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June 15, 2016

Prevent, Recover, Recycle: Finding Solutions for Food Waste

By Eric Myers, director of organic recycling for Waste Management

Across the globe, one third of the food produced for human consumption goes uneaten. It’s a shocking figure—especially when 870 million people worldwide go hungry every day. Aside from the impacts on people, this level of waste carries with it high financial and environmental costs as well. The environmental impact is actually a double hit, with repercussions felt both from the production of food and from its decomposition. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food waste worldwide costs about $750 billion a year, and adds 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere.

In the United States alone, every year more than 52 million tons of food are sent to landfills. The overall cost of this waste—an estimated $218 billion a year—has ripple effects up and down the value chain, including the businesses that lose revenue, the consumers who pay for food and don’t eat it, and the millions of people who lack regular access to healthy food. The natural resources used to cultivate—and then dispose of—this food are staggering: 21 percent of all fresh water, 18 percent of cropland, 19 percent of fertilizer, and 21 percent of landfill volume. Sadly, this super-size waste occurs at the same time that one in seven Americans is food-insecure, or lacking consistent access to adequate food to meet their nutritional needs.

Where is the waste happening? In the United States, a fair amount happens at the farm level (16 percent), but most happens at businesses, such as grocery stores and restaurants (40 percent) and in consumers’ homes (43 percent). Any solution that hopes to tackle food waste must recognize and address the multiple places where it occurs, as food is produced, distributed, and consumed.

Collaborating to Develop Large-Scale Solutions

With focused efforts from concerned stakeholders, large-scale solutions to the problem are being developed. Waste Management is proud to have participated in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Food Recovery Challenge, which encourages individuals and businesses to prevent and divert wasted food. The Challenge is part of the EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management Program, which seeks to reduce materials’ environmental impact throughout their entire lifecycle. Waste Management brings its end-of-life materials management experience to the growing conversation around these topics.

We also participated in a separate effort known as ReFED—a multi-stakeholder group of more than 30 business, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders that share the goal of reducing food waste by 20 percent within a decade. ReFED’s Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent presents scalable solutions that would divert an estimated 13 million tons of food waste from landfills and on-farm losses. Central to ReFED’s approach is quantifying the economic benefit to society by showing how much money can be saved—and made—by reducing food waste.

According to ReFED’s analysis, the numbers are loud and clear. An $18 billion investment in ReFED’s scalable solutions could yield $100 billion in societal and economic value over a decade. This is the equivalent to:

  • 1.8 billion meals recovered
  • 1.6 trillion gallons of water saved annually
  • 18 million tons of GHG emissions reduced annually
  • $5.6 billion in annual consumer savings
  • $1.9 billion in annual business profit potential
  • 15 thousand jobs created

Clearly, reducing food waste has huge economic, environment, and societal benefits. However, education, funding, and policy shifts will be needed to make these numbers a reality.

Recycling Food Waste: One Piece of the Puzzle

When it comes to solutions, ReFED offers 27 of them—ranging from greater consumer education, to software to help find a home for food donations, to centralized organics recycling facilities. These solutions fall into three categories: prevention, recovery, and recycling.

Food Recovery Hierarchy

Graphic courtesy of ReFED

The starting point—and the most immediate impact in terms of economic value per ton—is found in prevention. Solutions that prevent food from being wasted in the first place, such as standardized date labeling, consumer education campaigns, and packaging adjustments, require relatively little capital to reap great gains. Other prevention strategies proposed may require a bit more initial capital, but have the power to make large-scale impacts over time.

Recovery solutions can also contribute significantly to reducing food waste. The three most effective are donation tax incentives, standardized donation regulation, and software that matches food donations with recipient organizations in need. These solutions require both legislative and technological support, but they can make a big difference in ensuring surplus food gets to the people who need it.

It’s clear that food waste prevention and food recovery have the potential for enormous positive environmental and societal impacts, and they should be prioritized first. But even if extensive strides were to be made in both of these critical areas, food recycling—the third area of focus—will always have an important role to play. In fact, the ReFED report shows that of all the recommended focus areas, food recycling has the greatest growth potential and will have a major impact on further reducing waste in the coming decades. The reason lies in the efficiency of this approach. Since food scrap volume is tied to population density, large cities can have a proportionately large impact, lessening the need to scale programs nationwide.

When it comes to recycling food waste, the key concept is diversion. To fully capture their value, food scraps need to be diverted away from landfills and into special organics recycling facilities. According to the ReFED report, the greatest capacity for diversion (amounting to about 5 million tons) comes from centralized composting, which can add over 2 million tons a year of compost to sustainable farming and environmental remediation markets. Significant diversion can also be achieved with centralized anaerobic digestion (AD) (amounting to about 1.9 million tons), a growing technology that processes food scraps like a giant stomach. AD captures methane and can convert this potent GHG into renewable energy. Water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) with AD capability—also known as wastewater treatment plants—offer another scalable solution. More than 1,200 ADs are installed at WRRFs across the United States, processing waste organics into biosolids and gas. In addition, upgrading other wastewater facilities and building new ones with AD capability can allow for rapid expansion of this method of energy capture.

Waste Management’s Role

Waste Management takes a broad view when it comes to food waste solutions. We currently have 42 organics management facilities, about a third of which accept food waste. In 2015, we processed almost 2.5 million tons of source-separated organic material. We are also implementing our Centralized Organic Recycling (CORe®) process, which produces biogas for electricity and fuel. In Southern California, New York City, and Boston, CORe® delivers Engineered Bioslurry™ to municipal wastewater facilities, which increases their energy output.

Food Waste Graphic EDIT

Processing food scraps presents an incredible opportunity to generate energy and reduce GHG emissions. But to make the most of this opportunity, we would all be wise to heed the lessons learned from decades of handling traditional recyclables. In this early planning stage, everyone involved in reducing food waste can help by working to decrease the level of contamination of feedstocks so that we can create the most value out of this resource.

Moving forward, we see closer collaboration between farmers, businesses, consumers, and everyone along the value chain as the key to dealing effectively with the food waste challenge in the United States. From EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge to ReFED’s Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, we now have a detailed path forward for reducing food waste—and the environmental, financial, and human costs that go with it. Now it’s up to all of us to follow it.

To contact Eric Myers, director of organic recycling for Waste Management: