Ashley Zanolli, senior policy and program advisor for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Materials Management Program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Region 10, has worked hard throughout her career to start and grow a national conversation about food waste.

From creating a biodiesel facility with a group of engineers to scaling her own national campaigns to help reduce food waste, Zanolli has respectfully earned a Waste360 40 Under 40 award for her innovative efforts in the waste and recycling industry.

“Ashley is tireless in her dedication to mitigating the massive amounts of food waste in the United States,” says Zanolli’s former coworker Sanne Stienstra. “She began working on food waste with the West Coast Climate & Materials Management Forum in 2010 before the issue was in the limelight. It has been a long, slow effort to get to today, but the problem is now well-known and dozens of jurisdictions across the country are using her work to educate people about food waste and inspire behavior change. Inciting behavior change can also be a tiresome and difficult task, but Ashley has a sharp focus on using community-based social marketing to encourage people to change their behavior for the better.”

Zanolli recently spoke with Waste360 about her background, her Food: Too Good to Waste program and what she hopes to see for the future of food waste.

Waste360: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the waste and recycling industry.

Ashley Zanolli: I went to engineering school for chemical engineering, and I was preparing to go to medical school shortly after that. During my time off, I designed a biodiesel facility with a small group of engineers, and I became really interested in applied science and how my hard-science background would serve the policy arena and stakeholder engagement around the facility.

At the time, it seemed like a good fit for my skillset because I am very social and I noticed that there weren’t a lot of policy people that had a hard-science background. I quickly became fascinated with environmental policy and how to make the most out of all the byproducts from the facility.  Sustainability makes economic sense.

Approximately six months after designing the facility, I started working at EPA as a biofuels policy advisor. During that time, I also focused on climate, air toxics and environmental justice issues

About seven years ago, I helped develop the Collison Repair Campaign, which helped to minimize waste and health impacts from spray-applied coatings. This experience testing and scaling a national campaign helped me take on a new role co-leading the West Coast Climate & Materials Management Forum at EPA. In that role, I designed and launched another community-based social marketing toolkit known as Food: Too Good to Waste, which was scaled nationally to help households stretch their food budgets further by wasting less. Really, my work with both campaigns was around the concept of sustainable consumption and looking at how to conserve resources by wasting less.

I started making more sustainable choices in my life once I realized how much food, water and other materials my family and I were wasting. I learned how to better manage those materials and about once a week, I receive a text or phone call from my friends and family about a new innovative thing they have done with something that would have went to landfill. It has been a journey, and I really see the waste and recycling industry as a huge partner when it comes to reducing the lifestyle impacts of the products, goods and food we consume.

I am also very passionate about using behavioral science to help people see the world in new ways, in part through the new programs and tools that integrate evolving data and considerations to allow people to make easier choices that ultimately benefit their wellbeing and their bank accounts, while minimizing impacts to the environment.

Waste360: Explain your current responsibilities and goals as senior policy and program advisor.

Ashley Zanolli: I am currently on a two-year temporary assignment at Oregon DEQ. I am pretty new in the role, but I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with the materials management team here over the years, particularly through my role co-leading the West Coast Climate & Materials Management Forum at EPA.

In this temporary role, one of my key areas of focus includes helping the DEQ implement its 2050 vision for materials management. More specifically, I am figuring out how to reduce the barriers and realign incentives to help producers produce more sustainably and consumers consume more sustainably. The DEQ has been a long-time leader in restoring, maintaining and enhancing the quality of Oregon’s land, air and water but in the materials management program specifically, it’s working collaboratively with Oregonians, the general public and the haulers to embrace a new vision–one where all Oregonians produce and consume materials responsibly, while living well, conserving resources and protecting the environment.

The DEQ has made a fundamental shift from a solid waste focus to a material management focus, and the EPA is trying to go that route as well by minimizing the impacts and maximizing the use of products and goods, across their lifecycle–from resource extraction and production to disposal.

One of the goals at my assignment here is to create a mutual benefit for both the DEQ and EPA, by filling research gaps and designing programs aligned with common agency goals. Right now, my specific focus is to help lead a team to develop the first-ever statewide strategy to prevent wasted food and complete a research study to better understand what food is wasted, why and what interventions seem to be the most effective. The state is also developing a recovery strategy to maximize recover rates and optimize the processing capacity for how we manage wasted food that is unavoidable.

When I am done with my assignment here, I hope to bring back lessons learned to the EPA so that we can expand the success of the materials management program there.

Waste360: Tell us about Food: Too Good to Waste and the benefits you have seen from the development of that program.

Ashley Zanolli: It all started in 2010 when I received a small grant from EPA’s headquarters. (EPA lets staff members apply to get a small amount of funding for an innovative project that isn’t already covered under existing grant funds but is supported by stakeholders.) I noticed that lots of food was being tossed, but there weren’t any programs in the U.S. that I could find that helped consumers waste less food. I decided that I wanted to do something about that.

My goal was to develop a national campaign using community-based social marketing principles. I started off by identifying key waste prevention behaviors based on a global literature review and other data. Those behaviors included being smart about your shopping, strategies, storage and savings, making items more visible in your home or workplace and measuring what you are wasting so that you can waste less and save money.

After identifying those behaviors, I worked with my team and local governments across the West Coast to design a toolkit to help people adapt these smart strategies and minimize the barriers to adopting them. Measurement was the hardest behavior to implement, but some of the local governments that participated in the campaign provided incentives, such as buckets and scales to measure waste, to help minimize the barrier for participating in the program. Some grocers and chefs also helped local governments reach customers. 

We started off with three pilot programs in California and Colorado in 2012 to test our messaging and tools before rolling it out nationally. The messaging and toolkits were well-received, and the program went viral a few months later after I did a webinar in the fall of 2012 with some of the initial results from the program. Seventeen pilot campaigns were conducted around the U.S. with limited EPA support, and a program evaluation was published in June 2016. In terms of results, we found that the total baseline of wasted food in households ranged from about 2.2 lbs. to 3.5 lbs. per week, which is pretty consistent with EPA’s national estimates. We also found that participating households could reduce wasted food by more than 50 percent or about half a pound of preventable waste per week or roughly 20 percent of total waste. More than 93 percent of participants said they were now more aware of food going to waste, and 96 percent said they are likely to continue using the strategies and tools.

Since then, the toolkit has become part of EPA’s Sustainable Food Management Program and the toolkit informed the development of the national Ad Council/NRDC Campaign, “Save the Food.” Preventing wasted food at home is on the radar and will help the U.S. meet a bold goal of halving wasted food by 2030.  I’m currently working with the national grocery and restaurant industry to figure out how they can help their customers waste less without impacting their bottom line. There is a huge opportunity to test out new business cases for alternative promotions and shifts in merchandising that can increase customer loyalty while shifting wasteful consumption patterns. Stay tuned!

Waste360: What do you think is the hardest thing about managing household food waste?

Ashley Zanolli: The Holy Grail to opening up opportunities is through measurement. Measurement allows you to actually see what you are wasting so that you can figure out realistic strategies that make the most sense for both you and your household. In a national awareness survey, 73 percent of participants thought they wasted less food than the average American. Even those who know food waste is a problem don’t think it’s happening in their own homes until they shine a light on it.

With recycling, many consumers and businesses feel peer pressure from their neighbors and customers if they don’t have a blue bin at the end of their driveway or in their parking lot (even if you really don’t know who is recycling properly and who isn’t). With wasted food, the norms related to food management aren’t visible. Plus, there is a lot of shame around food waste because people are hardwired to hate waste and the loss of something that could have been used. The hardest thing about managing household wasted food is making what’s invisible visible. This allows people to maximize the value of their food and then, ideally, figure out the proper way to compost whatever is left. While composting is great, we want to make sure that we aren’t composting food items that could have fed people.

Thanks to media coverage and a growing army of food waste warriors, wasted food is now on the public radar in a big way. Consumers and businesses can become more aware of what they are wasting and how they can reduce that waste by having a waste-free week, for example. They can start this effort by making lists with meals in mind, creating a storage guide to overcome knowledge barriers and placing Eat First stickers on their perishable food items so that they are visibly reminded to eat those items before items that have a longer shelf life. For tools and strategies to waste less food at home, visit EPA’s Sustainable Food Management program

Waste360: What do you hope to see for the future of food waste and what innovative ideas are you working on for the future?

Ashley Zanolli: I am currently working on a policy paper through the West Coast Climate & Materials Management Forum that will help state, local and federal governments reflect on whether their policies and goals are actually resulting in water conservation, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and avoidable waste, for example. During my time at DEQ, I am looking at approaches and economic, structural and psychological drivers for preventing wasted food. There are some new and novel ways to measure the edible and inedible portions of wasted food so I am thinking about different infrastructures that will help serve a broader system where food and people are valued and soils are nourished.

I also want to work on more public-private partnerships because I think there is a lot of work that can be done through non-regulatory solutions and voluntary agreements where we can all move the needle forward together in a measured way with buy in from stakeholders.

In the next five years, I want to elevate the conversation and collective action in the food system and at home. In governments and businesses, it’s time to evolve they ways in which we measure success and understand what is driving our approaches and outcomes, including  how those outcomes are or are not related to reducing environmental impacts. I think we can help provide better incentives for producing, reusing and recycling to the best degree possible by coming up with new ways of defining success and rethinking conventional wisdom to create a better tomorrow. In the words of Amory Lovins, “Now is the time to be practitioners, not theorists; to be synthesists, not specialists; to do solutions, not problems; to do transformation, not incrementalism.” That’s what I hope to bring to the table, and we all have a role to play. We can go fast alone, but a whole lot further together!