Americans are eating more than ever, and our waistlines are expanding in kind. As a result, the amount of food waste sent to landfills also is expanding. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., more than 25 percent of the food we eat, or about 96 million pounds of food per year, goes to waste. The nation spends about $1 billion a year to dispose of food waste, the EPA estimates.
Recovering food waste has many universally accepted benefits, including avoided collection and disposal fees; providing food to needy people or for use in compost or animal feed; helping meet waste reduction goals; and sustaining local recycling infrastructures. Successful food diversion programs have recovered up to 100 percent of their food discards and have reduced their overall solid waste generation by up to 85 percent, according to EPA case studies. Yet food waste recovery has not grown the way other recycling initiatives have.
There are many challenges to recycling food waste. In a recent report, the Center for Ecological Technology, Northampton, Mass., delineated the main barriers to food waste diversion: a lack of availability of hauling and processing; low-quality, contaminated feedstock; lack of support from local and state governments; and the difficulty in handling wet, heavy and odorous material.
Although the report focused on the Boston area, the barriers are universal. And with no easy solution available, many cities continue to landfill food scraps. Still, some municipalities have taken the lead in instituting food waste recycling programs.
Apple & Orange Comparisons
A key aspect of the food waste dilemma is the incomplete understanding of how much exists. Food scraps generated during the preparation of packaged food products, for example, are not included in the EPA's annual report on the characterization of solid waste. For this report, food scraps are estimated using data samples from various regions combined with demographic information. Adding to the confusion, the EPA admitted that previous reports of food waste generation included composted materials such as paper and industrial food wastes.
With improved data sources, the EPA estimates that, in 2000, food scrap generation topped out at 25.9 million tons, representing about 11 percent of all municipal solid waste (MSW) generated that year. Approximately 370,000 tons of MSW food waste was composted. While recovery of yard trimmings, the other major aspect of organic materials, has grown dramatically, food waste recovery has not substantially increased. Yet food waste clearly is growing.
An ongoing study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Washington, D.C., and the University of Arizona, Tucson, is challenging the EPA's numbers. The study examined the food habits of 280 Tucson-area families and determined that Americans throw away 474.5 pounds of food waste per person per year, higher than an early estimate that put per-capita food waste disposal at 156 pounds annually. Yet the study's main researcher admits that households handle food waste differently, so questions remain as to whether extrapolating the Tucson numbers is the best reflection of nationwide trends. The study is continuing into 2003.
Despite the overall sluggishness of this market, successful food waste recovery programs realize benefits in avoided waste disposal costs. A report from the USDA Economic Research Service says that if 5 percent of food discards in 1995 were recovered, about $50 million in landfill disposal costs could have been avoided that year.
The EPA touts the relatively low start-up costs of a food recovery or composting program, which vary depending on an establishment's equipment and collection programs. Composting fees, the agency points out, typically are less than trash disposal fees. And some end-users, such as food banks or renderers (which convert fats or meat products for use in cosmetic or other products), will assume the cost of picking up food wastes. Yet local laws vary widely, and this can affect which regions and municipalities will have the most cost-effective programs.
Like its general source-reduction to recycling hierarchy, the EPA has suggested a food waste reduction hierarchy that begins with feeding excess food to people and then to animals, followed by recycling and composting, and then disposal as a last resort. Markets for compost are growing, but this, too, is slow and hampered by many challenges. For instance, agriculture presents the largest potential end-use for compost, but chemical fertilizers still have a lock on the market.
Food recovery sent to needy organizations, also known as “gleaning,” is the preferred method of dealing with food waste, similar to “reuse” of any other recyclable commodity. The USDA has taken the lead on promoting food recovery programs, which include collecting harvested crops, salvaging perishable produce, and collecting processed foods with long shelf lives. The USDA estimates that roughly 49 million people could be fed each year with food that now is being sent to landfills.
Although it has no hard numbers on the amount of food waste generated by restaurants, the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C., has urged its members to make their operations more environmentally sound, which includes reducing food waste. The association encourages composting food scraps or using them for animal feed, as well as separating waste oil for rendering.
San Francisco Treats
The city by the Bay, San Francisco, remains the unmatched leader in collecting and recycling its food residuals. In 2001, the city had collected and composted nearly 40,000 tons of food waste and other compostables from more than 62,000 households and 1,500 food-related businesses such as restaurants and hotels. As one of the nation's most dense and diverse cities, San Francisco is a model for other communities that say the outreach for such an aggressive program is too daunting or the costs too prohibitive.
The city operates under the California law requiring 50 percent waste diversion. But San Francisco faced a particular challenge in recovering organic waste because its urban core has so few yards. Without yard trimmings, which form a high percentage of most recycling programs, the city knew it had to increase food waste recovery. A waste characterization study found that only 5 percent of the city's waste was yard trimmings, but 19 percent was food waste.
After implementing a successful pilot program, the city in 1998 began working with Sunset Scavenger Co., a subsidiary of Norcal Waste Systems, San Francisco, on a three cart collection program. Households and businesses receive three color-coded carts for waste materials — black for unrecyclable trash, blue for recyclables and green for organics. Norcal has helped to develop educational materials for the city's diverse residents, including photo-heavy brochures and materials in Chinese, Spanish and other languages. The average diversion rate with the new program is 45 percent.
Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling, another Norcal subsidiary, and Sunset Scavenger also are using the three-cart program in the commercial sector. According to company spokesman Robert Reed, some city skyscrapers are boasting recovery rates of up to 75 percent. Already, the program has expanded to nearby Oakland, where approximately 60 restaurants are participating.
Clearly, a recycling mandate and an educated citizenry help. “We have a strong recycling and environmental ethic here in San Francisco, and it's an ethic shared by residents, businesses, city officials and employees of this company,” Reed says. This support has helped customers to swallow the rate increases associated with the new program. Reed points out that the collection rate of just more than $16 still is far less than typical collection rates in other Bay areas.
The program also has literally closed the loop. Reed says that food scraps collected from local restaurants have been turned into compost and used in area farms, which grow the produce that is used by some of those same restaurants. He adds that compost from the program recently has been used in Napa Valley vineyards.
The key is to be aggressive in searching for end-users. “We are putting compost on organic farms, traditional farms, commercial nurseries, orchards, vineyards and so on,” Reed says. “This country grows a lot of food, and there are a lot of farms, and there are concerns about soil depletion and the need to recondition and improve soils. The better the compost, the better the market.” Food waste is essential to good compost, he adds.
Automatic Pilot Programs
Building on San Francisco's success, other communities have started pilot programs to boost food waste recovery. In King County, Wash., for example, 1,700 households in four cities are participating in a food-waste pilot program. Over the nine-month program, which began in April, the city is expecting to send nearly 325 tons of organic waste to a local composting facility.
One participating city, Lake Forest Park, is trying an alternating collection system in which trash is collected one week and yard trimmings and food waste are collected together the next. In the other three cities, Issaquah, Kirkland and Redmond, food waste and yard trimmings are collected weekly, as is trash.
“The next frontier for recycling is food waste,” says Josh Marx, King County Solid Waste Division's organics program manager. “We're estimating that it represents 30 to 40 percent of the single-family household waste stream. Food waste has tremendous opportunity. There are certainly challenges, but we thought, ‘why not be leaders and get it done?’”
Because materials are collected every two weeks, the county has provided Lake Forest Park residents with a “compostainer,” an aerated food waste container. There, the county is finding participation to be higher than it is in the other three cities, yet food waste collection still is relatively low. “We've done some waste sorts, and we've found that about 15 percent of what is being sent to the composting facility is food and soiled paper,” Marx says. “It's still a small amount of the total.” Nevertheless, contamination has been minimal, Marx adds.
The most common complaints from residents have been that they wanted to pay less for trash service and wanted bigger containers — both items that could be addressed in a citywide program, Marx says. Looking ahead, the county is hoping to continue the food waste program in the participating cities and expand it to other areas and into the commercial sector.
In Minnesota, the state Office of Environmental Assistance (OEA), St. Paul, has spearheaded food waste recovery as well. The state estimates that food-related businesses are recycling nearly 250,000 tons of food waste per year through food banks and food-to-livestock programs. Food-to-livestock programs quadrupled in the 1990s, growing from just more than 6,000 tons in 1991 to 135,000 tons in 1997.
This growth can be partially attributed to the state's aggressive pilot programs and educational outreach. In its own office, the OEA has switched to compostable foodware for all corporate functions and bought food in bulk to minimize waste. The organization has an in-office composting bin, with posters alerting workers to which items can be composted. The OEA also has awarded a grant to Hutchison, Minn., to underwrite its food waste recovery pilot project. The city reported that as of May 1998, participation in the curbside collection program, in which citizens put food and yard waste in a specially marked container, stood at 65 percent, with few contamination problems.
Although state recycling mandates and citywide recycling initiatives have proven valuable in boosting food waste recovery, Texas is showing that food waste recovery also can grow from the ground up. Although the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Austin, has overseen several successful food waste recovery and composting demonstration projects, particularly in the state prison system, at least one private facility is saying that free enterprise is the key to successful food waste recovery.
Silver Creek Materials owns a composting facility in Fort Worth that has made a name for itself by installing an engineered pad for crushing packaged beverage waste. Expired beer and soda come from distributors throughout the Dallas-Ft. Worth area to provide much-needed moisture for the composting operation. Although wood waste is a chief component of the compost, the operation also relies on a local food supplier that brings in three truckloads a day of vegetables, primarily melon rinds. Silver Creek recycles about 20,000 cubic yards of food waste per year.
The lack of mandates is a help, not a hindrance, to the operation, says Bart McKay, chief operations officer for Silver Creek. “It's strictly on a free enterprise basis,” he says. “I think we'll see more and more food waste being brought to us, because landfills are calling this special waste, which drives the tipping fee up. We charge $3 a cubic yard.”
McKay adds that recovery facilities should focus on networking to find out potential sources of food and beverage waste. “Free enterprise will take care of itself,” he says. “The food waste comes to us. It creates a great environment in which to operate.”
Clearly, successful recycling always will depend on educated and committed participants, businesses and government officials. This is especially true when it comes to food waste. For a commodity that is so essential to our existence, it is time we paid more attention to food's final destination.
“We've demonstrated that it can be done,” says Norcal's Robert Reed. “Not only can you increase recycling [by collecting food waste], you also can include composting for people who want to do it in a simple and effective way. It's a great way to increase recycling, it produces a useful product and you can truly close the recycling loop.”
Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing editor based in Arlington, Va.