It’s the end of another week, and you’re heading out to get groceries. As you’re checking your fridge and cabinets to see what you need, you find a lot that are no longer appealing. Browned bananas you won’t eat. Veggies with strange dark spots, buried in a drawer beneath newer veggies. And milk that smells a little off. 

You toss it all in your kitchen trash bin, then take the bag to the curbside for the garbage truck. It’s already filled to the brim with this week’s worth of garbage. But you cram one last bag in there. Then you shut the lid and forget it as it goes away.

Have you ever stopped to think about how much trash you accumulate…and where it all goes?

If not, you’re not alone. The average American generates 4.6 pounds1 of trash per day. And 40 percent2 of food in U.S. grocery stores is tossed out. While “out of sight, out of mind” may save some people from wondering where all the trash goes, we all know that it hasn’t actually disappeared, just relocated…typically to a landfill. 

Since the 1960s3, our trash generation has tripled. Sixty-five percent4 of U.S. landfills will exceed their permitted levels in the next 15 years. We will soon be literally running out of places to store our trash. 

Okay, but what about recycling and composting?

Sure, there are tactics like recycling and composting that divert some of the waste taken to landfills. But the truth is, 90 percent of all solid waste5 in the U.S. never makes it to the recycling center or the compost bin. 

Although waste is a minimum 75 percent recyclable, Americans only recycle around 30 percent6. In addition, 72 percent7 of Americans don’t compost their food, although 67 percent of those polled said they’d be willing to if it was more convenient to do so. If people aren’t recycling and composting as much as they should, and it’s oftentimes not convenient to do either, what other options are there? The answer: waste reduction.

Shifting the focus to reducing waste

Cathy Hall8, Solid Waste Director of Pitkin County in Aspen, Colorado, is an advocate for waste reduction. And the Pitkin County landfill is a gold standard landfill for waste reduction. 

It’s even more than a landfill — it’s an integrated solid waste management facility. The landfill staff has programs in place to divert as much waste as possible from the landfill, which is how they recently became the number-one county in Colorado for diversion. These include:

Housing the second-largest composting facility in the state of Colorado, composing 15,000+ tons of waste a year — including food waste.
Running a hazardous waste collection facility in charge of finding harmful waste before it gets into the landfill.
Charging higher rates for trash collection to encourage waste reduction
Having measures in place to find and recycle books, textiles, and mattresses.

While there are measures in place for recycling certain types of materials, the Pitkin County landfill just isn’t set up for recycling certain types of plastic. As a result, thousands of pounds of recycled materials must be driven to Denver for processing there — causing a major carbon footprint. 

“The greenhouse gas impact of getting our recycling all the way to Denver is huge,” said Hall. “We really preach reduce, reuse, refuse…and then recycle. Recycling really should be your last option. Avoiding generating it to begin with is what we preach.” 

Recycling and composting are great solutions for the waste already at the landfill, but one of the best ways to help divert waste from entering the landfill is to not think about the solution as waste management, but rather, as the elimination of waste. And it all starts with one of the most common things that ends up in a landfill: food. 

A significant amount of all waste in a landfill is food. Here’s why that’s a problem. 

Unfortunately, when food waste ends up in a landfill (no matter how exceptionally it’s managed), it’s more than wasteful — it’s contributing to climate change.

When we think of those foods that households and grocers throw away throughout the week — fruit, veggies, and more — it’s easy to assume that they won’t pose a major problem for the environment. After all, food decomposes better than most other waste anyway, right?

Not exactly. Food waste does not break down the same way in a landfill as it would in nature or if it was composted. In an open compost bin or managed composting system, food waste breaks down with oxygen, i.e, aerobically, producing mostly carbon dioxide.

But landfills are managed and covered with layers of compacted soil meant to keep out pests and manage odors. Those same layers also prevent sufficient oxygen from reaching the waste. When oxygen isn’t present, food waste breaks down slower and anaerobically, that is without oxygen. And instead of producing carbon dioxide, it produces methane gas, CH4, which holds approximately 25 times more atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide, making it a significant contributor to climate change. 

There are some landfills that are working to capture their methane gas and turn it ideally into energy. However, many landfills, particularly the older ones, will “vent” or emit the methane gases. Ideally, diverting food waste from the landfill is one of the most important actions we all can take to combat climate change.

But what’s so bad about methane release?

Carbon dioxide isn’t all bad. But it’s too much of a good thing. 

Waste in a landfill releases methane, a greenhouse gas that’s more potent than carbon dioxide. While neither of these gases are necessarily harmful (they occur naturally in earth’s atmosphere), landfills contribute way, way too much of it — leading to an accelerated warming of the earth.

One way we calculate this effect is through equivalencies named “global warming potential” (GWP). GWP is a measurement developed to allow comparisons of the global warming impact of various gases. To get more specific for the inquisitive: it’s a measure of how much energy the emissions of one ton of a gas will absorb over a period of time, relative to the emissions of one ton of carbon dioxide.

The larger the GWP, the more that a gas contributes to the warming of the earth compared to carbon dioxide over a specific period of time. GWPs are helpful as they provide a common unit of measure, allowing analysts to sum up emissions of different gases…such as methane. 

Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s look at the difference in GWP between carbon dioxide and methane as they break down over the years. (Keep in mind it’s all relative to carbon dioxide, which is why that row will always say 1). 

What will happen after all the landfills are full? 

Back to landfills…Once landfills reach capacity, the only option9 is to make them bigger or build more. But it can take years to find the right location, get a permit, and build infrastructures that meet EPA standards. And that’s not even factoring in that most communities will oppose the creation of new landfills. 

The U.S. is the only developed nation in the world where municipal solid waste (MSW) generation outpaced recycling. Americans fill the equivalent of 96,00010 Olympic-size swimming pools with MSW every year. 

When landfills reach capacity and close, they don’t disappear. They just stay full of waste. 

“As we sit today, our landfill only has about two years left. Space is a big issue for us and a lot of landfills,” said Hall. “We’re adding an expansion that’s going to give us six or seven more years. We have maybe one more expansion in us, and then we have to close the landfill. We just don’t have anywhere to expand.” 

Once the only landfill in Pitkin County closes, trash will have to be transported to private companies’ mega-landfills. One mega-landfill in Denver, for example, has an estimated 100 years of space left. However, the trash has to get trucked to Denver — and doing so is a long haul with an additional carbon footprint. 

Maybe there’s a middle ground here.

Today’s landfill managers have measures and systems in place to protect the environment. Landfills of the past, also known as dumps11, were essentially massive holes in the land12 used for waste storage. They also:

  • Were uncovered, meaning smells and pests were released into the air 
  • Did not include liners to catch liquid, which would infiltrate groundwater
  • Didn’t include any sort of leachate13 collection or treatment systems

Thankfully, over time, environmental experts recognized the dangers of dumps and modified processes to produce the modern landfill of today, such as Hall’s in Pitkin county. 

“There aren’t really regulations keeping people from throwing a can of paint into the garbage. But our team tries to find it and keep it out of the landfill,” Hall said. “It does accumulate and can affect the groundwater, so we have to keep it out.”

Do Good Chicken is an easy way to make a difference. 

When you know you can do better, you can do good. 

You may wonder how you can make a difference to reduce your carbon footprint and combat climate change. Recycling and composting are great, but reducing your waste as much as possible is much better. 

Like the majority of U.S. households, grocery stores are throwing away a huge amount of nutrient-packed food. So we created a solution to keep this food waste from entering the landfills. And all you have to do is buy chicken.

In short: we take the surplus food from grocery stores (after those stores can make community donations), and we turn it into healthy feed for chickens. Our chickens eat the nutrient-dense feed that mimics their natural diet, then we sell that chicken at the very same grocery stores. Just like that, we created a system that works for a circular economy, combats food waste and diverts it from landfills — keeping methane out. 

By being more efficient in the production of chicken, we can make real chicken a whole lot better for our earth. And we’re making it as sustainable and successful as possible, through: 

Easy accessibility. We put our chicken into grocery stores you know, love, and shop at every day, making it easy for you to make a great choice for dinner. 
Sustainable packaging. Our packaging is made from rPET, which is made out of recycled PET containers like soda bottles.
A plan for expansion. These aren’t just big dreams. They’re already in action. We plan to expand beyond grocery stores, so one day you can get our climate-change-fighting chicken at your favorite restaurants or in your pet’s kibble.

So…what are you waiting for? Get ready to toss some chicken in your shopping cart and bake up some buffalo chicken dip. Just don’t forget to eat your leftovers.