Climate change is an issue of deep concern to many Marblehead residents. As a coastal community, we are directly affected by the increased frequency and severity of storms as well as rising sea levels, both of which have been attributed to rising temperatures due to climate change.
The earth is warming at an alarming rate, primarily because greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat from the sun in our atmosphere. These gases have many sources, including gasoline-powered cars and coal-fired power plants. A lesser known source is the decomposition of organic matter in landfills.
Marblehead is forward-thinking when it comes to waste disposal. Our Board of Health has a contract in place to have municipal waste transported to a landfill in Keystone, NH, which captures the methane produced by organic decomposition. This gas is collected and used to heat the University of New Hampshire.
It’s good news. But the even better news is that residents can do more to both learn how landfills contribute to climate change and find solutions to reduce the materials that enter them.
Landfill Gas Basics
As organic matter decomposes in a landfill, gases are naturally released as a byproduct. These gases are composed of approximately 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) that is 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the Panel’s latest assessment report. intergovernmental experts on climate change (IPCC). Therefore, it is a key contributor to global climate change.
Municipal solid waste landfills are the third largest source of human-made methane emissions, contributing 15% of total US emissions. In 2019, they were equivalent to the GHG emissions of more than 21.6 million cars driven for an entire year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The benefits of methane capture
The facility that handles waste from the Marblehead landfill takes this powerful GHG and uses it as an energy source. By using landfill gas to generate energy, landfills can significantly reduce their methane emissions and avoid having to generate energy from fossil fuels. The EPA reports that landfill gas energy projects capture about 60% to 90% of the methane emitted from the landfill, depending on system design and efficiency.
It’s a great start, but what can we do as individuals and families in Marblehead about the estimated 10-40% that is still reaching the atmosphere and warming our planet? You might be surprised that the answer is: a lot!
What is producing all this methane?
Before we discuss what you can do to take action, you might be wondering what makes up the majority of the organic matter that creates all that dangerous methane? It would be food waste. A new report released in January 2022 by the EPA titled “Downstream Management of Organic Waste in the United States” indicates that in 2018, food accounted for 22% of the municipal solid waste generated in our country, with food waste being the component Most important. disposed of in landfills. This includes 35.3 million tonnes of food waste which will produce 17.6 million MMTCO2e in greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime in landfills.
In other words, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of global GHG emissions, behind China and the United States.
These are national and global figures, but what about Marblehead? What about your family? And you? How much food do we throw away? The EPA estimates that the average household generates 338 pounds of food waste each year. Unfortunately, trends show that this number is increasing every year.
Otherwise, how can we get rid of food?
The first solution to the problem of all the food waste and the resulting methane gas is to simply waste less food. Buy only what you intend to eat, then eat it. It’s an oversimplification, but suffice it to say that we could all do well by wasting less food.
For the problem of unused or uneaten food, rather than throwing it in your kitchen trash can, the best place to throw it is in a compost bin. The EPA reports that in 2017, only 6% of food waste was composted, compared to 69% of yard waste. However, the trend is upward. Food composting increased by 278% between 2000 and 2017.
At Marblehead, we are fortunate to have many opportunities to make a difference by composting, easily preventing our food waste from eventually becoming methane-producing waste. Some residents choose to compost in their own backyards, while others use the services of a local company, Black Earth.
Black Earth, founded in 2011 in Gloucester, is a full-service composting company serving many municipalities in our area, including Marblehead. The Board of Health has provided six bins at the transfer station to collect all types of organic waste, including food scraps, coffee grounds and filters, napkins, paper towels and more . (See https://blackearthcompost.com for a full list of acceptable items). Black Earth also offers curbside pickup for a fee.
The EPA reports that with even a portion of food waste diverted to composting, the avoided methane emissions result in a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. EPA modeling shows that diverting just 25% of America’s currently landfilled food waste would reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by about 30%.
You might be wondering, doesn’t food waste always produce methane, whether it’s disposed of in a landfill or in a composting facility such as Black Earth? No, this is not the case. The reason is that when an aerobic process is used, in other words, when oxygen is present in the decomposition process, the methane-producing microbes are not active. Therefore, composting practices that maximize aerobic conditions will be most effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Black Earth is such a facility.
In Marblehead, approximately 600 households out of a total of 8,000 compost. In 2021, Marblehead residents saved 186 tonnes of waste from the landfill by using Black Earth’s door-to-door and transfer station collection services. These numbers are improving, but surely we can do more.
Environmental and Social Benefits of Diverting Organics from Landfills
In addition to eliminating dangerous greenhouse gases, composting offers several other environmental benefits. Chief among these is the creation of compost, a dark, earthy-smelling material that resembles soil and is rich in nutrients for plants. When your food is composted, all the energy, water, labor and nutrients are not wasted as they would be if sent to landfill. Instead, your waste becomes an extremely beneficial “new” product.
Benefits of using compost include soil improvement, increased productivity, suppression of soil-borne pathogens, prevention of topsoil loss, erosion control and reduction or elimination of the need for fertilizer.
Diverting organic materials from landfills also extends the life of a landfill by preventing it from reaching its maximum capacity. Eliminating food waste also reduces landfill leachate quantities and management costs.
What about my garbage disposal?
Using a garbage disposal is not an effective substitute for composting. Food that ends up in your sink begins its journey to a sewage treatment facility, where it must be removed from the water, which the IPCC estimates generates 5% of global methane emissions. Plus, disposal requires the faucet to be on, which wastes water and increases sewer bills in your home.
When we hear about climate change and the potential impacts hitting us right here in our city – storms, floods, property damage and associated costs – it’s easy to quickly feel overwhelmed. Greenhouse gases and the resulting global warming are a huge problem, and one that is not going away. But, as residents of Marblehead, we are fortunate to be able to make a significant difference by preventing some of these dangerous gases from reaching our atmosphere. The solution is to compost, whether that means signing up for curbside collection or bringing your organic waste to the transfer station yourself. Either way, you can be sure that you are making a valuable contribution to the future health and sustainability of our beautiful community of Marblehead, as well as the entire planet.
Sustainable Marblehead is available to help any resident who wants to learn how to take advantage of the city’s composting services, from what goes into your compost bin to the best process to use. We think you’ll find composting easier and less messy than you thought, and you’ll most likely wonder why you haven’t tried it sooner. Please email [email protected] for more information and visit us at https://www.sustainablemarblehead.org.
Note: Thanks to the United States Environmental Protection Agency for providing many of the facts and figures referenced in this document. Visit epa.gov for further research.