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Food waste drawing industry attention

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Food residuals may represent one of the recycling world’s biggest opportunities, as food waste has continued to pile up in landfills while other components of the materials stream are increasingly being recycled. Composting plays a primary role in turning food residuals into useful products, but so far the food waste stream has hardly been touched by composting efforts.

The opportunity is significant. Food waste is the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills, according to a recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Forty percent of all food generated ends up as waste, according to the report, and the amount of food waste from homes, restaurants and other sources has grown 50 percent since the 1970s.

“Currently over 34 million tons of food waste is being generated in the U.S. and 97 percent plus is going to landfill,” said Michael Virga, executive director of the U.S. Composting Council in Bethesda, Maryland. “This is an enormous potential feedstock for the composting and anaerobic digestion industries.”

“As a country, we’re essentially tossing every other piece of food that crosses our path – that’s money and precious resources down the drain,” said Dana Gunders, a scientist with the NRDC who authored the recent report. Gunders said producing food that is never eaten accounts for 25 percent of freshwater consumption, as well as 4 percent of oil consumption. “Moreover, uneaten food accounts for 23 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S. – a potent climate change pollutant,” she said.

Recycling has scored significant successes in other portions of the waste stream, including other organics such as yard clippings. “In 1960 24 percent of yard waste went into landfill,” noted Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at NRDC. “Now it’s 8.6 percent.”

The vast majority of the food waste being landfilled could be recycled. Why isn’t it? “The barriers to more food waste being recovered and collected are numerous,” Virga said. “The perception of food waste and the “yuck” factor are difficult to get over for most consumers.”

The consumer “yuck” factor is one of the barriers that composting and organic recyclers must overcome.

Other problems include logistics. It isn’t generally cost-effective to truck food residuals long distances, yet there aren’t yet enough composting facilities close to major sources of food residuals. Safety of collection and composting workers is also an issue, since food residuals can harbor illness-causing microorganisms and attract rodents and other animals. Finally, markets for the products of composted food residuals require additional development.

The Composting Council is teaming with the Washington-based National Restaurant Association to address these issues by, among things, raising awareness about composting food waste. Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs for the restaurant trade group, said restaurateurs are very interested in finding ways to address food waste, including through recycling and composting.

Consumers are becoming more concerned about food waste and starting to examine sustainable practices in the restaurants they frequent, DeFife said. Government officials are increasingly looking at restaurants as a large source of food residuals that contribute to landfill use, he said. And restaurant owners are beginning to regard food waste as a potentially valuable commodity that they need to utilize.

“There is a very strong business case for restaurant operators in the energy, environment and sustainable practices field to get a greater return on investment and lower costs or get a return on things that otherwise are thought of as waste,” DeFife said.

On the collections side, some of the techniques for improving consumer cooperation with composting initiatives include making it easier for consumers to separate food from other components of the stream. For instance, in San Francisco, consumers can put food residuals into the same green bin they put food-soiled paper and similar organics. Other initiatives employ compostable bags that make it easier, neater and cleaner for consumers to prepare food residuals for composting.

With regard to safety and hygiene, more frequent collections of food residuals for composting offer some promise. Going to weekly collections instead of bi-weekly collections, for instance, reduces the amount of food residuals collected each trip and the length of time material has to sit by the curb. When food residuals are removed from garbage and collected weekly, Hoover noted, cities like Portland have found that frequency of garbage collection can be reduced to every other week.

Because of the difficulty of getting consumers to cooperate, early efforts to collect food residuals are focusing on restaurants and large institutional generators of food residuals such as universities, hospitals and airports. “You have to go after the low-hanging fruit and that’s the institutions,” Virga said.

Restaurants are also an important part, but many are small, independent operations, DeFife said. They have smaller amounts of food residuals than large institutions, and they may be located further from composting facilities, increasing the logistical and financial challenges of composting food residuals. He said, it’s particularly important to educate these operators about the opportunities composting food residuals provides to improve their businesses’ sustainability, cooperate more effectively with local governments and boost financial returns.

One key factor in making composting food residuals economically sustainable is the difference between local landfill tipping fees and fees composters charge to remove food residuals. If composting fees are competitive with landfills, composting is more financially appealing to generators of food residuals.

Technology may also play a role. Anaerobic digesters can be placed on the premises of individual restaurants, reducing transportation costs and providing restaurant operators with saleable soil amendments and even energy generated through the digesting process. “If you can create energy and a soil amendment, that’s the best of both worlds,” Hoover said.

Composting has many challenges in front of it, including expanding the network of composting facilities and expanding the markets for compost products. “We’re only barely touching the surface,” said the National Restaurant Association’s DeFife. “There’s so much more that can be done if there was more education, coordination and opportunity on the business side. We think we can dramatically increase it.”