I read this New Yorker essay about food composting in Korea in early March, and my imagination was stoked. I’d done composting before, with my neighbor Barbara, when the two of us planted a garden between our apartments. We used a trash can that I drilled a bunch of holes in.
But since moving to Chicago all my food waste has gone into the trash. I hadn’t thought that much about it until this paragraph in the essay snapped my head to attention:
Organic waste doesn’t just stink when it’s sent to landfills; it becomes a climate poison. Yes, we’ve been schooled again and again in the importance of recycling—by friends, by pious enemies, even by “wall-e.” But the recycling of organics is arguably more important than that of plastics, metal, or paper. Composting transforms raw organic waste into a humus-like substance that enriches soil and enhances carbon capture. In landfills, starved of oxygen, decomposing organics release methane, a greenhouse gas whose warming effects, in the long run, are fifty-six times those of CO2. The United States has greater landfill emissions than any other country, the equivalent of thirty-seven million cars on the road each year.
I’m not set up to compost in my second floor apartment, and I wouldn’t know what to do with any compost I cultivated. But a quick search for composting services in Chicago turned up Collective Resource, an organization that delivers an empty five gallon bucket to your door and returns a week later to pick it up, filled with your food waste.
I signed up.
Then the world shut down.
Over the past five weeks, the thought has recurred to me that paying for a composting service is unwise, non-essential, even frivolous. It’s not going to feed my family today or next month, and the $10 I’m spending every week on it could buy, I don’t know, a stockpile of toilet paper or something useful. It could be donated. To feed people.
I keep answering that thought with the conviction that this is actually the perfect time to invest in future-focused projects like composting. Because if we’ll do it during a crisis we’ll do it when the crisis abates. And if we don’t do it, the next crisis will be even worse.
2 thoughts on “Composting During Coronavirus”
Thank you for this column. I did not realize the full impact of my own actions.
Yes, thanks. I remember driving past landfills and smelling the rotten-egg smell. My dad, ever the physics teacher, said methane can’t be smelled, so the rotten-egg smell (sulfur) is added to it so it can be detected. My sister and I always hated that smell — very strong, so that’s a lot of methane. Thanks for the ideas.