Food waste – down the bin, drain or in the soil?

by Sahana Singh

I have just discovered a new fact about America. Most American households do not throw their kitchen waste in the garbage bin; they throw it down their drains. An interesting contraption installed under the kitchen sink called the garbage disposal unit captures the food waste, shreds it into small pieces (less than 2mm) after which it passes into the plumbing. This is in contrast to cities in Asia where most water authorities instruct the people to scrape off all food particles from dishes and throw them in the garbage bin before washing the dishes.

Food Wate Disposer Photo: Designofkitchen.net

In the US, the rationale behind allowing food waste to become a part of the wastewater circuit is that it is a lesser evil than when it is a part of the solid waste circuit. Carrying food waste in trucks for disposal is fraught with public health and environmental risks, it is believed. If burned in waste-to-energy facilities, the high water content of food scraps does not allow it to generate much energy. If it is buried in landfills, it decomposes to generate methane gas which is a potent greenhouse gas.

On the other hand, when food waste is pulverised with water, the existing sewerage network can be used for transporting it into treatment plants, which are well-equipped to deal with organic solids. These can be converted to biosolids and used as fertilisers for soil. Advanced facilities can also recover methane for producing energy. According to one study, food waste produces three times as much biogas as municipal sewage sludge.

In Asian cities, the case for keeping food waste out of treatment plants is that the higher organic carbon load leads to a higher biological oxygen demand which in turn leads to a higher consumption of oxygen. This increases the cost of aeration. More sludge is produced. Treatment plants in Asia are already struggling to meet the needs of millions and cannot be saddled with the load of food waste. Besides, it also contributes to eutrophication and toxicity of water bodies. But by far, the best solution even in an urban set-up, which is only being carried out by some environment-conscious individuals is composting at household level. Composting helps to turn food waste into rich soil, which can be used for gardening and farming. Done at household level, it helps to reduce the volume of garbage to be disposed by municipal authorities as well as the load on municipal treatment plants. Also, the release of methane gas from landfills is avoided.

Unfortunately, not much is being done by authorities to disseminate information about composting, and it does not feature as a waste management strategy in most countries. There is a lack of specific targets and economic instruments to drive waste minimisation. The centralised collection of wastes as well as wastewater has become a way of urban life and the authorities are not interested in thinking out of the box. And yet, it has been demonstrated that composting can be done even in apartments. With food waste forming 10 to 20% of solid wastes in many countries, it is time to take a fresh look at its disposal. Composting is a skill that needs to be taught in schools. Enough waste has been wasted.

About the Author

Sahana Singh is Editor of Asian Water, Asia’s leading trade magazine on  water and wastewater. She is the recipient of Developing Asia Journalism  Award, 2008. Currently based in the US, she continues to write on water related articles in the Asian context.

Further links you may be interested in:

EWTT: Part 1: How to compost at home – using container pots

EWTT:  Part 2: How to compost at home : Using the Daily Dump

EWTT:  Poonam Bir Kasturi: Designing the Daily Dump

Youtube: Water cycle video by Sahana Singh which won the first prize at the Urban Water Movie Contest organised by Holland’s Delft University of Technology:


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Posted by on Sep 20 2012. Filed under Food/Diet/Meat Reduction, Waste Management. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “Food waste – down the bin, drain or in the soil?”

  1. The point about most American households throwing the kitchen waste into the drain has changed now with more and more cities (mine included, Seattle) encouraging composting by providing us with compost bins for food and yard waste which are collected weekly. It has saved an enormous amount of food going down the drain or being thrown into garbage.
    Good article.

  2. Dear Sahana, I really liked your informative article. And the content of this website. I live in the UK, and I remember in the 80′s, everyone with a decent income had a waste disposal unit in their kitchen, now you hardly ever see them here. I’m not sure why that is. A lot of people compost who have gardens, but still the majority chuck their food waste in the bin. According to Friends of the Earth, 78% of UK food waste ends up in landfill. If local authorities set up a food waste collection to be composted, this would reduce emissions enormously. They already offer recycling in all towns – I don’t see why this isn’t put into place, here and in other countries. The Transition Towns Network is a growing community of people who meet to reduce pollution and prepare for the changes that are imminent in our near future. Contacting your nearest organisation and campaigning to put pressure on your local authority to start a compost collection service, free and for all (or even for some small amount) is a good place to start to bring about change.

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