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Recycling & Composting

Does Food Waste Breakdown In Landfills?

Team Compost Connect, 15 November 2023
Does Food Waste Breakdown In Landfills?

What Happens to Food Waste in Landfills?

From the surface, sending food waste to landfill may seem harmless.

“It’s natural. It’ll break down and return to the earth, right?”

But unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Food waste is harmful when sent to a landfill environment because of the unique conditions – with a lack of oxygen food will rot and emit methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. 

And when we consider that about a third of the world’s food goes to waste (source) we’ve got a big problem on our hands.

So, what happens to food waste in landfills? What implications does this have for the environment? And how can we reduce food waste in landfills (hint: the answer lies in your backyard compost!)

Truck working in landfill with birds looking for food

So, What Actually Happens to Food Waste in Landfills?

Landfills are essentially a giant hole in the ground, so you’d be excused for thinking that food waste will break down when you throw it away.

Instead, what actually occurs in landfill is an ‘anaerobic’ (without air) environment.

In an environment without oxygen, anaerobic microorganisms, such as bacteria and archaea, will thrive and break down organic materials. As the microorganisms consume the organic matter, it creates methane, a greenhouse gas that’s on average 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide (source). According to the film ‘Wasted! The Story of Food Waste’, a head of lettuce can take 25 years to decompose in landfill (source).

So, if these methane emissions from food waste aren’t properly managed, they enter our atmosphere and exacerbate climate change.

How Much Food Waste Ends Up in Landfills?

A lot. In Australia alone, around 3.2 million tonnes of food waste is sent to landfill each year. That means 44% of our food waste isn’t being recycled or recovered (source).

Here are some more alarming stats:

  • One third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted (around 1.3 billion tonnes) (source)
  • Australian households throw away around one in five bags of groceries, equal to around 312kg per person (source)
  • If food waste were a country it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the USA and China (source)

Why Is Food Waste in Landfill a Problem?

Food waste going to landfills causes problems at an economic, social and environmental level. 

For starters, it takes an incredible amount of time, money and energy to transport waste to landfills, with food waste costing the global economy around $940 billion each year (source). 

Not only that, the food waste going to landfills could instead help to alleviate world hunger. Right now, there’s enough food produced in the world to feed everyone (source). 

And of course, food waste in landfills can negatively affect the environment, acting as a significant contributor to global greenhouse gases. 

Pile of bio waste on a vegetable farm

What About Compostable Packaging in Landfill?

Just like food waste, landfill isn’t the ideal place for compostable packaging to end up (it’s also considered ‘organic waste’ which can emit methane). 

In saying that, compostable packaging going to landfill is still better than the alternative: fossil fuel based plastic packaging going to landfill. That’s because traditional plastic packaging is made from energy-intensive, finite fossil-based resources, whereas compostable packaging is made from rapidly renewable, plant-based resources, so it has a lower environmental impact.

When we consider the sustainability of a product, we must consider the entire life cycle. 

With time and more government initiatives, we hope to see composting become widely available so all food waste and compostable packaging ends up in the right place (more on this in a minute).

How Does Food Waste in Landfill Affect the Environment?

  • Emits Methane
    Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s on average 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s believed this could be worse for the environment than emissions from flying, plastic production and oil extraction (source). This can drive climate change.

  • Wastes Water
    25% of the water used in agriculture is used to grow food that’s wasted. When thinking about the harmful effects of food waste on the environment, we need to consider the entire food cycle – from production all the way to disposal. 

  • Wasted Space
    Once again, when we consider one third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted, that equates to a lot of agricultural space and land clearing not being used to its full potential. 

  • Release Toxins
    Decaying food waste in an anaerobic environment can create ‘leachate’ – a harmful liquid that leaches from landfills. In many cases, leachate is collected and managed through specialised systems, but if it is not properly contained and removed from landfills, it can leak into the groundwater, causing contamination.

  • Biodiversity
    Clearing land to grow more food for a growing population (because we’re not utilising all the food we have) isn’t just counterproductive, it has a negative impact on biodiversity. Not only that, the toxins released from landfill can expose animals and wildlife to harmful materials.
beautiful foggy dawn of the Sun over a huge field of urban garbage, saturated with poisonous fumes of decomposition of organic waste and household chemicals

Food Waste in Landfill vs Compost

So, we now know landfill isn’t the ideal end place for food waste. But how does that compare to composting?

Thankfully, composting is a viable, cost-effective and sustainable alternative to food waste going to landfill. 

Unlike landfill, a compost bin allows organic waste to be broken down by organisms to create a nutrient-rich fertiliser. This process turns what otherwise would be regarded as a waste product into an incredibly beneficial resource – for people and the planet. 

As a result, composting can reduce carbon emissions, create healthy plants, conserve water, prevent soil erosion and restore habitats.

How To Reduce Food Waste in Landfill

Aside from only buying what you need and making the most of the ingredients in your fridge, one of the easiest ways to reduce food waste in landfills (on both an individual and large scale) is to start composting!

  • Start Composting as a Business
    As a business, composting is often put in the ‘too hard basket.’ But the truth is, it can be really simple. At Compost Connect. We’re a not-for-profit initiative dedicated to connecting foodservice businesses to compost pickup services.

    Our platform was designed to make it seamless for restaurants, cafes and other foodservice businesses to get a quote from a composter, add an organic waste bin to their waste disposal, and schedule collection days. All you need to do is type in your postcode or suburb, then see if there’s a compost partner in your area.

    If you’re a larger organisation, you could also install an on-site composting unit. This can have a positive impact on the planet and even save you money on waste disposal in the long run.

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