You’ve heard of recycling. You’ve heard of upcycling. But there’s a hot new eco-trend on the rise: chickencycling.
Chickencycling is recycling food scraps by feeding them to chickens instead of composting them or throwing them away.
Home chicken keepers have long saved on food costs by giving their flocks food scraps and leftovers. Now, though, both eco-minded local businesses and big companies are getting in on the action.
Chickencycling has numerous eco benefits, but it can be controversial. In some places, it’s even illegal. To explore the trend, I teamed up with the world’s best bagel place and put my own backyard flock on the line.
Let’s explore this new eco-trend in more detail.
When Emily Winston of Boichik Bagels — which the New York Times says makes the best bagels in America — boils up a batch of everything bagels in her new 18,000 square-foot factory, her kettle fills up with a mush of cornmeal and seed scraps by the end of each day.
Winston could compost these scraps. But a better idea occurred to her. Why not feed the calorie-dense, Kosher mush to some of the Bay Area’s many backyard chickens?
Winston sent a newsletter asking for chicken volunteers (which she dubbed Boichickens), and the Mercury News picked up the story. I heard about the article and naturally answered the call.
That’s how I found myself, on a Thursday morning, walking away from Winston’s Berkeley outpost with a delicious lox and bagel sandwich and a giant, upcycled Maldon salt container filled with chicken-friendly mush.
When I got home, my son and I cracked open the container and called our backyard flock over. I have six hens, and I often feed them table scraps, so they know the drill.
Boichick’s mixture was wet, dense, and exuded the strong, tantalizing oniony smell of an everything bagel.
As we threw it onto the ground in handfuls, my flock eagerly descended on it, gleefully pecking up the mush.
Later in the day, I placed the remaining mush in their coop. By the next morning, much of it was gone.
Clearly, mushy leftover scraps are a popular item if you’re a Boichicken!
The Benefits of Chickencycling
Chickencycling is a great alternative to composting primarily because chickens are relatively eco-friendly animals.
Chicken eggs have the second lowest carbon footprint of any animal protein, bested only by milk. To be clear, eating plant-based foods is still better for the climate than consuming any animal protein.
But as animals go, chickens are efficient. They convert feed into food with less waste and less environmental damage than cattle, pigs, lamb, and farmed fish.
A typical hen can lay an egg every day for years. (My hens are slackers and average 3–4 per week.) Feeding scraps to hens — or allowing them to forage — is thus an excellent way to convert unused food waste into usable (and tasty!) protein.
Maybe one day, everyone will be vegan, or we’ll all eat lab-grown meat. But until that day, if you crave animal protein, you could do worse than feeding chickens food scraps and reaping the benefits in the form of delicious eggs.
Big companies are taking notice. Matt Rogers, the founder of Nest (now part of Google), recently took his startup Mill Industries out of stealth mode.
The company makes a trashcan-like appliance, the Mill, into which consumers can throw their food scraps. The Mill dehydrates and grinds the scraps, turning them into a lightweight powder.
When the Mill fills up, customers use a special box to ship the dehydrated scraps to Mill Industry’s Seattle processing facility. There, the scraps are pasteurized and turned into feed for chickens.
It’s chickencyling at an industrial scale!
Mill calls food in landfills “one of the most solveable environmental problems.” Chickens, apparently, are a big part of the solution.
Chickencycling Meets the Law
There’s a big challenge for small-scale chickencycling, though: the law.
In the UK, for example, it’s technically illegal to feed scraps to chickens — even for a home flock. In theory, a chicken owner in the UK could go to jail for two years for feeding their hens household food waste!
Here in the United States, the Federal law is more relaxed as long as chickens aren’t eating meat. State laws vary but can be difficult or impossible to pin down.
A 66-page report from Harvard University, titled Leftovers and Lifestock, explores the legality of feeding scraps to animals in extreme detail. Most regulations address feeding scraps to pigs — chickens are generally exempt (score one for chickencycling!)
In my home state of California —which is generally friendly to small-scale food entrepreneurs, sustainable restaurants and home farmers — there’s a specific carveout allowing households to feed scraps to their own animals, including chickens.
Since scraps like Boichik’s are coming from a commercial facility licensed to produce human food, they should qualify for feeding to chickens at a greater scale, too. Many states appear to give human-food-licensed facilities more leeway in producing food for animals.
If it’s good enough for people, it’s apparently good enough for chickens, too!
Still, the plurality of laws about scrap feeding reveals the complexities involved in chickencycling. With multiple state governments and the Federal government playing a role, the simple act of feeding a bird some mushy corn quickly becomes wildly complex!
The Future of Chickencycling
Despite the complexities, Harvard’s Leftovers and Livestock report draws a clear conclusion: recycling food waste by feeding it to animals is a great idea.
According to the report, over 160 billion pounds of food are wasted in the United States every year. That’s a staggering amount of food going into landfills and producing a staggering environmental impact.
Rotting food in landfills, Harvard’s report says, releases methane, which is 56 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide.
The report concludes that reducing waste is the best policy, followed by feeding still-viable food to people. But after that, “diverting scraps to animal feed” is the best way to recycle them — far better than composting.
Chickencyling is one ideal way to do that.
What You Can Do
If you’ve always considered getting chickens for the fun of it — or for tasty eggs — the environmental benefits might be enough to put you over the top and convince you to start a flock.
If you live in a place where scrap feeding is legal, you can reduce your food waste substantially by feeding some of your table scraps to your chickens.
For optimal chicken health, it’s important to feed scraps in moderation and alongside other healthy and nutritionally-complete feed. Still, the practice of recycling food waste into eggs dates back centuries.
Chickencycling as a concept may be new, but the practice of reducing waste by feeding it to farm animals is anything but.
You can also encourage local (or national) businesses to pursue chickencycling. As with so many things involving the environment, California’s small businesses are in the vanguard. Winston’s experiment with chickencycling is a fantastic, public way to demonstrate the value of scrap feeding.
At a larger scale, innovations like Mill Industries’ chickencycling trash can expand the benefits — and climate impacts — of scrap feeding to a much larger audience.
In the face of a warming climate, we need to pursue every possible avenue to reduce our carbon footprint. Chickencyling offers one that’s easy, cheap — and fills your fridge with dozens of eggs!