Black Gold: The Future of Food…We Throw Away

Food takes up more space in American landfills than anything else. About 30 to 40 percent of food produced in the US gets thrown away, rather than eaten. What's more, putting all that rotting food inside landfills produces a lot of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Our ancestors knew exactly what to do with food waste; the earliest descriptions of composting were written on clay tablets more than 4,000 years ago. So why is it so hard for us to keep food waste out of landfills? This episode, Gastropod visits the future of food waste: the high-tech facilities as well as the innovative policies that promise to keep our discarded food out of landfills, keep methane from escaping into the atmosphere, *and* turn those food scraps into something useful. Can a state the size of California really keep 75 percent of its food waste out of landfills, as it has pledged to do by 2025—and what will happen if it does?  Listen in for compost blow-dryers, fruit-sticker bingo, and a lot of microbes!

A field of dirt with a concrete wall on the far end and metal ducts to blow air
The side of the CASP concrete bunker at American Organics, showing the ducting and temperature probes. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

Two people in hard hats and safety vests stand in front of enormous cylindrical tanks
Behind the scenes at CORe, Waste Management's Central Organics Recycling facility in Charlestown, Massachusetts, where food waste is processed to be added to wastewater and turned into biogas and fertilizer. Photo by Saima Sidik.

Episode Notes

Rachel Wagoner

Rachel Wagoner is the director of CalRecycle, California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. You can read more about SB1383, the new law mandating that the state keep 75 percent of its organic waste out of landfills by 2025, here.

A huge, room filled with piles of food waste and soil, being scooped up by yellow digger machines
The receiving shed at American Organics in Victorville, CA. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

A pile of smooth gray-brown compost in front of a hazy blue sky
Finished compost at American Organics in Victorville, CA. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

Nora Goldstein

Nora Goldstein is the editor of the digital magazine BioCycle, which has been covering topics in organics recycling—from food waste to biogas to policy and regulations—since 1996.

Lily Pollans

Lily Pollans is an assistant professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College. She is the author of Resisting Garbage: The Politics of Waste Management in American Cities.

Keith Churchill

Photo of a man's hand holding compost, his other hand is pointing to some pale white-gray threads in the compost.
Keith Churchill points to a grey fungus in the finished compost that shows how full of nitrogen it is. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

Keith Churchill is the director of organics for the L.A.-based waste diversion and recycling company Athens Services. He runs an industrial compost site called American Organics, which Nicky visited in Victorville, California.

Jamie Ecker

Jamie Ecker is the director of organics project management and technology at Waste Management, the largest company handling—as the name suggests!—waste management in the U.S.

Konrad Novakowski & Cheri Cousens

Konrad Novakowski is the plant manager of Waste Management's CORe facility, a residential and commercial food waste composting site in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Cheri Cousens is the executive director of the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District's anaerobic digester, which processes CORe's food waste and the solids removed from wastewater into biogas and fertilizer pellets.

Piles of food on a concrete floor in a warehouse, including many compostable bags and several pumpkins
Piles of food cover the floor at CORe, ready to be processed into slurry. (You'll note quite a few pumpkins, as our visit was in October!) Photo by Saima Sidik.

A man in glasses and a yellow hard hat holds a blender full of thick orange liquid out to Cynthia, also in hard hat and a blue mask, who is holding out a microphone.
Jamie Ecker shows Cynthia the final "lentil soup" food waste slurry that is added to wastewater for anaerobic digestion. Photo by Saima Sidik.

Cissy Ma

Cissy Ma is a research engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where her research involves assessing the sustainability of various systems, including drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, and green infrastructure. She co-authored a 2020 paper that presented the results of a lifecycle analysis of the impacts of co-digesting food with wastewater at the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District's anaerobic digester.