Last week I was at WasteExpo, the largest annual gathering of the American waste and recycling industry. It was a great show, with booths, vehicles and equipment, and Rubicon® hauler partners as far as the eye could see.
During the conference, I presented on recycling food waste, prevention, and how cities and businesses can work together to reduce what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates to be more than 30 million tons of food waste going to landfills or incinerators in the United States, annually. There were a number of Rubicon customers and employees in the audience, and it was exciting for me to meet folks in person that I have known for years through phone and email.
If you missed WasteExpo 2019, here’s a brief rundown of my talk, along with some of my on-the-ground observations from the event.
Defining Food Waste and Food Waste Recycling
A 2017 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that between 34-40% of food produced in this country goes uneaten—a staggering figure considering 821 million people around the world go hungry, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Food waste is any form of food that is discarded, lost, or otherwise uneaten at any step along the supply chain.
Food waste recycling includes a wide variety of food waste solutions, such as:
- Food Donation: According to Food Cowboy and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, more than 4.7 million tons of food waste is salvageable and could be donated to feed the hungry. Feeding America offers a search tool where you can find a food bank near you to donate food and help combat hunger in your city.
- Animal Feed: According to my sources, the animal feed market is largely saturated. But with 80 percent of U.S. grains being grown to feed livestock, I believe there is an opportunity for more food waste to go toward animal feed.
- Anaerobic Digestion: Organic matter, including food waste, is broken down to produce biogas and digestate. According to BioCycle, there is an opportunity to recycle 15.8 million tons using this technology.
- Home, Community, and Commercial Composting: This includes everything from full-scale commercial composting facilities, to urban farms, to community gardens, to at-home composting piles. With 27 million tons of food waste being generated at the consumer level, there is a huge opportunity for food waste recycling and diversion from the landfill using these different levels of composting solutions.
Food waste solutions in America can take shape though different people, jobs, and landscapes. Any efforts we can make to help fix this problem, are valuable ones.
At the event, I spoke about the importance of source reduction, which focuses on strategies including consumer education, data analysis, better date labeling, smarter ordering, storage, transportation, and utilization methods in order to reduce the amount of food being produced in the first place.
According to ReFED, a data-driven guide for businesses, government, and nonprofits to collectively reduce food waste at scale, an estimated 2.6 million tons of wasted food could be avoided if it was reduced at the source. While I’ve spoken about source reduction in depth before, at WasteExpo I wanted to make the case for the potential of source reduction as the ultimate food waste solution.
However, organics recycling will still be needed even after source reduction and donation. During the presentation I spoke about South Korea, which now recycles roughly 95 percent of its food waste, with approximately 45 percent of this going to animal feed, 45 percent to composting, and 10 percent going toward anaerobic digestion and codigestion.
Food Waste Solutions
I told the optimistic crowd at WasteExpo that while finding appropriate food waste solutions for the several million tons of wasted food that the United States generates annually won’t be easy, examples such as South Korea’s food waste recycling programs, and the determined effort of companies such as Rubicon and others at the conference, make it clear that this is a possible goal. I argued that we should be talking about the end products of these recycling activities, such as animal feed, biogas, and finished compost, and how the markets for these products will be affected once the food waste is diverted from the landfill and more of these resources are generated.
Here at Rubicon, we use our technology to help ensure that our customers’ food waste goes to the highest possible use in the Food Recovery Hierarchy at the lowest possible cost. We have organics recycling capabilities throughout North America, serving customers large and small. If you are interested in Rubicon designing, implementing, and managing your organics food waste recycling program, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ryan Cooper is a Waste Diversion Manager and the Organics Recycling Lead at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.