Inside SWACO's mission to fight food waste in central Ohio

Inside SWACO's mission to fight food waste in central Ohio

The Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio uses a community-based approach to tackle Franklin County’s food waste.

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March 17, 2021

Since being formed in 1989 in the interest of reducing reliance on landfills in the region, the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO) has become an influential mouthpiece for food waste diversion efforts in Ohio’s Franklin County.

With over a million pounds of food waste entering the county landfill every day, the organization recognized an immediate need to coordinate reduction efforts in combination with composting and recycling services to help reduce the amount of organic materials ending up in the waste stream.

“We realized this topic of food waste was a big opportunity, but didn’t have a whole lot of coordination,” says Kyle O’Keefe, director of innovation and programs for SWACO. “So, we created this model of bringing dozens, if not hundreds, of community partner organizations into the conversation and kind of designed it from the ground up.”

SWACO launched the Central Ohio Food Waste Initiative (COFWI) in September 2018, which the authority says is a collective impact approach to solving local food waste challenges. Bringing together business leaders and key stakeholders, the initiative includes participation from over 40 central Ohio-based organizations, representing all facets of the food chain.

“[COFWI] really came from the premise that no one organization can really impact food waste on their own, but need to work collectively and take shared ownership and responsibility of this issue,” says O’Keefe. “So, we’ve been working with health departments, trade associations, universities, private businesses, food manufacturers and more to align our goals and strategies.”

After nearly a year of planning and community engagement on behalf of COFWI, SWACO released its first multifaceted action plan to address food waste in May 2019. The Food Waste Action Plan focuses on three areas: preventing food waste, rescuing edible food and redistributing it, and recycling food waste by turning it into energy or useful products such as compost.

With these goals in mind, COFWI has begun to implement the 20 solutions presented in the plan, beginning with developing an education campaign to raise food waste awareness.

Through SWACO’s efforts, individuals in Franklin County are encouraged to reduce waste by shopping smarter, eating leftovers and participating in local composting programs.

COMMUNITY OUTREACH

In September of last year, SWACO introduced “Save More Than Food, Make a Difference,” a consumer education campaign aimed at reducing commercial and residential food waste by 50 percent by 2030. The campaign is designed to communicate an important message—that when food goes to waste, so does all of the time, money and resources that went into producing it.

According to SWACO, wasted food accounts for an estimated $106 million in economic loss in central Ohio annually. In addition, 22 million gallons of gas and 41 billion gallons of water are used every year to grow and transport food that never gets eaten.

“Here in central Ohio, the average family of four is purchasing $1,500 in food every year that they’re not actually eating,” says Hanna Greer-Brown, communications manager for SWACO. “So, when they save that food by preventing waste in the first place or using it, they’re saving money. We’ve developed messaging to connect with that stakeholder group, but then also consumers and restaurants, students and cafeterias.”

The campaign’s website provides tips and advice for residents and different industry partners, as well as resources including worksheets, brochures, posters and flyers on diversion best practices. Through the program, commercial kitchens can participate in donating uneaten meals and training employees on food waste prevention practices. Individuals are encouraged to reduce waste by shopping smarter, eating leftovers and participating in local composting programs, says SWACO.

“We of course have messaging and resources to help residents at home cut food waste in the kitchen or when they’re eating out, but we also have resources for our [commercial] partners to begin to tackle food waste in their own regions or in their cafeterias, and prevent it, rescue it and recycle it,” Greer-Brown says. “We tried to create a wide variety of resources that we thought different partners would be able to use and implement.”

Most recently, the U.S. EPA awarded a $60,000 grant to SWACO, which will be used to measure the baseline of food waste behaviors and outcomes in a central Ohio community, and subsequently, explore how the Save More Than Food campaign changes behaviors to reduce food waste.

"[COFWI] really came from the premise that no one organization can really impact food waste on their own, but need to work collectively and take shared ownership and responsibility of this issue,” –Kyle O’Keefe, director of innovation and programs, SWACO

This grant is the second example of national recognition SWACO has received for its work surrounding food waste diversion. In October 2020, the National Recycling Coalition named SWACO as its “Outstanding Recycling Organization for 2020” for outstanding growth of programs and impacts pertaining to food waste diversion.

“We believe the Save More Than Food campaign will help people understand the severity of the food waste problem in central Ohio and encourage them to reduce food waste in their own homes,” said Ty Marsh, SWACO’s executive director, in a release. “But the grant from the U.S. EPA will let us know for certain what type of impact the campaign has had.”

TRACKING BEHAVIOR

SWACO will be partnering with The Ohio State University (OSU) and the city of Upper Arlington on this grant project. The groups will be working together to evaluate which outreach messages resonate most strongly with participants.

“We’re really looking to understand what moves people to change behaviors,” says Greer-Brown. “Is it the economic message that when you save food partaking in these certain activities, you save money, or is it the environmental message?”

OSU’s research team will develop and conduct resident surveys between Feb. 1 and May 31 to find out if the campaign has had an impact on residents’ views and behaviors regarding food waste. The team will also conduct a waste audit, where they’ll examine random samples of residential waste and separate it into categories to determine how much of it is food.

“We’re going to sample the waste stream from various routes that are receiving different treatments, so we’ll have kind of a pre-sample indicating what the current level of food waste is. We’ll even be doing some granular waste sampling, not just of an entire truckload of material, but also at a household level as well so we can drill down into some of these surveys and understand how [these efforts] are impacting their particular waste generation,” says O’Keefe.

OSU plans to compile and share the results of the surveys and waste audit by November, creating a peer-reviewed manuscript for academic use and likely hosting webinars aimed at the consumer audience.

LOOKING AHEAD

The city of Upper Arlington offers residents a composting program for food scraps and is part of ongoing efforts to reduce the waste that unnecessarily ends up at the landfill in the region. The drop-off composting program, which has received assistance from SWACO, and has grown to three drop-off locations and a total of 17 collection containers in the area. To date, the drop-off program alone has yielded over 70,000 pounds of food waste.

As part of the SWACO- and EPA-funded project, SWACO will work with Upper Arlington city officials and staff to communicate with residents about the surveys, conduct a waste audit and use Save More Than Food campaign materials to measure the impacts of the educational resources such as emails, newsletters, webinars and community events.

“Upper Arlington is proud of our ongoing food waste composting program that has, to date, collected over 150,000 pounds of waste that would otherwise end up at the landfill,” said Jackie Thiel, public service director for the city of Upper Arlington, in a release. “This partnership and grant with SWACO and the Ohio State University will continue our efforts and bring additional awareness to the severity of the food waste problem in central Ohio.”

Since the campaign’s initial launch, Greer-Brown says SWACO is seeing a lot of excitement and involvement from the community in terms of sharing social media posts, printing posters and distributing information about the campaign.

“We’ve had a great response from our partners,” she says. “We are seeing a significant uptick in traffic to our websites, so we know our residents and others are going to our website for information on this. We also have some [positive] paid advertising analytics regarding the number of people who are taking our quick [survey] or clicking a link.”

O’Keefe adds, “We have seen just a general community efficacy around this topic a lot more in the past couple of years, and I think that’s because of the dialogue that’s occurring there. We’re seeing more of that interest and support to back it as well, so that’s been really exciting to see that conversation start throughout our community.”

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Waste Today. The author is the assistant editor of Waste Today and can be reached at hrischar@gie.net.