Walking through the Food Waste Hierarchy

Through education and awareness, we can begin to inform people of the food waste challenge that we have in the U.S. With the tools provided by the U.S. EPA and examples being sent by numerous restaurants and grocery chains, change can be had. Together we can make a more sustainable tomorrow.

By Matthew S. Hollis

In 2015, 42.2 million Americans were lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. They were food insecure. The year prior, in 2014, Americans generated 38 million tons of food waste according to the U.S. EPA. That means that we, as a country, threw out 1,800 pounds of food for every one food insecure American. Sustainability by definition is avoiding the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. Wasting food while humans are going hungry is not sustainable. While the problem can seem overwhelming and easy to ignore, we each have to take on an individual responsibility to do our part in eliminating this issue. The question is: how do we get involved as individuals, businesses and communities?

Food Waste Hierarchy

Source Reduction

The U.S. EPA has created the Food Recovery Hierarchy that works as an extremely useful tool in assisting us with this challenge. Shaped as an upside-down pyramid, it has six steps to success. The first step is source reduction, which essentially means produce less food to begin with. As a restaurant owner, you can identify the items that people are not finishing or taking with them. Perhaps, it is a specific side dish that will not reheat well or another menu item where the portion is larger than necessary. In reducing the portion sizes or amount of food created in this scenario, you can reduce the source of food waste. Other options would be to place the decision in the hands of the consumer offering a free refill on a certain side dish or other item to avoid providing too much food to begin with. Grocery stores and retailers can monitor sales trends in order to ensure the amount of produce they are purchasing is in line with the amount that they can sell in time before it is no longer fit for sale.

Food Donation

Source reduction will not solve all of the food waste issues. In some cases, it is not an option as customers have come to expect a certain quantity of food from your establishment. This is why the next step is feeding hungry people. The Federal Bill, Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, protects companies from liability to encourage donation. There are several entities that can assist in this process such as Food Donation Connection and Feeding America. They work with farmers, manufacturers, and retailers to get their excess food products to food banks and homeless shelters for distribution to the food insecure. Feeding America credits providing more than 3.6 billion meals to U.S. communities. Companies like Food Donation Connection and Feeding America are not required to make this change though. There are a number of small local initiatives like the 412 Food Rescue in Pittsburgh. It is a community trying to end hunger and reduce food waste by collecting fresh, perishable food from retailers, restaurants, caterers, etc. and delivering it directly to organizations in need.

Unfortunately, some food waste is just not suitable for consumption by hungry people, regardless of the level of food insecurity. In this case, look to the next step and try to feed hungry livestock. Regulations vary from state to state, and there are some items you cannot donate (like coffee grounds) as they can be harmful to animals. The “Leftovers For Livestock” legal guide points out the rules and acts that regulate feeding scraps to animals. The federal requirements look at the kinds of food scraps and types of animals that are fed these scraps. They talk about the Federal Swine Health Protection act, Ruminant Feed Ban Rule and The Food Safety Modernization Act Preventive Controls Rules for Animals. The swine act focuses on keeping food away from swine that contain harmful diseases. The feed ban rule states that no food containing animal tissues are allowed for ruminant animals (i.e. Cattle, sheep, goats.) The EPA even states that donating your scraps for animal use can be cheaper than shipping them off to a landfill. As an example, it states that one business, “Increased its food recovery amounts from 3,350 tons in 2007 to over 14,000 tons in 2011 while saving between $6,000 and $8,000 per month.” A recent study also found that, “roughly 4.4 million acres in the European Union could be spared by instead feeding pigs treated, recycled food scraps.”

Industrial Uses

When there is still food waste left over after trying source reduction, feeding people and livestock, then we can turn to industrial uses. Through anaerobic digesters, the methane given off from decomposing food waste can be turned into electricity. The byproduct of this process is a soil component that can be returned to fields as nutrients for growing additional food. Ultimately, this leaves zero waste once the process is completed. Another area for review are waste oils, fats and grease, which also fall under the food waste category. Various rendering processes can take waste fats, oils and grease, and turn them into animal feed and biodiesel. The biodiesel fuel can then be used to power all types of diesel engines as an alternative to crude oil refining. While this is a great step in the use of food waste, the infrastructure for these methods does not exist in all areas of the U.S. today.

Therefore, when the infrastructure for industrial uses is not available, we would turn to composting. Certain food scraps can be used to help create soil for crops. This can be an alternative to using fertilizers with chemicals. There are different types of composting methods depending on whether you are doing this at your business or home. Over the past several years, numerous communities and states have taken legislative action to reduce the amount of food waste sent to the landfill. The City of Boulder, CO is a great example where food waste has been banned. As a result of this ban, the composting infrastructure was put into place to provide an outlet of commercial scale for this process. The State of Massachusetts and California have also banned food waste creating a robust compost infrastructure available to businesses of all sizes. As this infrastructure continues to expand, it will allow for even greater amounts of food waste to be returned to our fields providing valuable nutrients to our food. Despite the recent addition of all this infrastructure, composting is not readily available in all areas of the U.S.

Food Waste to the Landfill

The final step in the U.S. EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy is to send the remaining food waste to the landfill. This is the last step because it is considered to be cradle to grave. While a number of landfills in the U.S. will harvest the methane gas produced in order to create electricity, the remaining byproduct is contaminated with all of the other waste streams in the landfill and thus unable to be returned to the fields for additional food production. Considered a cradle to grave approach, it should be seen as a last resort for food waste but still necessary in an effort to keep our cities, counties and states sanitary and clean where the infrastructure does not exist to support the previous options.

We can only solve 100 percent of the problems that we know about. Through education and awareness, we can begin to inform people of the food waste challenge that we have in the U.S. With the tools provided by the U.S. EPA and examples being sent by numerous restaurants and grocery chains, change can be had. Together we can make a more sustainable tomorrow.

Matthew S. Hollis, is the President of Elytus (Columbus, OH), an innovative waste management company committed to helping their clients #wastenothing. For more information, visit the company at www.Elytus.com or on social media @Elytus.