If you’re a business who deals with food at just about any level — even if it’s just leftovers from the office lunch room — how to best manage food waste is probably at least edging onto your radar. For organizations in the hospitality, food service, or food & beverage manufacturing industries that have committed to a sustainability agenda, food waste is certainly moving front and center.
According to the NRDC, up to 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted, and that number has increased 50 percent since the 70’s according to the EPA. In 2010, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food from U.S. retail food stores, restaurants, and homes — valued at approximately $161 billion — went uneaten. Not only was the food itself wasted, so were the resources, labor, and energy that went into its production, distribution, storage, and disposal. This video cleverly explains the financial issue.
According to the EPA, food is the single largest component of municipal solid waste going to U.S. landfills, accounting for over 20% by weight. When organic material such as food scraps and green waste is put in landfill, it is generally compacted down and covered, removing the oxygen and causing it to break down in an anaerobic process. Eventually this releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The implications for global warming and climate change are enormous. Methane is also a flammable gas that can become dangerous if allowed to build up in concentration.
Bringing it down to a local and personal level, maintaining and building new landfills costs money that residences and businesses pay for through higher disposal fees. By reducing and diverting what we send to landfill, we’re not only reducing the aggregate cost burden, but more significantly, the larger social and environmental burdens on the community.
Along with overall waste reduction, beneficially redirecting organic waste is a critical component of a good zero waste strategy and a number of options are becoming available. In Orange County for instance, food waste is processed in a specially designed bio-separator transforming it into an organic slurry which is ultimately converted into captured methane used as an energy source (as opposed to methane released into the atmosphere), helping to offset grid energy purchase. Since the slurry process can utilize just about any type of organic material, Waste Management Inc. makes it relatively easy for companies in Orange County to divert their organic waste.
San Diego on the other hand uses organic waste in a composting process creating “windrows” of food waste topped with green waste from yard trimmings. While this is great for residents, who can obtain free high quality yard compost, and landscapers who can purchase the same at the City’s composting facility, the Miramar Greenery, it limits the types of food waste that can be collected since preventing contamination is crucial to a high quality finished product.
Nevertheless, numerous businesses are participating in San Diego’s composting program, including the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel, the first hotel to participate. The thirty-story high-rise with over 1,190 guest rooms and suites serves an average 1,500 meals per day. The hotel donates all of its edible food to charities, and collects post-consumer food waste from within the employee cafeteria and banquet operations. During the first eight months, their food waste composting program diverted an extra 11% of their waste stream, composting over 124 tons of food waste, and saving the hotel approximately $8,000 in landfill tipping fees and waste hauling costs. After launching their zero waste program, The Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina is 90 percent there and is continuing to work towards consistently achieving the zero waste threshold.
In communities that don’t currently have commercial options for food waste recovery, organizations committed to a reduced or zero waste goal still have numerous possibilities to redirect or reduce organic waste. In her recent Forbes article Leslie Pascaud from Added Value highlights a number of alternatives and GreenBiz offers nine innovations to slash food loss.
A few more options include:
Food Shift an Oakland, CA-based non-profit that works with communities, businesses, and governments to develop long-term solutions to prevent the generation of food waste.
Manjia.org makes excess food donation easy by connecting people and organizations with surplus food to local food banks.
Salvage Supperclub is raising awareness about food waste by making “dumpster dining” chic. Salvaging expired and aesthetically imperfect foods that would otherwise be headed for the trash, they create delectable six-course dinners, served in a dumpster.
If your business is still at a loss for ideas to deal with food scraps and organic waste, contact your local waste hauler who may be able to work with your team to develop solutions. As the market need grows for more ways to reduce and divert food waste from landfill, more innovative solutions will become available. You have the power to help make that happen.