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Proper Green: The Rotting Apple Battle (Compost vs. Landfill)

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An apple a day in the compost pile is much better than an apple a day in the landfill. Here’s why.

Dear Proper Green,

I really appreciated the information I learned from the greenhouse gases post. In particular, I was not aware of the difficulties caused by combining food with the trash going into the landfills. Are gases like those from the landfill also forming from those foods decomposing in my compost? Or are the gases generated at the landfill due to combinations of other materials?

-Mari C.

Dear Mari,

You’re pretty close! Rotting foods emit gases whether they’re in a compost pile or a landfill, but they emit different gases in each place — one good, one bad.

Say you’ve just finished a delicious, now-in-season apple. You’re left with the core, and have two disposal options. Here’s what happens if…

  1. You add it to your compost: Your apple core joins fellow organic waste items like yard trimmings, some fibers, and other food. Thanks to the all-organic mix and easy access to oxygen, which speeds along the decomposition process, the apple core rots aerobically. While the apple core rots, it gives off some CO2, a greenhouse gas. However, the amount of CO2 the apple core emits from this oxygen-based process is just what Mother Nature planned for: The CO2 generated is removed from the atmosphere by plant photosynthesis.
  2. You toss it in your trashcan: Your apple core ends up in a landfill alongside everything else everyone else is throwing away, organic or not. Landfills are very densely compacted with layers and layers of garbage, so the oxygen supply is cut off from most materials just waiting to decompose. Without oxygen, the apple core rots via an anaerobic process, emitting methane, a greenhouse gas many times more powerful than CO2, and other volatile organic compounds to boot.

As they say, to the victor go the spoils — and composting is the clear food waste disposal victor. If you don’t compost, try to limit the amount of food you toss in the trash by planning meals ahead, salvaging foods that are about to go bad, buying only ingredients that are needed, and making the most of leftovers.

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Proper Green
Proper Green

Proper Green is Recyclebank's green advice column. From promoting good manners in a green world (because ideas about what constitutes proper behavior and... more