Lettuce in Landfills Leads to Climate Change


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Yes, you read that right. Landfilled organic materials (like landscape trimmings and food waste) produce methane gas, which is a short-lived climate pollutant that negatively affects our environment and contributes to changes in Earth’s temperature and weather patterns.

Wait a second—doesn’t organic material decompose into compost?

Yes it does, but only if it’s in the right environment. Composting is a process of organic decomposition, but it requires a special recipe of nitrogen, carbon, water, and air with an extra dash of fungus and bacteria for good measure. The most basic compost recipe calls for blending roughly equal parts green or wet material (which is high in nitrogen) and brown or dry material (which is high in carbon) into a pile or enclosure. Add water and fluff the materials to add air, and then microorganisms break down the material over time.

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Landfills are not an ideal environment for composting because food waste is often enclosed in plastic trash bags, and all waste is buried, removing it from access to water and air. Organic material does decompose over time, but it produces methane gas when it breaks down outside of the composting process. In fact, landfills are the second-largest cause of methane gas in California.

How bad is methane gas, really?

Pretty bad. Methane gas has a short life span in our atmosphere in comparison to other greenhouse gases, but it has a stronger potency and does more damage. While carbon dioxide (CO2) is responsible for more than half the warming impact from human-caused emissions, methane is a far more powerful warming agent than CO2. Over a twenty year period, one ton of methane has the warming effect of 72 tons of CO2 . Methane emissions resulting from the decomposition of organic waste in landfills are a significant source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions contributing to global climate change. Methane emissions occur in the production of oil and gas, during drilling and coal extraction, and in food and agriculture waste.

How do we reduce methane gas in our environment?

The solution is pretty simple: divert organic materials away from landfills and into composting and anaerobic digestion facilities that produce biofuels. Organic materials account for a significant portion of California’s overall waste stream: up to 37 percent! Eighteen percent of California’s waste stream is comprised of disposed food waste, which includes waste that can be prevented, recovered for donation, or composted.

In September 2016, Governor Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1383 (Lara, Chapter 395, Statutes of 2016) to dramatically reduce short-lived climate pollutant emissions and to steer California in a new direction for managing organic materials. The law establishes targets to achieve a 50 percent reduction in the disposal of organic waste from a 2014 baseline level by 2020 and a 75 percent reduction by 2025.

Diverting 75 percent of organic materials from landfills will make a significant impact on California. It will help us reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the amount of trash that we bury in landfills, create new green jobs, and benefit our state’s agricultural sector with soil enriching compost.

— Christina Files
Posted on Mar 9, 2017

Summary: Landfilled organic materials (like landscape trimmings and food waste) produce methane gas, which is a short-lived climate pollutant that negatively affects our environment and contributes to changes in Earth’s temperature and weather patterns.