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Consider this: In the U.S. alone, food waste is estimated at between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply.

Based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service, approximately 31 percent food loss occurs at the retail and consumer levels. This amount of waste has far reaching impacts on waste disposal strategies and environmental concerns.

Callie Babbit, an associate professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute of Sustainability, is a leading expert on food waste solutions. According to Babbit, in the U.S., the volume of food waste generated from municipal sources continues to grow, and while efforts to divert organic waste have also been expanding, there is still a significant gap.

“Only about five percent of all food waste is diverted from landfills, mostly through composting,” Babbit said. “As a result, food waste is the single largest fraction of the waste stream that is ultimately landfilled. Other waste materials are generated at higher rates but also recycled in greater percentages.”

Right now, the bans or regulations on green waste is a state-by-state process. See the states that have policies in place by viewing this article on AmericanRecycler.com, however it isn’t a federal mandate.

As Babbit explained, currently, only five states and a handful of cities have implemented a policy to ban or reduce the landfill of food waste from large scale generators – typically commercial or industrial facilities producing more than one or two tons of food waste per week.

“However, many of these policies waive recycling requirements if generators are not located close to a composting or anaerobic digestion facility or if food waste recovery costs are significantly higher than landfill tipping fees,” Babbit said.

Past efforts to improve recycling of yard trimmings could certainly be a model for broadening food waste recovery. The 2013 U.S. EPA Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report indicated that currently, over 60 percent of yard trimmings are composted instead of being landfilled.

“Efforts to eliminate green waste have grown in response to reduced landfill space, increased landfill tipping fees, the ability to capture value from composting products like mulch, and wider adoption of yard trimming landfill bans or recycling targets,” Babbit said. “While over 20 states currently have a policy in place to reduce yard trimming waste in landfill, these also are frequently relaxed, particularly for landfills that have methane recovery systems in place.

And it’s important to note that food waste policy in the U.S. primarily focuses on commercial entities, rather than households. However, waste generated farther upstream on the “farm-to-fork” supply chain can confound the issue.

“When food waste is generated at a food processing or livestock facility, it is often classified as industrial waste, rather than municipal solid waste,” Babbit explained. “Therefore, estimates of waste from commercial and residential systems are only the tip of the iceberg Depending on the type of food, the cumulative losses during harvesting, production, processing, handling, and packaging, can be between 5 to 25 percent of the net supply chain food waste, with meat and milk on the low end and grain, seafood, and produce on the high end.”

Key Players in Food Waste

Ronald Mersky, associate professor of civil engineering, and editor of The Journal of Solid Waste Technology and Management considers food waste recovery to be “the next big thing” in municipal solid waste management.

“I expect over the next five years to see major increases in separate collection programs and more large-scale facilities for composting or other processing,” Mersky said. “Several factors indicate this including that worldwide there has recently been a significantly increased level of activity in the separate collection and processing of food waste from municipal solid waste.

For example:    

•In 2014, the city of Seattle, Washington required separation of food waste and yard waste into separate bins. It is expected this will yield 38 percent of food waste being composted.
•In 2015, France passed legislation that prohibits retailers from placing food that is unsold but edible into the municipal solid waste collection/disposal system. Food retailers are given the options of donation to charities (human consumption), animal feed or composting.
•In 2015, New York City provided separate bins for home-generated food waste collection in some neighborhoods. The collected food waste is composted.

Grocery stores and restaurants have widely varying strategies for combating food waste. According to Babbit, the most ideal case is to stop food from ever becoming waste, either by reducing oversupply or by diverting excess foods to feed more people.

“Many stores offer sales on food that is blemished or nearing its sell-by date; sell food at deep discounts to surplus grocery stores or discount chains; or donate products to food banks or other non-profit organizations,” Babbit said. “And many restaurants, hotels, and institutions have begun diverting waste cooking and frying oil into biodiesel production, which can often offer significant savings over the cost of grease removal and disposal.”

These strategies are at the top of the food waste hierarchy, followed in preference by diverting excess food to produce animal feed, converting food wastes to energy or other value-added products, or composting, with landfill being a final option.

According to Victoria Ligon, professor at the Norton School, Family & Consumer Sciences, at the University of Arizona, consumers are increasingly aware that food waste is a significant problem and in some cases, they are pressuring organizations to do something about it.

“Interestingly, consumers and the media often target grocery stores for their wastefulness, when in fact, grocery stores are among the most efficient food handling sectors, and consumers are by far the least – one study suggests that 60 percent of the food waste stream is being generated by consumers in their households,” Ligon said. “None-the-less, consumers prefer to look to grocery stores, restaurants and agricultural distribution centers when it comes to food waste and as a result, there are some interesting start-up efforts aimed at ‘food rescue.’”

One of the interesting trends Babbit sees is a greater emphasis on consumer education and awareness, particularly as it relates to their experience at the grocery store.

For example, a significant fraction of food waste can be attributed to consumers’ exacting standards for food appearance, particularly for produce, which groceries and restaurants have responded to by disposing otherwise fresh, edible foods with slight blemishes or odd shapes.

“There is a growing interest in promoting ‘ugly fruits and vegetables’ as a fun way to engage consumers in the food supply chain,” Babbit said. Another example is food labeling – most products are marked with “freshest by” or “use before” dates that have no uniform or regulatory meaning, which ends up confusing consumers about food safety.

“Efforts have recently begun to examine and propose potential regulation to standardize these labels,” Babbit said.

Looking Ahead

Babbit expects policy will continue to be a key driver, directly and indirectly. “As our understanding of food waste sources and impacts continues to grow, we will likely see additional states and municipalities enact some form of organic waste law,” Babbit said. “Many will likely set recycling targets or landfill bans, but I hope that more creative options will also emerge, such as broader tax benefits for organizations who donate unused products to food banks.” More start-ups also are creating business models around food waste as it relates to recycling/composting. For example, Compost Cab delivers a bin that people can then fill with food scraps. The company picks up the compostables and leaves you with an empty bin.

“I expect significant increases in separate food collection programs,” Mersky sad. “While composting is a major recovery method, I think some communities will move towards anaerobic digestion, which offers the advantage of energy recovery while also reducing odor and vector concerns. Anaerobic digestion also can be located within dense urban areas. In agricultural areas, animal feed will probably also be a market for recovered food waste.”

Food waste policies will also have significant overlap with other environmental policies. For example, meeting climate mitigation targets will require reducing methane emissions from landfill, for which eliminating food waste disposal is a key strategy. When food waste decomposes in landfills, the methane produced has a climate impact over 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. Similarly, converting food waste to biofuels (e.g., producing bio-methane from anaerobic digestion) is a strategy states can employ to meet renewable energy portfolio standards.

“I hope we will also look to nature as inspiration for solving the growing food waste challenge,” Babbit said. “In natural ecosystems, waste as we know it does not exist – materials and nutrients are continually cycled from one process or organism into another. The field of industrial ecology offers solutions that take their cue from closed-loop ecological systems. For example, we might envision creating large-scale bio-refineries, wherein industrial firms co-locate near hubs of organic waste sources, which are used as the ‘food’ for processes generating value-added fuels, materials, and chemicals.”

As Ligon explained, consumer activism around food waste is increasing and consumers are demanding changes from their grocery stores, such as ugly food campaigns in Europe, or that ugly produce startup in San Francisco and even governments such as the French law mandating that food waste be donated.

“In the U.S., we have always been behind Europe when it comes to food waste awareness, but even here consumers are increasingly concerned about food waste,” Ligon said. “Given that few consumers recognize how much they themselves are contributing to the problem, and those that do may have trouble figuring out what to do about their own waste, I will not be surprised to see even greater consumer attention paid to grocery, restaurant, and distribution networks in the future.”

Published in the November 2016 Edition of American Recycler News