Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a nationwide goal in 2015 to cut food waste in half by 2030, headway has already been made in across the food chain to reach that goal.
How attainable it is, though, remains to be determined as stakeholders work to tackle the mammoth problem of cutting back on the 63 million tons of food wasted annually.
Speakers at WasteExpo’s keynote session May 6, titled Solutions to Food Waste Prevention, Reduction and Recovery, pondered the feasibility of that goal and the steps needed to attain it.
Ashley Zanolli, the former senior policy and program advisor for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and current senior water quality specialist for the EPA; Chris Cochran, the executive director of Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED) of Berkeley, California; and Tiffany Derry, a chef ambassador of food waste for the James Beard Foundation, presented their areas of research and discussed what more needs to be done on all fronts.
Of the three key areas of eliminating food waste—prevention, recovery and recycling—the first is the most important, cost-effective solution across the food chain, said Cochran of ReFED, the organization that released the “Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent” in 2016.
Still, reusing food through methods such as composting and anaerobic digestion has its merits.
“Prevention and recovery are the most cost-effective on a per-ton basis, but recycling is the most scalable,” Cochran said. “Though it’s not as profitable, the recycling sector is undergoing rapid change. … The cost benefit of [recycling] solutions is changing dynamically.”
The waste industry’s role in recycling wasted food is vital. According to ReFED’s roadmap, centralized composting and anaerobic digestion (AD), as well as a smaller set of growing distributed solutions, could enable 9.5 million tons of waste diversion, highlighting the importance of more investment in that area.
To achieve the EPA’s set goal, Cochran said it’s vital for all stakeholders, including those in the waste management industry, to redirect their incentives away from profit and toward diversion.
While it seems counterintuitive on its face—food makes up about 40 percent of the waste stream, contributing to a major portion of profits for waste companies—Cochran challenged the audience to think of efforts that could be made to drive profits through not the amount of waste hauled, but the amount diverted.
Cochran said Recology of San Francisco, for example, has a contract with the city that allows it to be paid more the less its customers are wasting. Divert, a Boston-based company, is trying to pioneer a revenue model based not just on its hauling services, but also on providing data to help customers achieve their food diversion goals.
The ReFED roadmap says haulers can also benefit by working with organics recycling facilities to set tipping fees that gives haulers incentive to take it there over landfills while still allowing the organics facility to make a profit.
“There is plenty of waste to go around for a healthy organics program and healthy waste industry,” Zanolli said.
Waste companies can still be involved in the prevention and recovery side of landfill diversion as well through active partnerships with the households and commercial facilities they serve.
Derry, for example, said it’s been “an ongoing battle to reduce waste” in restaurants. Waste management companies can help develop solutions through activities like regular waste stream audits, for example.
“Talk to your chefs and see how you can partner with them and try to reduce the waste in your area,” she encouraged waste professionals during the session.
The recycling component of the food waste problem is not the only area with challenges.
While prevention is more effective, it’s also a challenge to get people to change their consumption habits. Prevention is also an area of innovation that is slower moving, Cochran said, than recovery and recycling, which are experiencing investments in areas like food technology, imperfect produce redistribution, recycling project financing and infrastructure development.
On the recovery side, Zanolli said food waste is not linked to food security. Despite good intentions from food redistribution efforts, food pantries often don’t receive what they need from food recovery efforts to provide ample nutritional value. “We need to stop connecting food waste to food insecurity,” she said. “The reality is if we solve food waste, we’re still not going to stop hunger, so we need to stop linking the two to pull at peoples’ heart strings.”
Instead, she encouraged all stakeholders try to find “blind spots,” or areas all along the food chain that could be accounting for loss in operations. Zanolli contributed to a report released this year called “Why and How to Measure Food Loss and Waste,” which provides a checklist for businesses to discover their blind spots.
All three speakers discussed the importance of metrics, whether it’s measuring the amount of food wasted or measuring the amount of food sent to landfill.
Doing so can help uncover the “true cost of food,” which includes storage, labor, cooking, packaging, distribution and sending it to the landfill. This can be used to help determine the real economic, social and environmental impacts of food waste.
Finding this true cost will help all involved businesses optimize their operations while taking important steps toward a nationwide food reduction goal in the process.