfills aren’t the greenest option. Trucked many miles, buried and compacted by heavy equipment—apple core interments require diesel fuel. And because there’s no oxygen within a landfill, organic waste emits methane as it decomposes. It’s an excellent fuel, but when released into the air, methane is 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping greenhouse heat.

However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires landfills to capture methane and burn it (usually to generate electricity), or tie into a pipeline and sell it to a utility. This positive outcome doesn’t get us off the hook; it still takes a lot of energy to landfill kitchen waste.

Let’s try sending organic matter down the drain via a food-disposal unit. This would be costly for anyone on a septic system. Food waste is higher in carbon than sewage, resulting in more residual solids and thus the need for more frequent pump-outs. But sewage treatment plants are wellsuited to handle kitchen scraps. So the village or city dweller should use the down-drain option, right?

Everything washed down the drain takes additional energy to treat. The process used in this area is called “activated sludge” (I prefer passive sludge, which is less apt to make sudden moves). The activated sludge process requires constant aeration and agitation, consuming lots of electricity.

Treatment plants produce methane, which in large cities is trapped and used. Unfortunately, most small communities in our region don’t have the capital to invest in the equipment necessary for methane capture. Only two of St. Lawrence County’s 23 treatment facilities collect methane. At all the others, this potent greenhouse gas wafts into the air.

Because wastewater treatment can’t remove all pollutants, a few oxygen-robbing nutrients from my apple core end up in the river, where they can contribute to algae blooms. Because of these and other issues like increased water usage, many U.S. jurisdictions and several European Union countries have banned in-sink garbage disposal units.

At the treatment plant, some of my apple core becomes methane, some washes down the river, and some winds up as dried sludge. Even if used in a garden, it’s organic matter with a big carbon footprint.

Composting yields rich humus, generates no methane or odors, and you don’t need a big back yard—or any yard—to successfully compost. Many systems, such as the NatureMill home composter, are suitable for even the smallest living space. Worm composting is an easy, odorless and inexpensive choice, and can be especially fun for kids to do. Call your Cornell Cooperative Extension office for information on how to set up a “worm farm” or other composting system.

It’s hard to choose between two undesirable options, but unless your wastewater treatment plant traps and uses methane, it may be marginally “better” to throw kitchen waste in the trash.

Composting, which may be the only option that actually takes place on land (garbage in a landfill is always under something), is hands-down the best choice. Developing compost centers on a regional or community basis would help reduce garbage volume and methane pollution, and would create a marketable product. The battle to responsibly deal with food waste can be won if by land.

Paul Hetzler is a horticultural and natural resource educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

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