As an end-of-pipeline solution, the waste and recycling industry recognizes the value of the discarded products and materials that ultimately fall into our systems. Care and effort goes into developing better processes and equipment to recover these marketable or other beneficially reusable materials. To be fair, some pressure to advance these capabilities originated from our customers, along with regulatory and corporate initiatives. It is also true that certain goals and objectives have been counterproductive.
Zero waste policies have been successful in diverting materials from landfill disposal and into material recovery or other processing facilities. These downstream goals and expectations, however, have not been effective in addressing the larger problem. Despite convincing evidence that emerged as early as the 1950s, we’ve neglected policy making to correct the issue at the source of design and manufacturing. Consequently, at considerable expense, local governments and the industry now manage increasing volumes of consumer goods, many with little to no recoverable value. Although recent dialogue acknowledges the need to decrease the collateral damage from poor product and packaging design, we continue to expand the infrastructure to manage it.
Despite our experience, perhaps we have learned nothing at all. We may be relying on the same old misdirected focus to address one of the largest components in the municipal waste stream. Is it possible, just as we allowed with packaging, that we are about to facilitate the generation of an ever-increasing amount of food waste, instead of tackling its root causes?
As Hunger Action Month ends, let’s examine current food wastage statistics and activities to see where there is momentum, where it leads and the opportunities it passes by. Be assured that the problem is multi-faceted and complex. At issue is a resource intensive system with flaws from both an ecological and economical perspective. From the point of cultivation through the final disposition of the crops/products, the amount of food lost or wasted affects water consumption, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. In addition, there are humanitarian concerns like availability and affordability.
Quantifying the Losses
When various points in the supply chain are examined from farm to fork, U.S. food wastage estimates run from 60 to 67 million tons per year. Using a caloric intake methodology, at least one organization, the National Institute of Health, claims food losses to be as high as 80 million tons per year. The discrepancies are bothersome, but are attributable to a lack of consistent scopes and methods of gathering data, as well as the different sources of loss in the process. Standardizing the metrics would make the problem easier to understand and resolve.
Food waste represents 21.6 percent, or 29.3 million tons, of the municipal waste stream disposed in landfills in 2014, as well as 21.6 percent or approximately 7 million of the municipal waste combusted for energy recovery percent. Those figures, reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), do not account for an almost equal amount of food losses, which are still occurring at other points of the cycle, but traditionally not managed like waste.
About 43 percent of the food waste generated comes from our homes. Another 26 percent originates from institutions, food services and restaurants. Retail grocers, including the distribution network are responsible for about 13 percent. Combined, these sources represent 82 percent of the wasted food in the U.S. It is safe to assume that a significant portion of the food wasted by these sources is landfill bound because, according to EPA, only 5 percent of the food waste generated is recovered.
Emerging Waste Policies
Clearly, on either coast, landfill diversion of food waste generated in commercial and institutional venues is the target of state and local policy. Residential collection programs are growing as well.
The tendency to focus on new methods and advanced technologies to manage food waste is strikingly similar to our national approach to overall municipal waste management in the 1980s and 1990s. Remote state of the art landfills and waste-to-energy facilities were almost always favored over local, more organic solutions. The expansion of curbside recycling programs, and eventually large automated material recovery facilities, were part of the overall scheme.
Considering the amount of food waste currently disposed, the goal of contemporary policymaking to redirect the disposed material to alternative processes is understandable. If those decisions stem from the premise that our previous attempts at harnessing the waste stream were successful, we need to stop and reflect. When we measure the waste stream on a per unit or volume based metric and not weight, it’s easy to see, despite our efforts, the flow of material remains staggering. We dedicated our resources to ramping up an infrastructure, complete with recovery mechanisms, to accommodate the escalating tons of municipal waste, but put forth little effort into arresting its growth upstream. We’ve paid a hefty price.
The Road Not Taken
If we are really hoping to a put a dent in the amount of food waste entering the system, we need to have higher aspirations than our former policymakers. In our compartmentalized bureaucracy, we have been conditioned to regulate the problem, rather than the contributing factors. Today, we’re prepared to make substantial investments in new or expanded anaerobic digesters, citywide in-sink disposal units, commercial composting facilities, specialized containers and collection vehicles, in addition to maintaining the existing collection network and disposal sites. In many states, we are more tolerant of small community-focused and farm-based composting solutions. None of these options, however, incentivize source reduction or waste minimization. Some of the large-scale choices are dependent on a dedicated flow of material to operate successfully and cost effectively. That alone should make us pause.
Before we create a large, waste-sucking vortex that parallels capacity already available, even if the existing capacity isn’t everybody’s preferred solution, shouldn’t we first be advocating to reduce the food waste making its way to the end of the pipeline? Through more effective policy, we could proactively lessen the waste entering the system and minimize future capital outlays. In other words, reduce the problem, not just manage it, while simultaneously realizing a greater positive environmental impact.
Once food reaches the consumer its footprint from transport, storage, and often cooking, is larger than at any previous point in the supply chain. Therefore, food discarded by restaurants, food services, households and grocers represents a higher economic and ecologic loss. Evidence suggests that upstream solutions are more effective at reducing the total impact of consumer-related wasted food than recovery of discards before disposal. Doesn’t it make sense to turn off the faucets before investing in larger receptacles to contain the flow?
Prevention Over Processing
We know that universal date labeling standards could nearly eradicate the single most contributing factor to premature disposal of food. Improved packaging requirements could extend shelf life and offer smaller portion controlled options. Both are practical solutions that directly influence consumer food purchases and discards.
Removing the fear of legal liabilities and rethinking the donated food eligibility criteria could open the flow of perfectly edible foods to the nutritionally insecure. Investments in a redistribution infrastructure could expedite the delivery of surplus and excess food from wholesale and retail sources directly to those who can identify and service those in need. The expansion of home delivery networks could reduce over buying, while also reaching those unable to drive or without access to transportation.
Although farm losses are lesser by weight than the consumers are, they still represent 16 percent of the total. Improvements in contract provisions, harvesting, grading, etc. are needed to improve the situation. Finally feeding livestock with food scraps is practical move.
Agencies like the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and organizations like ReFed, Feeding America and the National Resource Defense Fund have suggested and support these upstream improvements. We need to start with solutions at the top of the hierarchy, not the lower rungs. This is our opportunity.
Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.