While the food we eat, and the growing systems we support, has a major impact on climate change, the food you don’t eat, too, has a sizable effect—cooking scraps, leftovers gone bad, the bag of spinach you bought at Costco you thought you’d get through but definitely didn’t.
About 35% of food is wasted in the U.S. each year. It often ends up in landfills, where it produces methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. For every 100 pounds of food we send to landfills, 8.3 pounds of methane are sent into the atmosphere, according to the EPA. (And the average American family wastes 250 pounds of food a year.)
And, not for nothing, we could feed 25 million more people if we cut our food waste in half.
But we have the technology and infrastructure to address the problem. We could buy less, donate our food to pantries before they go bad, participate in food rescue programs and, to keep scraps and expired food out of landfills, we could compost.
Composting significantly reduces methane emissions, while also producing natural, effective fertilizer for a variety of agricultural purposes. It’s a process that, put very simply, involves collecting food, yard trimmings, manures and other organic wastes into a pile or vessel; adding bulk material like wood chips to accelerate the breakdown; and turning it to aerate it. The result is a nutrient rich soil, dubbed “black gold,” that has a variety of applications: it can be used to remediate hazardous waste sites, restore natural habitats, improve garden health and more.
Composting can be done on a small scale like your backyard or in neighborhood gardens, or on a larger scale, wherein compost companies retrieve organic waste from consumers and process the material. On this scale, real change can happen. Making composting easy for the average person, who may not want or know how to tend to a compost pile or who has preconceived notions about its smell or fickleness, could get more people on board with the abundantly beneficial process.
“I think a lot of people don’t know it’s an option; a lot of people are intimidated by bad experiences,” says Michelle Bradley, who runs Java’s Compost, a North Jersey composting company, with her husband, Java. “For some people, it’s not on their radar. They don’t think about their food when they throw it in the trash. In this area, there’s a lot of awareness, specifically [about] the environment. The interest level is there, it’s just about educating more people.”
Java’s Compost is one of several small (relatively; the company recently passed one million pounds of diverted food) compost companies operating in the state. Most of the waste management companies operating in New Jersey do not offer compost services, so companies like Java’s Compost are helping fill the void.
The company offers haul-away compost service, backyard compost consultations and the option to receive some processed black gold, or donate it. For pretty low fees ($34-$50/month), Java’s Compost will give residential customers a five-gallon bucket, retrieve your compost once or twice a month (your choice) and return the cleaned bucket; and there’s affordable add-ons like compost application to your landscape. They’ll also give you diversion stats—how much food you kept out of the landfill. Java’s is also growing their commercial and municipal composting services.
The roots for what would become Java’s Compost go back aways. Java was working as a teacher at a school in Newark, and got involved with its rooftop garden with a three-bin composting system. He helped integrate that idea into community gardens near their home, and saw there was interest in composting from a wider group of people. After sensing the growing momentum for composting, Java and Michelle decided to make composting their life’s work and launch this commercial composting company.
Now, New Jersey’s laws around composting are (surprise) a little restrictive—facilities must be licensed to process organics, not just yard waste, and there’s only one in the state, Ag Choice in Andover. So Java and Michelle had to go to a New York composting plant for the first year, before eventually finding a more local facility. Working within the composting framework in New Jersey has shed light on where the industry can improve.
“There’s not a lot of infrastructure here,” Michelle says. “That’s why we helped formulate the NJ Composting Council … to try and push some better infrastructure education around composting. One of the focuses now is to help [the state Department of Environmental Protection] understand composting better and allow for small-scale composting.”
A future, vibrant commercial composting industry in the state might look like a bunch of small composting plants across the state, run by myriad companies, which would provide the necessary infrastructure to get more people in New Jersey composting. Too, enabling small companies to open facilities would allow more people into the tent, preventing one or two large operators from creating a monopoly on the business, and hedging against the instance where one of those few large facilities shuts down or gets filled up.
Java says it’s a goal of theirs to create a smaller plant to process compost, but it’s, understandably, extremely costly and requires extensive permitting.
But, also, part of the challenge of getting more people composting is educating them about the process; for instance, education on what can be composted. Composting facilities, particularly smaller ones, may not have the resources to filter out non-compostable material. Though some restaurants and grocery stores have compost options, one need only look inside the bin to see how we, the average consumers, are doing
“While it’d be great to be able to compost post-consumer material, I think we’re kind of a far ways away from the consumer spending time, in New Jersey anyway, looking at different signs and following through on them,” Michelle says. (And, not for nothing, consumer awareness on composting isn’t just a New Jersey problem.) “Not to say that it’s not possible, but just from what I’ve seen at the few Whole Foods, it’s not happening. Unless the business itself has a lot of signage up and dives into it and helps their consumer understand it, I think it’s kind of difficult.”
(Java’s Compost does include a list of what can and can’t be composted, for the record.)
Before the future landscape of composting in New Jersey grows to maturity, Java’s Compost is focused on doing what they can do in the Essex, Morris and Union County region. They’re offering backyard consultations and compost tumbler services; putting scrap drop-boxes in communities; and they’re working with schools to set up compost boxes that have solar-powered fans to aerate the box, making it easy to use and to learn with.
The goal is to “get better at what we’re doing,” Java says. “We’re not necessarily opposed to growing; we’re looking to figure out how to improve how we serve.”
For more information on Java’s Compost, or to sign up for service in its North Jersey area, go here. For how to get involved with growing the composting industry in New Jersey, go here.