The End of Oblivion

Aug. 11, 2015

The town I live in grows citrus that is highly prized. I not only enjoy eating it, drinking the fresh squeezed juice, or cooking with it, I quite like the way it freshens things up when I put the peels down the garbage disposal. But as a heap of orange and grapefruit peels were whirring into oblivion yesterday, I wondered if this is good or not good when it comes to water resource management. And drought conditions. And energy efficiency. Because it only seems the peels were going into oblivion. In reality things we dispose of go to wastewater treatment plants, or they go to landfills. I live in an apartment so I am not doing composting for a yard or garden. What is best in terms of infrastructure, processing, resources, and the environment?

The town I live in grows citrus that is highly prized. I not only enjoy eating it, drinking the fresh squeezed juice, or cooking with it, I quite like the way it freshens things up when I put the peels down the garbage disposal. But as a heap of orange and grapefruit peels were whirring into oblivion yesterday, I wondered if this is good or not good when it comes to water resource management. And drought conditions. And energy efficiency. Because it only seems the peels were going into oblivion. In reality things we dispose of go to wastewater treatment plants, or they go to landfills. I live in an apartment so I am not doing composting for a yard or garden. What is best in terms of infrastructure, processing, resources, and the environment? [text_ad] I am going to see what others have to say. John Bauer of Hinsdale, IL, on The Nature Conservancy website offers a guideline for deciding between the trash or the garbage disposal in his answer that makes up most of the post “What’s the best way to dispose of your non-compostable food scraps?”. He first suggests we move toward a diet that is less water and energy intensive to produce, and even more importantly that we waste less food. The amount of food that he and others cite is being wasted in the so called civilized world is staggering—and remember wasted also means disposed of, and disposed of means food that took energy and water to process that then ends up using energy and water when discarded through the sewer system, or requiring manpower and energy burning machinery to be hauled off and buried in landfills. His recommendation wrap-up follows:
But even if the difference between the garbage disposal and the landfill is tiny relative to the impact you can have by wasting less food and eating less animal products, it’s still a question worth answering. Fats should definitely go in the garbage, as they can cause plumbing problems. For the rest, while it can vary significantly depending on where you live, in general the garbage is preferable. Here’s why:
  • As you noted, it takes a lot of water just to wash your scraps down the drain, and takes even more water and energy to filter the scraps back out. This is especially critical if youlive in a dry area or are having a drought.
  • In many municipalities, the solid waste removed from the water goes to the landfill anyway. In some areas it’s used as crop fertilizer or to generate energy.
If you want to be 100 percent sure of what to do, I recommend finding out whether your local landfill or water treatment plant captures methane to produce energy. If the landfill doesn’t, and the water treatment plant does, that makes the garbage disposal a more attractive option.
A 2014 post “Trash Talk: Are Sink Disposals Good for the Environment?” from Eco Myths Alliance disagrees with The Nature Conservancy about where the lesser harm is found. Garbage disposals are in with these thinkers. When they discuss the greenest options for food waste, one thing they leave out is vermicomposting and worm castings—something we’ll save for another day. For now a little from their “Trash Talk”:
OMG hold your nose! There’s a mystery substance at the back of the fridge, and it’s scaring all the other food with its excessive stink. Now what? Pitching the moldy glob straight into the sink disposal means it can basically disappear from your life instantly, i.e., not exponentially increase the gross factor in your trashcan days before garbage pickup. But that’s not the only thing in-sink disposals have going for ’em. On top of the sheer convenience of it all, the rumors are true—garbage disposals are generally a greener option than trashcans. These appliances, which have been heralded as the “next great tool for urban sustainability,” not only reduce the amount of diesel fuel and emissions associated with driving garbage trucks around town—but also carry this uneaten waste along to the wastewater treatment plant, where it can actually be used to produce resources like fertilizer and clean energy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Though sink disposals do have some clear benefits over trashcans, they are not the greenest way to dispose of your uneaten food, according to life cycle analysis expert Eric Masanet, PhD, of Northwestern University, and Debra Shore, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Based on a variety of research and their own professional experience, both Masanet and Shore agree that the hierarchy of green ways to dispose of food goes like this, from least green to most:
  • Not-so-green: Throwing it in a trashcan headed for the landfill
  • Light green: Running it through the sink disposal, from which it then heads to the wastewater treatment plant
  • Green: Toss it in your compost bin for efficient composting
  • Greenest ever: Reduce the amount of food we waste in the first place! Globally we waste about a third of our food every year. Talk about an environmental footprint.
These posts have much in common. Both emphasize the problems of creating more methane that is a potent greenhouse gas if it goes into the atmosphere. There are wastewater plants capturing methane, and landfills too. I even blogged about a company, Ener-Core, that is capturing the low-grade methane that seeps out of closed landfills, for the other title I edit, Business Energy. See “When Talking Trash Elevates the Conversation.”

I am going to see what others have to say.

John Bauer of Hinsdale, IL, on The Nature Conservancy website offers a guideline for deciding between the trash or the garbage disposal in his answer that makes up most of the post “What’s the best way to dispose of your non-compostable food scraps?”. He first suggests we move toward a diet that is less water and energy intensive to produce, and even more importantly that we waste less food. The amount of food that he and others cite is being wasted in the so called civilized world is staggering—and remember wasted also means disposed of, and disposed of means food that took energy and water to process that then ends up using energy and water when discarded through the sewer system, or requiring manpower and energy burning machinery to be hauled off and buried in landfills. His recommendation wrap-up follows:

But even if the difference between the garbage disposal and the landfill is tiny relative to the impact you can have by wasting less food and eating less animal products, it’s still a question worth answering. Fats should definitely go in the garbage, as they can cause plumbing problems. For the rest, while it can vary significantly depending on where you live, in general the garbage is preferable.

Here’s why:

  • As you noted, it takes a lot of water just to wash your scraps down the drain, and takes even more water and energy to filter the scraps back out. This is especially critical if youlive in a dry area or are having a drought.
  • In many municipalities, the solid waste removed from the water goes to the landfill anyway. In some areas it’s used as crop fertilizer or to generate energy.

If you want to be 100 percent sure of what to do, I recommend finding out whether your local landfill or water treatment plant captures methane to produce energy. If the landfill doesn’t, and the water treatment plant does, that makes the garbage disposal a more attractive option.

A 2014 post “Trash Talk: Are Sink Disposals Good for the Environment?” from Eco Myths Alliance disagrees with The Nature Conservancy about where the lesser harm is found. Garbage disposals are in with these thinkers. When they discuss the greenest options for food waste, one thing they leave out is vermicomposting and worm castings—something we’ll save for another day. For now a little from their “Trash Talk”:

OMG hold your nose! There’s a mystery substance at the back of the fridge, and it’s scaring all the other food with its excessive stink. Now what? Pitching the moldy glob straight into the sink disposal means it can basically disappear from your life instantly, i.e., not exponentially increase the gross factor in your trashcan days before garbage pickup. But that’s not the only thing in-sink disposals have going for ’em. On top of the sheer convenience of it all, the rumors are true—garbage disposals are generally a greener option than trashcans.

These appliances, which have been heralded as the “next great tool for urban sustainability,” not only reduce the amount of diesel fuel and emissions associated with driving garbage trucks around town—but also carry this uneaten waste along to the wastewater treatment plant, where it can actually be used to produce resources like fertilizer and clean energy.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Though sink disposals do have some clear benefits over trashcans, they are not the greenest way to dispose of your uneaten food, according to life cycle analysis expert Eric Masanet, PhD, of Northwestern University, and Debra Shore, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

Based on a variety of research and their own professional experience, both Masanet and Shore agree that the hierarchy of green ways to dispose of food goes like this, from least green to most:

  • Not-so-green: Throwing it in a trashcan headed for the landfill

  • Light green: Running it through the sink disposal, from which it then heads to the wastewater treatment plant

  • Green: Toss it in your compost bin for efficient composting

  • Greenest ever: Reduce the amount of food we waste in the first place! Globally we waste about a third of our food every year. Talk about an environmental footprint.

These posts have much in common. Both emphasize the problems of creating more methane that is a potent greenhouse gas if it goes into the atmosphere. There are wastewater plants capturing methane, and landfills too. I even blogged about a company, Ener-Core, that is capturing the low-grade methane that seeps out of closed landfills, for the other title I edit, Business Energy. See “When Talking Trash Elevates the Conversation.”
About the Author

Nancy Gross

Nancy Gross is a former editor of Business Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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