Remember What Mom Said: Don't Waste Food

Honoring the spirit of mothers everywhere, the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants you to know that if you don't clean your plate, at least “don't throw away that food.”

Published by the agency's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, “Don't Throw Away That Food,” showcases the strategies used by communities and businesses that have significantly reduced the amount of food discards headed to a landfill.

The EPA defines food discards as “food preparation wastes and uneaten food from households, commercial establishments, institutions and industries.” If just 5 percent of consumer, retail and food service food discards were recovered in 1995, those businesses could have saved $50 million annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Economic Research Service, Washington, D.C.

Food recovery options can include donating nonperishable and perishable food, using discards as animal feed, rendering liquid fats for cosmetics and soaps, and composting.

Donating food discards to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters is an easy way for communities to divert food discards. Another traditional way to divert food waste is to feed it to livestock. Farmers even may be able to provide storage containers and low-cost pick-up services for these discards.

The rendering industry uses liquid fats and solid meat products and coverts them into animal feel, soap and other products. If this type of company is located nearby, it may be able to provide storage barrels and collection services.

Middlebury College Food Recovery Program Summary, 1996

Composting is a more complicated yet effective food waste reduction process. The report suggests four ways that communities can compost food waste. Suited for small operations, unaerated static piles are organic discards mixed with bulking material that turn products such as meat or grease into compost. To accommodate larger projects, aerated windrow/pile composting places organics into long rows or piles. The compost then is mechanically aerated. However, if meat or grease are included, careful moisture and temperature controls are necessary.

In-vessel composting encloses the organics in temperature- and moisture-controlled containers. This type of composting can process larger quantities in a small area and can use animal products.

Vermicomposting, which uses worms to break down organic materials, is faster than other methods and produces a high-quality compost.

EPA's materials profile several waste reduction record setters. For example, by reducing its food waste by 75 percent, Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt. became another EPA record setter. After assessing its waste stream in 1996, facilities management at the 2000-student college tested an onsite food waste composting program. Staff placed food preparation discards and post-consumer leftovers into carts and then into a compactor. The compactor was emptied twice a month into static piles for composting.

Because Middlebury experienced an odor problem, one of the two compactors had to be removed. The remaining compactor was painted white so it wouldn't absorb as much heat, and a filter was installed — all of which helped the odor problem. However, the EPA reported that Middlebury was searching for a way to collect waste daily from the compactor, which would help eliminate the remaining odors.

According to the report, Middlebury composted an average of 24 tons of food waste per month. In 1996, it spent $42 per ton to compost, which included tipping fees, hauling, labor and supplies. Local recycling costs were $145 per ton and $137 per ton for trash. Because of its high food recovery rate, Middlebury saved $27,000.

EPA provides many more examples of waste-reduction record setters from around the county in its publication. Also, the guide offers tips for those interested in starting or increasing a food waste diversion program. These include:

Sector College
Average number of meals prepared 3,400 to 3,600 meals per year total in three kitchens
Start date 1993 off-site composting; 1996 on-site
Dedicated employees* 0
Method Onsite windrow composting
Materials collected Kitchen scraps, pre- and post-consumer food discards
Part of comprehensive waste reduction program? Yes
Total waste generated (TPY) 1,133
Food discards generated 384 tons (estimated)
Food discards recovered (TPY) 288 tons
Food discards recovered 75% (estimated)
Total waste recovered (TPY) 725 tons
Total waste recovered 64%
Average composting costs $42 per ton
Average avoided landfill hauling and tipping fees $137 per ton
Net savings $95 per ton
* A dedicated employee is one whose primary responsibility is working with the food discard program.
TPY = tons per year
  • Designate a staff member to encourage organics diversion in a community;
  • Sponsor tours of successful programs;
  • Fund a pilot program;
  • Develop a local composting facility or other end-user, if one isn't available;
  • Work with local haulers and composters to provide pick-up service for food discards. Or include food discards pick-up along with regular trash collection;
  • Lead by example; institute a food discard recovery program in offices; and
  • Provide information to local food discard end-users and businesses that maybe able to recover waste.
  • For receive a copy of “Don't Throw Away That Food,” call the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act's (RCRA) hotline toll-free at (800) 424-9346 and ask for document 530-F-98-023. For more information on composting, visit