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Food waste is a growing problem in our modern society. Roughly a third of the food produced globally never reaches the table and ends up as waste, taking up about 25% of our ever-shrinking landfills. This is not only a problem of food waste, but also a waste of land, water, labor, energy and even contributes to emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Commercial composting is a great alternative to landfilling food waste. Composting consists of combining organic waste with agents such as wood chips that accelerate decomposition, resulting in nutrient-rich soil that can be used as fertilizer. It’s an inventive way to turn food waste into a useful product that can help farmers increase their crop yields, provide a local resource for gardens, parks and landscapers, restore habitats and improve contaminated or degraded soils. In addition, composting reduces greenhouse gases by improving soil carbon sequestration and by preventing methane emissions through aerobic decomposition because methane-producing microbes are inactive in the presence of oxygen. The benefits of composting are many, and states are striving to divert organic waste from landfills by increasing commercial composting practices.

How Much Food Waste Ends Up In Landfills

View a larger version of this image. Photo: Composting for a community initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Food Waste: The Burning Problem — Veterans Off Grid

Massachusetts was one of the first states to tackle the problem on a large scale. In 2014, Massachusetts passed a statewide law to reduce commercial organic waste disposal. This law requires any business or institution that throws away one ton or more of food per week to divert food waste to composting. This law has been very successful in reducing food waste going into landfills, thereby reducing methane emissions and waste management costs. It has also led to significant economic activity by creating over 900 jobs and increasing the gross state product by $77 million as more composting facilities, food rescue organizations and waste haulers are hired to deal with the demand.

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Despite the law’s great success, there are also some unintended consequences through increased nutrient pollution from composting facilities. To meet the demand for food waste composting capacity, the state relaxed regulations for new composting facilities. This has resulted in some facilities dumping nutrient-rich leachate into local waterways, causing water quality degradation in numerous communities around Buzzards Bay. Municipalities are working with public and private partners to invest in wastewater treatment improvements to reduce nutrient pollution (wastewater treatment plants, innovative and alternative septic systems), but the impact of these efforts is offset by the introduction of a rich of nutrients leachate from composting facilities.

Such is the case in the town of Dartmouth, where the Slocums River, an already impaired waterway, is affected by nitrogen pollution from composting facilities. Leachate samples collected from one of the composting facilities showed very high total nitrogen concentrations. As a result, the city of Dartmouth was forced to take legal action at the city’s expense to deal with this new form of nitrogen pollution. In the City of Westport, composting facilities can operate without any local approval or oversight, even in cases where the facilities are adjacent to waterways (see photo). These examples highlight the need for clear standards and oversight of new composting facilities to protect water quality and conservation efforts.

Composting facility adjacent to salt marsh and coastal estuary, Town of Westport. Photo: Buzzards Bay Coalition

The Broken System That Sends Most Food Waste And Organic Matter To Landfills

All agree that commercial food waste composting has multiple benefits and should continue. Food waste producers need commercial composting to comply with the 2014 law, but the benefits of reducing food waste going to landfills should not create a new source of nutrient pollution to local waterways. The Buzzards Bay Coalition decided to take action to find a solution to this problem. Funded by a Watershed Grant from SNEP, the coalition has planned a series of workshops to connect commercial composting stakeholders with state and local communities. The aim is to understand the challenges and needs of each of the stakeholder groups (food waste producers, commercial composters and municipalities) and explore opportunities to improve the composting process. A third party facilitator will be appointed to reach consensus on clear local regulations that work for all actors involved in this issue. Originally scheduled to begin last winter and spring, the workshops have been postponed to October 2020 due to COVID-19. In the meantime, the coalition is focusing on reaching out to multiple stakeholders to initiate collaboration and get feedback on the project. Upon completion of this project, the Buzzards Bay Coalition will host a stakeholder workshop to present proposals for regulations and solutions to this issue next spring. Jeremy Kranowitz is a partner at the Keystone Policy Center, building a national coalition of industry, government, and nonprofit organizations to work together to reduce food loss and waste in the United States. He is the past president of Sustainable America, a nonprofit organization working nationwide to raise consumer awareness of sustainable food and fuel issues.

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Prior to working for Sustainable America, Jeremy worked for 10 years at the Keystone Policy Center as Senior Fellow for Energy and Environmental Affairs and Director of Education Programs. Jeremy has also worked for several other non-profit organizations, including the Izaak Walton League and Forest Trends. He began his career as an environmental consultant at McKinsey & Co. Jeremy holds an MSc in Environmental Science and a BS in Social Science from Johns Hopkins University and a Masters in Public Administration from New York University.

“It is a very good height indeed!” said the Caterpillar loudly and angrily… (she was exactly three inches tall).

Measuring how much food is lost and wasted in the United States is a complicated and confusing business—not because there is disagreement about whether or not it exists, but because it’s hard to reduce food waste by a certain amount if you’re not sure how much there is to begin with.

We Chuck Out 31% Of Our Food Supply: How To Stop The Waste

A useful analogy is to think of the entire food system in the United States as one large retail store with dozens of employees. The store is making a small profit, and management has made a New Year’s resolution to be 50 percent more efficient—a lofty, worthwhile goal, but meaningless if different departments measure different aspects of the business. It’s hard to know which parts of the business are more wasteful than others and which ones have the biggest impact on the bottom line. This is the conundrum that must be solved by those interested and involved in reducing food loss and waste.

In September 2015, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped up to the plate and announced a national goal to reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030. Fortunately USDA and EPA are headed in the same direction, however, the agencies measure different aspects of food waste.

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Simply put, the USDA mostly measures “food loss,” while the EPA mostly measures “food waste.” And while both are critically important, they are different. According to the World Resources Institute, “waste” refers to food that spills, spoils, bruises or wilts before it reaches the consumer. Food “waste” refers to food that is fit for consumption after it reaches the consumer, but for various reasons is not consumed.

The reason the USDA and EPA track food waste differently lies in the mandates of the different agencies. The USDA is responsible for agriculture, natural resources, food and nutrition, while the EPA is responsible for protecting human health and the environment. Therefore, the USDA is more concerned with the land, water, and labor resources used to grow food, but it is also concerned with feeding households. EPA focuses on our waterways and landfills, and the emissions that result from the breakdown of waste, and ultimately cares for human health and well-being.

Over One Sixth Of All Food Produced Ends Up Being Thrown In The Bin

Other nonprofit organizations have done extensive work to determine more comprehensive studies of the amount of food loss and waste in the United States for a number of reasons, including the enormous water and energy losses that accompany food waste and the millions of Americans who go hungry when we live in a place with more than enough food. It is also important because the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the equivalent of 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide is emitted from food produced but not eaten, making it one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the world.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) takes the ratio of the number of calories available in the United States divided by the number of calories consumed. A group called ReFED worked with Deloitte Consulting to extrapolate an estimate based on data from the best publicly available surveys. Together, these four groups have estimates that range from approximately 38 million

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