Food satisfies one of our most primitive needs and is the core of economic, social, health and environmental systems. However, today, part of what we do with our food makes little sense: The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that we waste up to 40 percent of our U.S. food supply; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that more than 100 billion pounds of food ends up in our landfills annually; and ReFED (a multi-stakeholder non-profit providing food waste solutions based on data) values the amount of food we waste at more than $200 billion. Yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that one in nine Americans lacks consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.
Food sent to a landfill not only wastes nutrition and the resources used to grow, store, process and distribute it, but it also produces methane, which dramatically accelerates global warming. Landfills contribute more than 14 percent of all U.S. methane emissions, and the EPA estimates that food waste is the most common material feeding our landfills. Even if our industry is responsibly capturing methane at landfills, reducing food in the waste stream presents a key opportunity to lower our carbon footprint.
Since the EPA and USDA announced a joint goal to halve wasted food in 2015, non-profits, government, agencies, large corporations, small start-ups and individual consumers have committed to fighting food waste.
As of 2018, six states and five cities have banned organics from the garbage, mostly from businesses. Companies like Kroger have committed to eliminating food waste company-wide by 2030, and countless non-profits have sprung up to rescue food that would otherwise be wasted. Start-ups like Food Cowboy and Imperfect Foods seek new homes for surplus food originally headed to landfills. Save the Food has put out powerful messaging and helpful tools for consumers, while the Grocery Manufacturers Alliance and Food Marketing Institute have been standardizing food expiration labeling and expect complete adoption by consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies in 2020.
The Natural Wisdom of Anaerobic Digestion and Composting
With rightful attention going to upstream solutions to reduce wasted food, downstream solutions should not be ignored. Even if we rethink, reduce and redistribute all of today’s wasted food, organic waste from food will still be a significant portion of our waste stream. When the NRDC conducted a detailed study of household food scraps, about one-third fit their definition of inedible—things like eggshells, avocado pits, banana peels and coffee grounds.
We will always need infrastructure to bring nutrients from inedible food scraps back to the soil. Those molecules are the building blocks for making tomorrow’s food. Additionally, some scientists are beginning to believe that soil has the ability to store a significant amount of carbon from greenhouse gas emissions. As the primary destinations for downstream food scraps, anaerobic digestion and composting are imperative in achieving these environmental benefits.
However, these benefits matter only if we can first capture our organic waste. ReFED found that more than 80 percent of wasted food in the U.S. comes from consumers and consumer-facing businesses, like restaurants and grocery stores. So, the solution to capturing organic material must engage consumers and businesses.
The Newest Horizon in Waste Management: Curbside Food Scrap Collection
Although these numbers can feel overwhelming, they demonstrate that curbside collection is incredibly important to reduce food waste, and our industry is primed to make a difference. Three keys to a healthy curbside food scrap program also provide opportunities for business growth:
- Collection: CalRecycle’s “SB 1383 Infrastructure and Market Analysis” revealed that the stability of long-term contracts drives programs. Permitting and developing composting facilities are too expensive to justify without the assurance of material. Haulers are pivotal in ensuring the necessary material volume from consumers and businesses that processors need. For consumers and businesses, participating in curbside collection programs is much easier than onsite composting.
- Cleaning the Stream: The cleaner the end product, the easier it is to market, so collecting a clean stream underlies the entire system. Advancements in consumer education, like tagging contaminated carts at the curb and reaching residents through multiple channels are key. Improvements in compostable packaging to be more compatible with processing requirements and the development of pre-sort technology to remove possible contamination for composting facilities will also enhance a usable, cleaner end product.
- Market Applications: The most important and often-forgotten link in any circular system is the end market. Today, compost typically goes into agriculture, landscaping and gardens. Expanding other applications for compost, like at vineyards or in construction, could also unlock new business models.
Building a World Where Collecting Food Scraps is Normal
According to BioCycle’s latest inventory, access to municipal curbside food scrap collection doubled from 2012 to 2017 to more than five million U.S. households, and almost 350 compost facilities in the U.S. now accept food waste. Food scrap collection is certainly expanding, but we can do more:
- For municipalities:
Regulations that ban food waste from the landfill or encourage compost use can dramatically strengthen the business case, material stream and end markets for haulers and processors.
Streamlining the permitting process might encourage processors to start accepting food scraps.
- For processors:
Those leery of the contamination that expanding to food scraps might bring can start collecting from a few food service businesses.
- For haulers:
The municipality-hauler-processor relationship is key. The tighter the communication loop, the better the program can adjust to limit contamination.
Haulers, municipalities and processors should work together to educate consumers constantly through multiple channels, including tagging contaminated carts.
Many of today’s established food scrap collection programs began with small pilots for stakeholders to iron out the kinks.
- For facilities:
Three-bin collection systems are enabling some stadiums, airports and conference centers to now collect food scraps from their attendees.
- For equipment manufacturers:
Providing maneuverable, yet strong containers that support the heavy weight of food waste at the curb and in homes and businesses will help facilitate adoption.
Managing Downstream Organic Waste
With the power to battle hunger, fight climate change, feed our natural systems and inspire new business models, reducing wasted food might be one of the few unifiers. By managing downstream organic waste, we have the unprecedented opportunity to be part of a solution much greater than our waste industry. Remember, we can all participate to maximize programs in our communities. The world needs curbside food scrap collection, and we must all do our part. | WA
Kristin Kinder joined Wastequip (Charlotte, NC) as VP of Research and Waste Stream Sustainability in 2018. With more than a decade of waste industry experience at Waste Management and ENGIE Impact, Kristin serves as an expert on key industry topics, driving positive environmental change, developing partnerships and speaking about sustainability. Her 2017 TEDx talk has inspired thousands to rethink the materials they consume, and she was recently honored with Waste360’s 2019 40 Under 40. Kristin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.