By Rob Guillemin
When I go to my local self-serve lunch spot, I eat everything I put on my tray, picking the perfect combination of hot entrée items and salad bar treats without an ounce to spare. In fact, I can be pretty smug about my “zero food waste” lunch (a modern version of the Clean Plate Club) until I remember that all the food prep was done for me in the back kitchen. That’s where piles of carrot and potato peals and other food scraps, along with mounds of uneaten or unused food, typically head to the landfill.
Fortunately, Café de Boston, a buffet and prepared foods eatery in downtown Boston, is one of the few but growing number of restaurants that has shown a real commitment to eliminating food waste. In May, this restaurant joined EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge along with over 800 businesses and organizations, including grocery stores, schools, hotels, hospitals, cafeterias, local governments and food manufactures. (See photo at Café with EPA New England Regional Administrator Curt Spalding). By keeping better track of food inventories and setting food waste prevention goals, participating organizations in 2014 diverted nearly 606,000 tons of wasted food, which included over 88,500 tons donated to people in need.
These waste diversion efforts are a big deal, especially since food is the single largest waste material going to disposal each year. Food waste tipped the scale at 35 million tons in 2012. It now accounts for 21 percent of the American waste stream, overtaking either discarded plastic or paper.
Once in the landfill, moist organic matter quickly decomposes, releasing methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide (CO2). The US EPA has identified landfills as the single largest source of methane, contributing approximately 34% of all man-made methane released to the atmosphere in the US.
Because food production accounts for 10% of total energy use, 50% of land use, and 80% of freshwater consumption in the United States, every wasted bite also squanders these resources. With this lifecycle perspective in mind, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global food waste (including its production, transportation, and decomposition) is the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases based on 2007 levels data. This means that 3.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent is generated needlessly.
So, the next time you eat out, don’t be shy about asking your favorite restaurant to reduce food waste by joining EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge. The Café de Boston did and now it is on track to divert over 30 tons of food waste from the landfill this year. If the one million restaurants in America followed their lead, we could truly dine, food waste free, and take a huge, collective bite out of our greenhouse gas emissions.
Rob Guillemin is an environmental specialist at EPA’s New England office, where he tries to eat what he takes.