Something's Rotten in the State of Garbage
Each pound of methane (CH4) in our atmosphere contributes about twenty-five times as much to global warming than carbon dioxide. There's lots more CO2, but methane is increasing more rapidly and its impact is significant. CO2 in the air has increased by about 30% since the industrial revolution, but methane has increased by about 150%. That means there's about two and a half times as much now than there was when this country was founded.
There's another difference between CO2 and methane that's important: methane last about ten years in the atmosphere, while CO2 lasts over a hundred. This means that if we can reduce methane now it will have a quicker impact. Eliminating a pound of new methane is roughly equivalent to eliminating seventy pounds of new CO2. So, though reducing CO2 emissions is important, reducing methane can give us a bigger bang for the buck.
More than half of the CH4 emissions around the world come from human activities. And of those human emissions, about 12% come from landfills. That's right, the organic garbage you throw away makes a significant contribution to climate change. When organic waste decomposes in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment, it produces landfill gas, of which CH4 is a major component.
What can we do to stop this major source of global warming? Well, one option is to burn landfill gas, and even create more energy in the process. Lots of landfills are doing just that. This may reduce the global warming impact (turning CH4 into CO2). But it also emits toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.
A much better solution is to eliminate the source of the problem. Eliminate organic waste from landfills. It sounds hard, but as a society we have made big strides in pulling recyclables out of our waste stream. Doing the same with compostables would be just as noble of a cause.
That's right. Just like aluminum and glass, organic waste can be pulled from the waste stream and turned into something valuable. Reduce the need for landfills, reduce our contribution to climate change, and make something useful in the process!
The simplest thing to do is household composting. At our house, we've had a compost bin for many years, and we don't even have a garden. We just throw in kitchen and yard waste. We don't even care if it's the most efficient compost pile. We just dump stuff in. Miraculously, our compost bin never gets full.
Of course, there's lots of organic waste that is beyond the capability of our amateur compost bin. Our bin, along with paper recycling and the city's yard waste collection program, certainly keep our organic waste output small. But there are certain things that will never decompose in our bin and yet are not recyclable.
The City of Boulder is looking at implementing a compost collection program. This program, which has already been pilot tested in 400 homes here, knocked down the amount of garbage generated to about 30% (including the impact of recycling). The next step is to get this program in place for the city at large, and to evangelize the program to other locations.
So, to summarize, if you want to reduce global warming, start composting even if you don't garden, recycle your paper and cardboard, and encourage your local government to sponsor yard waste and composting collection programs.