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More than 97% of our food waste ends up in landfills and incinerators each year. Much of this is wholesome, uneaten food that could have been donated to those in need. How can EPA help you and your community reduce food waste?

2012 March 13

Food waste is defined as any food substance, raw or cooked, which is discarded, or intended or required to be discarded. Food wastes are the organic residues generated by the handling, storage, sale, preparation, cooking, and serving of foods. Food waste also includes uneaten food and food preparation scraps from residences or households.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Joanne Ivancic of Advanced Biofuels USA permalink
    March 14, 2012

    Do think about composting that which is not appropriate to send to food banks, etc.

  2. Sue Briggum of Waste Management permalink
    March 14, 2012

    Helping to reuse wholesome, uneaten food can be an element of corporate social responsibility. At our headquarters, we participate in the annual Houston Thanksgiving Superfeast. The inevitable leftovers (in considerable volume) are donated to local shelters, but this takes pre-planning to assure compliance with safety codes. EPA could jump-start more of these donations by creating a practical guide for event planners on the process of planning food donations.

    And of course Joanne is exactly right that composting is a great opportunity for what can’t be donated.

  3. George Dreckmann of City of Madison, Wisconsin permalink
    March 14, 2012

    Getting edible food to those in need is a difficult challange due to health concerns. It is one thing for dumpster divers to take home outdated food and serve it to themselves. it is quite anothe matter for a store to give that food away. If someone gets ill, the store faces law suits and potential fines.

    I think one way to help would be to work with stores to set expiration dates closer to the actual dates when a food item become indible. Right now, the expiration dates on a lot of food is two weeks or more ahead of the time it would pose a problem.

    For organic waste as a whole I think a national feed in tarriff for electricity produced by anaerobic digesters would go a long way to spur forther development of these organics diversion systems. it has definately worked in Germany.

  4. Shannon Pritchard of Thurston County Food Bank permalink
    March 14, 2012

    This is a great topic for open discussion, thank you for bringing it up. It seems there is an abundance of food wherever we look, and yet there are still many hungry people in our communities. Food Banks in Washington are doing wonderful work to rescue as much food waste from grocery stores as possible, and many have also implemented programs to glean excess produce from farmer’s fields and at farmer’s markets. This meets a great need for getting more fresh and local produce into the diets of low-income families, who are at the greatest risk of nutrition-related diseases. However, we know that not all food being tossed out or donated is fit for human consumption, and food banks are also highly aware of food safety issues (and of course, that organic matter has an inherent tendency to rot). So there is still the issue of waste.
    It is my understanding that the role of the EPA is to create guidelines or regulations on waste management for the sake of protecting our environment. I would reccomend a push towards bringing food distributors (grocery stores, institutional food services, and restaurants) into the conversation. The EPA might be able to create incentives for them to connect with and donate to hunger relief organizations, or even implement strict composting guidelines (along with supporting facilities that can handle the recycling of that organic matter) rather than continuing to send their food waste to landfills where it releases methane gas and contributes to groundwater pollution.

  5. Matthew Cotton of IWMC permalink
    March 14, 2012

    Two things EPA might consider:

    1. A national recycling goal/mandate which would incentivize more people to recycle everything, including food scraps.

    2. Creating tools to help states permit more food scraps composting programs and continue EPA’s outreach to assist communities in developing food scraps collection programs.

    While this is handling the “end of pipe” discards, I think we would find that both individuals and especially businesses would re-think their consumption patterns once they saw how much food they were throwing away. I have seen this anecdotally and heard it from composters and food collectors. Many restaurants and grocery stores have changed practices once they saw how much food they were actually throwing away. Having a source-separated food-only container really highlights this fact.

  6. Chaz Miller of NSWMA permalink
    March 15, 2012

    Many companies have adopted policies to ensure that potential food waste is instead donated to food banks. These include food processors, grocers and restaurants who have found creative ways to ensure that edible food can be consumed instead of wasted. EPA should consult with these organizations and develop a toolkit of how to take advantage of these opportunities.

  7. Edward M. Dexter, P.G. of Maryland Department of the Environment permalink
    March 19, 2012

    The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) supports food-bank donations and other means of reusing this resource. It is not regulated under solid waste statutes or regulations unless discarded. Once it is no longer fit to eat, we prefer that it it be recycled, e.g., by composting, aerobic or anaerobic digestion, etc. Permits may be needed for some of these activities.

    FYI, MDE has had cases where the large-scale composting of food waste and other organic materials without adequate environmental protections has led to impacts to surface and/or groundwater due to nutrients and biochemicals in the leachate. It might be helpful for EPA to develop recommended design and operating procedures for this practice.

    We are examining this issue, and our current guidance to persons who are considering the development of a food waste composting facility is posted on our website at:
    http://www.mde.state.md.us/programs/Land/RecyclingandOperationsprogram/CountyCoordinatorResources/Documents/Combined%20Compost%20Summary%20Fact%20Sheet%202-3-12%20%20Final%20as%20posted.pdf.

    I can be reached at edexter@mde.state.md.us / (410) 537-3315.
    - Edward M. Dexter, P.G., Administrator, Solid Waste Program, Maryland Department of the Environment.

  8. Dolores Watson of Earth Day Coalition, Cleveland, Ohio permalink
    March 20, 2012

    I know that much perfectly good food is wasted because of current laws about expiration dates when products can be “sold”. I believe vendors who are lawfully restricted from “selling” outdated foods can already donate the items to hunger or homeless centers, accompanied by signed release from responsibility documents. I don’t know why more vendors do not take this opportunity — perhaps there is no tax incentive attached at the present time?

    Another possibility is to send usable food items that might not be as pristine as what we would send for human consumption, to be consumed by livestock. Here in Cleveland we are permitted to keep backyard chickens– who really love the food scraps we give them. And they give us a steady supply of eggs, and eventually meat, in return for the food that would otherwise be wasted. They also help create excellent compost thru their scratching, and fertilizing the wastes not directly eaten. AND, they just love to eat a juicy bug and bug eggs– so insects are never a problem in the chicken yard– except that there may not be enough of them to satisfy the birds!

    Any foods that might be moldy are already being consumed by nature’s recycling crews. Those foods should be taken to a composting facility and allowed to be remade into healthy soils.
    No food products should ever be incinerated– nor landfilled. They are RESOURCES, not wastes.

    The City of Cleveland is planning to build a waste-to-energy plant which will need to incinerate/burn/gasify nearly all our food wastes and recyclables to produce a very small amount of the energy we consume here in the city. I see they as a TRAVESTY, especially in the year the city is celebrating Local and sustainable foods. The old technology of sustainable living with the land is always going to be the most appropriate method(s) to try first — before jumping to build and maintain expensive and unproven technological fixes.

    Finally– if there is so much being discarded– shouldn’t every prudent business cut back on their purchasing to begin with?

  9. Jean Schwab of US EPA permalink
    April 17, 2012

    In response to Joanne Ivancic of Advanced Biofuels USA-

    Composting is indeed a preferred option for food that is not appropriate for food banks instead of landfilling. The EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy reflects the highest best uses for food – check it out at http://www.epa.gov/foodrecovery

    In response to Sue Briggum of Waste Management and Chaz Miller of NSWMA

    The EPA has a number of success stories as well as links to guidance developed by numerous organizations at http://www.epa.gov/foodrecovery (under the “tools & resources tab) and we hope to continue to add to these resources as we can.

    In response to George Dreckmann of City of Madison, Wisconsin, and Matthew Cotton of IWMC-

    Non-perishable and unspoiled perishable food can be donated to local food banks, soup kitchens, pantries, and shelters. Local and national programs frequently offer free pick-up and provide reusable containers to donors. To encourage food donations, the “Good Samaritan” law was created to prevent to prevent good food from going to waste and to protect companies from liability surrounding their donations. The EPA recommends following the “food recovery hierarchy” below as the preferred options to make the most of excess food. The food waste recovery hierarchy comprises the following activities, with disposal as the last, and least preferred, option:

    •Source Reduction – Reduce the amount of food waste being generated;
    •Feed People – Donate excess food to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters;
    •Feed Animals – Provide food scraps to farmers;
    •Industrial Uses – Provide fats for rendering; oil for fuel; food discards for animal feed production; or anaerobic digestion combined with soil amendment production or composting of the residuals
    •Composting – Recycle food scraps into a nutrient rich soil amendment

    Think of it as the “3 R’s” for food – reduce, reuse, and recycle. And since food is such an incredibly valuable resource that can be used to protect our soil and water or grow our next generation of crops, there are so many better uses for it to consider before putting in a landfill or incinerator. If food is anaerobically digested for renewable energy production, then the residuals (digestate) can, and should, be put to beneficial use to then feed the soil – not landfills.
    The good news is that food waste reduction, recovery and recycling is already occurring across the country. Businesses, institutions, and individuals alike are being encouraged to make the most of what they have by reducing their food waste, separating excess food for donations, and composting the remainder. Reducing, donating and recycling excess food can have a major impact on “greening” both your financial bottom-line and the environment.

    More info: http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/organics/food/index.htm

    In response to Shannon Pritchard of Thurston County Food Bank-

    To elevate this environmental issue, EPA launched the Food Recovery Challenge (FRC) in the fall of 2010 as part of the WasteWise Partnership Program. Through the FRC, business and industry commit to reducing the amount of food that goes to waste and increase food recovery. Participants track their food diversion progress in the ReTRAC data management system and receive recognition though WasteWise awards. You can find out more at http://www.epa.gov/foodrecoverychallenge

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