As more people start composting to reduce food waste, some companies see a business opportunity. From the release of Whirlpool’s Zera Food Recycler in 2017 to the launch of Lomi by Pela earlier this year, electric composters could be an attractive composting solution if you’re an urbanite or apartment dweller with limited or no space for traditional composting.
But while these products can help you manage food waste that might otherwise go to the landfill, it does seem counterintuitive to purchase yet another kitchen appliance as a solution for waste. With the market for kitchen appliances estimated to grow to $377 billion by 2027 and e-waste becoming an increasing source of concern, it’s hard to tell whether electric composters are a truly sustainable choice or just another greenwashed product.
What are electric composters and how do they work?
Electric composters (sometimes called food recyclers) are freestanding small kitchen appliances that break down food waste into compost or fertilizer. These products are usually the size of a slow cooker or air fryer, but they can be as large as a trash bin.
Unlike traditional home composting methods that rely on aerobic microbes to break organic matter into compost over a long period, electric composters heat and grind food scraps over several hours to produce a loose, dry substance that can be added to potted plants or garden soil as fertilizer.
Not all electric composters produce true compost. Depending on which model you choose, the byproduct can more closely resemble coffee grounds than the rich, dark soil-like substance you get from finished compost. If it’s true compost you want, be sure to check the details for the specific model you’re looking at.
Do electric composters reduce methane emissions?
One of the biggest benefits of composting is reducing methane emissions from landfills. In the U.S., landfills are the third-largest source of methane — a greenhouse gas about 25 times more potent than CO2. Landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA. This is largely due to organic waste ending up in landfills.
With the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) calling for drastic reductions in methane emissions earlier this year, you’ll be happy to hear that electric composters do not emit methane while in use. Three of the most popular electric composters (Lomi by Pela, the Vitamix FoodCycler FC-50, and Zera Food Recycler from Whirlpool) all use aerobic composting to break down food scraps. Unlike anaerobic digestion, this process does not emit methane, and all three models use a carbon filter system to reduce any foul odors.
Other emissions related to electric composters
Manufacturing any kind of product produces carbon emissions, and that doesn’t exclude electric composters. Electric composters are made of metal and plastic, which is notoriously difficult, dirty, and expensive to recycle.
Using electricity also produces carbon emissions. Most electric composters use little electricity, but it’s still a good idea to check a model’s electricity use before buying. For example, the Vitamix FoodCycler FC-50 uses a little less than 1 kWh per cycle, similar to what you might expect from running a slow cooker.
If you’re interested in purchasing an electric composter, look for brands that take a full product lifecycle approach to make their product as sustainable as possible. That would mean the company has taken steps to reduce the manufacturing emissions and raw materials consumption on the front end, and it has a sustainable solution for responsibly disposing of or recycling the product at the end of its life.
The final verdict
Ultimately, whether or not to buy an electric composter is up to you, but you might consider exploring other options before purchasing another electrical appliance. Composting in a small space presents unique challenges, but there are at least several other good options that don’t require buying an expensive piece of machinery.
If your city or town doesn’t offer a municipal composting option, it’s worth looking into worm composting (vermicomposting) and Bokashi composting. Neither of these options requires electricity or machinery, and they’re significantly less expensive than electric composters. You can also check to see if you live near a community garden that accepts kitchen scraps for composting. If you don’t, try starting a community composting program yourself!
Electric composters can be a good solution for people with few other options, but considering the environmental toll of electronics and plastics, many people will do just as well with a low-tech fix.
About the Author
Forrest Brown is a writer and the creator of the climate change podcast Stories for Earth. He lives with his wife and cats in Metro Atlanta, and he tweets at @frrstbrwn.