Assessing Carbon Emissions Of The Vitamix FoodCycler [2021]

Wondering if the FoodCycler electric composter produces more carbon emissions than it offsets? After doing a comprehensive and unpaid review of the FoodCycler, I’m diving into the carbon emission tradeoffs of using the FoodCycler compared to landfilling or composting your food waste. Read on for data and conclusions based on governmental environmental sources to understand the relative carbon emissions of the FoodCycler as a food waste management solution.

This post was originally published on Honestly Modern.

Woman holding Food Cycler bucket in the Food Cycler appliance sitting on the kitchen counter.

A few months ago I purchased a Vitamix FoodCycler FC-50 to experiment with it and find out if it was the magical solution to composting at home that some touted it to be. The FoodCycler electric composter is a small kitchen appliance that breaks down food waste in a matter of hours without any smells or hard labor. I wrote a comprehensive review of the FoodCycler and continue to use the FoodCycler in my home.

Within minutes of plugging the FoodCycler into my wall, however, I began to wonder about the true carbon emissions (CO2e) benefits of using energy to break down food waste instead of sending food waste to a landfill where it emits methane (a potent greenhouse gas) during anaerobic decomposition. This was also one of the most common questions I received from others about the FoodCycler.

I set out to do some research and corresponded with a representative from FoodCycler as well to gather data, crunch some numbers, and think holistically about the CO2e costs and benefits of the FoodCycler.

How Much CO2 Emissions Come From Food Waste?

Before diving into CO2e from the FoodCycler, let’s start by understanding the scope of emissions from food waste globally. I’ve seen figures estimate CO2e from food waste between 1.3 kg – 2.5 kg of CO2e per kilogram of food waste. For the analysis I completed below, I used the 1.3 kg CO2e to be conservative.

The higher estimate came from research conducted by the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) that stated we waste 1.3 gigatons of edible food each year. This food waste releases 3.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (without taking into account land-use change). That means that 1 kg of food waste contributes 2.5 kg of CO2 equivalent to our atmosphere. For perspective, if food waste were a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions each year behind China and the United States. That’s pretty crazy!

Woman holding food cycler bucket in front of her to show the inside with processed Foodilizer inside of it.

How Much Energy Does The FoodCycler Use?

According to the Vitamix FoodCycler FC-50 manual, the FoodCycler uses about 0.8 kWh (kilowatt-hours) of energy per processing cycle. To put this in perspective, the United States Energy Information Administration says an American uses an average of 877 kWh per month. Thus, if an average American uses the FoodCycler once per week, it represents about 0.36% of home energy usage. Using it every other day or every day, the FoodCycler would represent 1.37% or 2.74% of monthly energy use, respectively.

How Much Carbon Dioxide Emissions Result From FoodCycler Use?

The CO2e (or carbon equivalent emissions) from the use of the FoodCycler depend significantly on the type of energy used in your home. If your electricity comes from a power plant that uses coal, the FoodCycler will have a much larger CO2e rate than if your home is powered by renewable energy resources like solar, hydro, or wind power. The FoodCycler processes about 1 kilogram (kg) of food waste and uses about 0.8 kWh of energy per cycle. Let’s compare a few different energy source alternatives.

100% Coal-Powered Energy Source

Coal emits about 2.2 pounds or 1 kg of CO2e per kWh of energy it produces and has the highest rate of CO2e relative to other types of energy sources, according to the United States Energy Information Administration (and coal’s dirty reputation). In a comparison of different energy sources, using coal to power the FoodCycler is the worst-case scenario.

Energy Source Based On Average Energy Mix For United States Consumer

In the United States, when we consider all fuel sources, the average CO2e from all energy sources is 0.40 kg per kWh. This is a 60% reduction in CO2e relative to coal. Carbon emissions of 0.4 kg/kWh (or 884.23 lbs/MWh) are based on data published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency showing total CO2 output emission rates in 2019 for the United States overall and by eGRID subregion. Using the average energy mix to analyze carbon emissions from FoodCycler use is a mid-case scenario that best represents our current circumstances.

100% Renewable or Zero-Carbon Energy Source

If the FoodCycler is powered exclusively by renewable energy resources like wind, hydro, or solar power or a zero-carbon energy source like nuclear energy, we’ve achieved a best-case scenario with respect to carbon emissions as none of these energy sources produce CO2e.

Waste Hauling Emissions

Regardless of energy source, we also should consider the emissions from waste hauling vehicles required to transport food waste from our homes to landfills or incinerators. While the actual emissions from these vehicles are hard to measure per unit of food waste, it’s worth noting that food waste is quite heavy.

The use of the FoodCycler eliminates waste hauling emissions if the Foodilizer is used at home. If the Foodilizer is thrown out, it still offers an 80-90% reduction in waste hauling volume and a significant decrease in the weight of the waste due to the drying and processing that occurs in the FoodCycler.

Net Carbon Emissions From The FoodCycler By Energy Source

As shown in the chart below, even in the worst-case scenario using the FoodCycler powered 100% by coal, we still achieve a net reduction in CO2e of 0.5 kg per FoodCycler processing cycle, after considering energy usage by the FoodCycler relative to reduced landfill emissions from food waste that doesn’t end up in the landfill. This net reduction does not include waste hauling transportation emissions, which is an additional relative benefit of the FoodCycler.

Chart of net CO2 emission reductions when using the Food Cycler with coal as the energy course, the US average energy mix as the energy source, and renewable or zero-carbon energy sources compared to sending food to the landfill.

As our energy sources continue to move toward more zero-carbon and renewable sources, the FoodCycler will capitalize on this shift in our energy resource mix and move closer to the renewable and zero-carbon best-case scenario estimated above.

Backyard Composting vs. Electric Composter

In the context of discussing carbon emissions from the FoodCycler and electric composters in general, it’s worth noting that backyard composting also releases some CO2e. Below (with the help of my friend Jess from Thoughtfully Sustainable), I created this diagram to show the very basic chemistry of sending food waste to the landfill instead of the compost bin.

Diagram of the the basic chemistry reaction of what happens to food scraps when they go to a landfill vs. go to a compost bin

Although landfill waste produces much more greenhouse gas emissions than backyard composting, a typical compost bin produces nutrients for the soil, water, and a bit of carbon dioxide. Composting is a rapid version of nature’s recycling system, so this carbon dioxide output is a product of the same process that happens when dried leaves fall to the forest floor and decompose over time to replenish the soil. In other words, it’s natural and it’s not a concern in our rush to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I mention it though for relative considerations and to add another angle of perspective about the minimal CO2e from FoodCycler processing cycles. According to FoodCycler, backyard composting produces more CO2 emissions per kilogram of food waste than the FoodCycler in certain circumstances. FoodCycler’s metric is based on the energy resource mix of Ontario, Canada, where 96% of electricity is generated using zero-carbon emitting sources, according to the Canada Energy Regulator Provincial and Territorial Energy Profile for Ontario. Ontario’s electricity comes 60% from nuclear, 26% from hydroelectricity, 7% from wind, and 2% from solar. The remainder is primarily from natural gas, with some biomass.

Chart comparing the different levels of carbon dioxide emissions from sending food waste to a landfill, using a landfill with LFG capture, backyard composting, and the Food Cycler.
Chart from FoodCycler

In the United States, according to the Resource Mix data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of zero-carbon energy sources varies widely based on geographic location. The chart below shows the energy mix for each eGRID subregion in the United States, and some regions are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Thus, backyard composting might release fewer CO2e than the FoodCycler if you live in an area powered primarily by fossil fuels.

This interactive chart from the EPA is pretty neat (at least to me), and you can see that regions like upstate New York (NYUP) use almost 75% of zero-carbon energy sources (thanks mostly to nuclear energy and hydropower). The New York City region (NYCW), meanwhile, uses only 41% zero-carbon energy sources while New York’s Long Island area (NYLI) relies heavily on fossil fuels and includes only 12% zero-carbon energy sources in their resource mix. Where you live really matters, even if you’re in the same state!

What About Carbon Emissions Upstream During Production & Transportation of the FoodCycler?

The analysis thus far only considered energy consumption during use of the FoodCycler compared to carbon emissions during composting or alternative waste disposal methods.

For this analysis, I did not do further research into relative carbon emissions during the manufacturing and procurement processes upstream from the customer’s experience using the product. There were too many variables to consider for what I anticipate doesn’t amount to much variance.

In just about all cases of composting, there is some level of carbon emissions related to manufacturing and transportation of a bin, a tumbler, tools, building materials, or whatever physical materials go into the type of composting system you choose. They’re definitely not all the same, but they probably aren’t all that different, and there are far too many variables to consider to do a useful analysis with my expertise and available data.

The Right Composting Method For You Is About More Than Carbon Emissions

There are many other eco-friendly considerations to weigh beyond CO2e when comparing various composting methods to the use of the FoodCycler. Depending on the method of backyard composting you use, for example, there may be fewer upstream manufacturing impacts of backyard composting relative to the production and transportation of the FoodCycler to your home.

Furthermore, backyard composting provides a breeding ground for biodiversity and allows for a higher volume capacity of yard waste or larger items that don’t fit in the FoodCycler. You might be able to share a composting system and management responsibilities with neighbors.

Alternatively, backyard composting can release methane (like in the landfill) if the pile isn’t managed properly, and it isn’t suitable for foods like meat and dairy that can go in the FoodCycler. Furthermore, backyard composting just isn’t an option for many people given time, resources, space, and physical ability limitations.

This set of comparisons isn’t exhaustive but is evidence of the complex circumstances that warrant a multitude of food waste management options so each person or family can use the options that work best for them. If you think the FoodCycler might be a good composting solution for you, check out the full FoodCycler review.

I’ve also shared 6 ways to compost in an apartment and 9 ways to compost in the suburbs. Head on over to check more details including the pros, cons, and price considerations of more than a dozen ways to compost at home.

If you have questions, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.

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