Circular File: The Remains of the Meal

A once finicky industry is developing a taste for diverting food waste.

Food waste is the largest single component of the waste stream that goes to disposal. It is also probably the hardest component to collect for recycling at the curbside. Cost, the “yuck” factor and potential vector issues, especially in warmer, more humid climates, have all combined to dampen interest in separate collection of this material.

Nonetheless, as states and local governments look for ways to increase diversion from disposal, they see food scraps as a resource. This once shunned product is actively sought by composters to make a soil amendment and by wastewater treatment systems for production of fertilizer and energy. If all else fails, landfills will use food waste to produce methane gas for energy recovery.

Currently, the greatest interest in turning this waste into a resource comes from industrial food processing operations. These facilities produce predictable quantities of easily identifiable food wastes for composting operations. The companies receive reduced hauling costs, an improved green image and revenues from the sale of what used to be a waste product.

Grocery stores such as Wal-Mart have become increasingly active in this area. Wal-Mart uses a multi-prong strategy that includes better inventory control to reduce the potential for food waste, donation of food nearing its expiration date to local food banks, and composting. The company is even investigating turning some of its food residuals into biofuels for its truck fleet. The latter is significant because Wal-Mart operates one of the largest truck trailer fleets in the country.

But residential programs are lagging. Maybe 100 food waste collection programs are operating today in this country, and some of those are pilots or do not operate citywide. Most are in the San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound areas, although Minnesota recently passed state legislation to encourage food composting. These programs seem to do well in single-family housing, but have tremendous problems with multi-family housing. That, of course, is no different from residential recycling programs. Processing capacity remains limited to about 330 composting facilities for food waste. Those facilities vary widely in size and location. Unfortunately, outdoor facilities continue to be plagued with odor problems. As a result, we will see an increase in more expensive indoor anaerobic digesters.

The amount of food waste is unknown. EPA says each of us created 209 pounds of food scraps in 2008, for a total of 32 million tons. However, the agency also cites Department of Agriculture estimates from 1995 that show a much higher number of 369 pounds per year, for a total of 48.5 million tons (which happens to be more than twice EPA’s estimates for that year). The two agencies use differing ways to estimate something that is impossible to count. EPA arrives at a smaller estimate in part because it excludes food that is disposed in an in-sink disposal unit. As noted above, however, that material can be turned into a soil or energy product.

Nonetheless, in spite of the many difficulties involved in food waste recovery, I expect to see far more programs at the end of this decade than at the beginning. The biggest obstacle will be the severe financial straits affecting local governments. New programs will be hard to fund. But if these programs can generate bottom line savings, we will find ourselves at the beginning of a decade of recovering more food, leaving plenty of room for dessert.

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Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at