For many people, the biggest concern with food waste is making sure it doesn’t stink up the trash too much. But on a broader scale, tossing your scraps and leftovers into the garbage can has a big drawback: They end up in a landfill, where they rot and release methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This year, Vermont is taking a big step toward reducing those emissions by implementing a law that makes it illegal to throw food products in the trash—the first state in the U.S. to do so. Instead, residents are encouraged to compost their scraps, and a new study shows many already are.
Researchers from the University of Vermont have found that many Vermonters are composting their scraps or using them to feed pets and livestock. In this new study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, researchers surveyed nearly 600 Vermont households in the 2018 Vermonter Poll, an annual telephone poll conducted by UVM. They found widespread support for the new law, with 55 percent of surveyed residents in favor. Even more striking, 72 percent of those polled said they already compost at least some of their food waste, and 75 percent said they plan to compost in the future. Vermont is one of the most rural states in the country, and researchers say this might explain why composting rates are so high.
“Our study suggests that, especially in more rural areas, people may already be managing their food waste in a way that leaves it out of the landfills,” Meredith Niles, lead author of the study, said in a press release.
On the other hand, just 34 percent of the respondents said they would use a curbside compost pickup program, and most said they’d oppose paying a fee for a such a program. Support was higher among urban residents and renters, however. That shows that there’s an important difference between urban and rural habits when it comes to food waste.
“There isn’t a one size fits all for how we manage food waste,” said Niles. “Especially in more rural areas, people may already be managing their food waste in a way that leaves it out of the landfills.”
But no matter where you live, food waste is a serious issue, and one that Niles and her colleagues have studied before. Their earlier research showed that on average, Americans throw out almost one pound of food every day. Across the country, that translates to 150,000 tons of food thrown out every day in the period between 2007 and 2014. That food ends up in landfills, where the methane it releases becomes a major contributor to climate change. Composting, on the other hand, allows food products to break down in a way that doesn’t release methane, and it creates a natural fertilizer.
“Reducing household food waste is a powerful way individuals can help reduce the impacts of climate change,” Niles said.
The new Vermont law is part of a series of laws stretching back to 2012, when the state passed a universal recycling law that aimed to eventually keep all food waste, recyclables, and yard waste from landfills by 2020. Based on this research, the new law may actually just reinforce what many people in the state are already doing—and it’s certainly a great model for the rest of the country, too.
“It’s exciting to see the majority of Vermonters are already composting to do their part,” said Niles.
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