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Sunday, 9 February 2014

In Today’s Landfills, Food Is Embalmed for Decades at a Time

 Compost at the Delaware County's compost plant.


We had been warned of the pervasive power of the stench.

It was a cold, snowy morning in the Catskills and as our suddenly-too-small car picked its way along the icy road, the acrid, nose-stinging odour of decomposed banana peels, old coffee grounds, and – oh yeah – a melted deer carcass wafted out of our clothing in full force. I began to panic, recalling the Seinfeld episode “The Smelly Car,” when Jerry’s BMW becomes permanently infected with the reek of a valet’s B.O. I wondered if the vehicle I had borrowed from a friend would ever recover from the stinky trials I was now exposing it to.

Earlier that morning, my companions and I had toured the Delaware County landfill, a six-acre dump and compost facility servicing the upstate New York region’s 48,000 residents. Andy Zuk, the compost plant’s affable, middle-aged manager, had received us inside of his bright, tidy office, where he encouraged us to pile our coats, scarves and sweaters before entering the dark, damp domain where the county’s 70 million pounds of trash is sorted every year. It’s also the space where its food waste is converted into 15,000 yards of light, fluffy, fertile compost.

I told Zuk that I thought I might get chilly and that I’d hang on to my sweatshirt.

“If you’re going to lunch later, and you’re going to be around other people, you might want to reconsider,” he replied.

Andy Zuk shows off the finished compost.

If you’ve never seen an active landfill, it’s more than likely that you’re nowhere geographically close to one. Large-scale dumps are unsustainable in densely packed urban areas, where their insidious odours offend residents’ sensibilities and – more gravely – can cause asthma, cancer and other serious health effects. Most major cities opt for trucking their trash out West, where there’s a lot more space and a much lower risk of making people ill. New York City closed its last municipal landfill – Fresh Kills on Staten Island – in 2001. Today, the city sends its garbage to far-flung sites in Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia.

On top of impacting human health, landfills have a dreadful effect on the environment: they produce enormous amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes disproportionately to global warming. Methane’s effect on the atmosphere is 21 times greater than carbon dioxide’s over a 100-year period.

But the source of this methane isn’t something toxic. It’s rotting food. It might seem like an apple core or cheese rind thrown in with the trash would break down quickly, but the opposite is true. Sealed up in plastic garbage bags and buried under pound-upon-pound of plastic, glass and paper, these scraps begin to break down at a rate far slower than you might think. Those plastic bags that contain our food waste limit their exposure to oxygen and pests, the two factors that may short work of food waste when combined. Instead, in this dark, anaerobic environment, decomposition happens very slowly, and the food releases far too much methane throughout the process. Deprived of oxygen, the food barely breaks down. The results can be found at the bottom of old landfills, where you’ll find pristine heads of lettuce and rolls that look good enough to make a sandwich. 

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