A recent article in the Wall Street Journal last week described how investors are putting pressure on Amazon to reduce environmental and economic costs of their food waste. After reading the piece in its entirety, I was immediately reminded of an article about Laurence D. Fink, founder and chief executive of BlackRock, who is urging companies to develop social goals or otherwise, risk losing investment capital.
The food waste problem
Through the course of the year, we will be blogging about the pressing problem of food waste in the US, and what the private and public sector are doing to address it. First, let’s discuss why this is an issue.
Food waste is a problem in the US because it remains the number one material (by weight) going to landfills. Once there it generates methane, a gas that is roughly 20-25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. This in itself is causing an environmental problem, as it wastes approximately $165 billion per year when it could otherwise be going toward beneficial uses such as: food donation, anaerobic digestion and composting.
Just a few years ago, it was reported that approximately 40% of all food produced in this country is going to waste. Meanwhile, something like one in eight people in America are “food insecure” – meaning they lack reliable access to sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
When we couple that with all of the environmental and economic impacts of planting, growing, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, and bringing these commodities to market, it only draws more drastic concern to this social catastrophe.
While this concern goes largely overlooked, there are a handful of organizations that are working on the solution.
ReFED is just one of the organizations working on tackling this problem. The US EPA, and USDA have teamed up to declare war on the problem by reducing food waste by 50% by the year 2030. The United Nations has the same goal to address this challenge globally. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Ad Council, and the Institute for Local Self Reliance are just a few of the other organizations that are facing this head-on.
Diving into food “waste”
Food waste happens wherever people eat: homes, restaurants, offices, schools, hospitals, prisons, etc. Food manufacturers, distribution facilities, groceries, and other commercial institutions also create food waste because of inefficiencies in processes and recalls – as well as discontinued, off-spec, and out-of-date products.
However, “food waste” is somewhat of a misnomer because there is a still a use for this material. That is why we often refer to this process as “organics recycling.”
This means turning materials like food scraps and wood waste into valuable products that help people and the planet as opposed to hurting them.
Solutions to the food waste problem
The US EPA has established the Food Recovery Hierarchy which is a succinct way to understand how wasted food can become a resource.
The first priority is not to create the food waste in the first place. Steven Satterfield outlines how to use all edible parts of the plant in Root to Leaf, while others have outlined how to utilize all parts of an animal. Residents and business can do this too, which saves money and keeps food from becoming waste.
The second most important use of wasted food is donation, and how to maximize the benefits of food donation – all of which we will discuss in further detail in future blogs.
The third best priority is to feed animals in order to keep the material as high in the food chain as possible. In future installments, we will also go into depth about the requirements for businesses for sending their food scraps to animal feed.
The fourth priority falls into “industrial uses”. This means sending “organics” (offal, beverages, food scraps, sludges, etc.) to facilities that transform them into secondary resources such as pet food, cosmetics, ethanol, fertilizers, chemicals, and even plastic. We will talk much more about “anaerobic digestion,” a process that changes manures, food scraps, and other by-products into “biogas,” which is methane (natural gas) that can be used to produce electricity and heat, power vehicles, or be injected into the pipeline.
Another available alternative is through composting.
Compost is another process we’ll discuss in detail that generates a beautiful, rich soil amendment using nature’s own decomposition process. The many benefits of compost are often overlooked but are becoming more and more central to a variety of pursuits ranging from construction projects to farming to blocking sound and absorbing air pollution.
More food waste answers lie in the data
The key to combating the problem of wasted food in the US is data. Most folks are not aware of the issue to begin with, so awareness is key.
The way to elevate awareness is by showing generated food waste volume, so people can actively work to reduce it. This is part of an educational process that we hope will be central to the solution of this problem.
Rubicon begins the process of recovering food waste by creating a baseline. Countries, states, and municipalities need to know the size of the challenge they are tackling in order to get a handle on solutions.
We help cities and businesses develop the right solutions for their unique situations. Recovering wasted food is not a “one-size-fits-all” playbook, and the geography, infrastructure, and material flows vary by circumstance.
Food donation and animal feed opportunities are becoming more abundant, but the infrastructure to recycle organics (that don’t have another outlet) is spotty in parts of the county.
After we work to address the reason why the waste is being created in the first place, we use our network of hauler partners and end destinations to provide solutions for our customers. We also provide training and guidance to roll out the programs.
Perhaps the most important part is that Rubicon continues to collect data to drive improvements and keep the programs successful in the long-term. Reducing the costs of wasted food and other organics to the environment and our society is the driving force behind our efforts.
What to look forward to
In future installments of this blog, we will continue to explore the intricacies of the food waste problem in the United States, identify the people and organizations doing something about it, and dissect the actions being taken to reach a solution.
We will also dive into the different generators of food waste in the US, their unique challenges, and a handful of success stories that are sparking future action.
Additionally, we will provide insight into the processes of eliminating, donating, and recovering food scraps, both within organizations and after it gets picked up by donation partners and haulers, etc. In tandem, we will aim to describe the regulations that are partially responsible for driving the changes in how we are dealing with this challenge.
Lastly, we will show how Rubicon can help keep valuable food scraps and other organics out of the landfill.