Food waste is a major problem, not just in the United States, but worldwide. Among other things, wasted food creates a disposal problem. It makes up about 20% of the trash dumped in American landfills..
In 2014, the EPA estimated that Americans discard more than 38 million tons of uneaten food annually. That’s enough to fill a football stadium every day for a year.
Organic matter doesn’t biodegrade in landfills very efficiently. To be sure, it degrades enough to make landfills a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. But left in the open, its volume would shrink very rapidly.
In recent years, some cities have taken steps to keep food waste out of landfills. So have some corporations. Some programs are more successful than others.
Food waste and households
I grew up in the 1950s and remember my mother wrapping garbage in newspapers every night. I took it out to the garbage can, and a truck came and hauled it away every week. By that time, the garbage can reeked, especially in the summer. We put all the dry trash in another can, and another company picked it up. I burned wastepaper in a back-yard incinerator.
That was standard practice all over the country. We would be much better off today if we had kept separating wet garbage and dry trash. Unfortunately, the election of Sam Yorty as mayor of Los Angeles ushered in the expensive convenience of commingling the two. His innovation quickly spread nationwide and led to the modern sanitary landfill.
In principal, families can compost their food waste. In practice, not everyone can, and not everyone who can does. Families ought to minimize creation of food waste, but again, not everyone does.
Households account for somewhat more than half of American food waste. That’s more than 17 million tons. Or, more than half of that football stadium full of food waste every day comes from what households discard.
Some companies have begun to collect food waste for community composting. These are small, local operations. Some even use bicycles to collect food waste from customers. Or customers can drop off their wastes while they perform other errands. The companies can take it to community gardens or other sites that perform large-scale composting.
Community composting works where it is available, but only for subscribers. City workers still transport everyone else’s food waste to the landfill. Maybe to a local landfill, more and more to one far away.
A tale of two cities
Some cities have begun to collect food scraps for composting as a complement to their regular trash and recycling collections. Municipal collection has the advantage of offering industrial scale composting. That is, it can accept bones and meat scraps, which are not suitable for household composting.
New York City started a pilot program offering 3.5 million people a chance to divert food waste from landfills five years ago. It isn’t working.
Under the plan, those households can voluntarily separate their garbage, just like everyone used to do 60 years ago. Mayor Bill DiBlasio had hoped to expand the program city-wide, but not enough people have participated. Those who do have only separated about 10% of the scraps they could. As with recycling nationwide, too many people do not take the time and effort to separate correctly.
New York City must find a way to make the program work more efficiently before it can offer it to the entire 8.5 million population of the city.
San Francisco, on the other hand, made composting mandatory in 2009. It provides three different colored and different sized containers for waste hauling: 16-gallon black for trash, 32-gallon green for composting, and 64-gallon blue for recycling. Note that the green container is designated for composting, not just food waste. Residents can also use it for yard waste and low value mixed paper.
In contrast to New York’s hundreds of competing waste haulers, San Francisco works exclusively with a single contractor. That contractor hauls all the compostables to a single facility, which sells finished compost to California vineyards and nut growers.
Food wastes from restaurants
I wrote about food waste in restaurants a few years ago. Restaurants must dispose of whatever customers leave on their plates. In addition, throw out food in the kitchen in response to a variety of errors by kitchen staff. At the end of the day, they have to dispose of unsold food.
They most often put it in the dumpster, and it goes to the landfill. Instead, they could put it to beneficial uses. Possibilities include composting, feed for animal farms, or donating to food pantries. Some do so voluntarily. More and more cities are beginning to forbid them to send any food waste to landfills.
San Francisco, with its city-wide mandatory composting, fines businesses for whatever food waste they sort into the wrong waste stream.
New York City has required stadiums, food manufacturers, and food wholesalers to divert food waste from the waste stream to beneficial use since January 2016. It will require restaurants and grocery stores to comply with the same regulations starting in February 2019.
Austin, Texas has implemented a similar ban, which includes not only food scraps, but compostable paper.
So far, it appears that only a handful of cites that identify as progressive have instituted such bans. I suspect that cities in general find it easier to regulate businesses than households. They may also put more effort into developing an effective infrastructure.
Produce waste from grocery stores
Years ago I worked as produce manager in a family-owned grocery store. I never thought about it for any of my previous food waste posts, mostly because I don’t remember putting anything in a dumpster.
The first thing I did every morning after the produce shipment arrived was to remove the outer leaves from lettuces and cabbages. I put the trimmings in cardboard boxes, which I kept in the cooler.
Two friends of the owner, whom the grocery store staff referred to and the pig man and the duck lady, came by periodically to pick them up.
Inevitably, some produce began to spoil before anyone bought it. I put it in the same boxes and suppose the pigs and ducks enjoyed it all.
A more recent example
I have a nephew. I’ll call him Todd, who works in the produce department of a Kroger store in Cincinnati, Ohio. I asked him to compare his experience with mine.
He used to trim the outer leaves, as I did, but Kroger changed its procedures about a year ago. Its produce departments now trim off leaves only if they’re wilted.
Kroger expects its stores to limit the amount of unsold produce to about six percent. Todd’s current store receives about 500 cartons of produce every day. The “shrinkage” therefore amounts to about 300-400 pounds every day. That store is one of 109 Krogers in southwestern Ohio and one of about 29 in Hamilton County (which includes Cincinnati).
Just think of how much waste produce all the grocery stores in the country must generate!
Maybe some stores put it all in the dumpster and forget about it. Not Kroger. Todd has worked at more than one store, and all have had a composting program and some kind of relationship with a local charity. Chain-wide, Kroger has operated a program for about a year now called “Zero Hunger Zero Waste” to maximize donations and minimize waste.
Kroger owns at least a dozen other chains nationwide. I would expect it enforces similar policies at all of them. I have no guesses as far as other chains are concerned. Family stores may have their equivalents of the pig man and the duck lady. Chains probably don’t, but anyone who shows up asking for the “shrinkage” will probably leave with as much as they want.
I have no experience with a meat department and don’t know anyone who works in one. It appears that, at least in Kroger stores, meat waste does not get landfilled, either.
For any grocery chains or stores that do not voluntarily keep food waste out of their dumpsters, a small but growing number of cities have laws about that!
The bottom line
The world produces enough food to feed its burgeoning population. Wasted food leads to unnecessary and widespread hunger. It also becomes a waste management and global warming problem.
We all need to be careful with the food we buy and not waste it. But not all of us are careful, are we?
Some city governments have stepped in to keep food waste and other organics out of landfills. The more coercive laws seem to be more effective than some of the more voluntary efforts. Some corporations, at least, aren’t waiting for governments to compel them to keep their discarded food products out of the waste stream.
Other posts about food waste on Sustaining Our World
Food waste. Some rights reserved by Nick Saltmarsh
Food scraps, source separation. Photo by Tim Jewett – City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Restaurant kitchen. Some rights reserved by SMcGarnigle [Link to Flickr no longer works, August 2017]
Produce department. Some rights reserved by Anthony Albright