Food: the Next Recycling Challenge

Only in a land of plenty like ours could this staggering statistic be true: 40 percent of food goes uneaten—most of it tossed in landfills or torched in incinerators.

The social and ecological costs of this waste are far-reaching. One in six Americans routinely goes hungry, yet a typical family of four discards $2,000 or more worth of food each year. Nationwide, roughly 4 percent of oil consumed goes to produce and transport food that is never eaten. Decaying garbage in landfills generates more than a fifth of the nation’s methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

It’s time to shift our focus from the ubiquitous food pyramid to a lesser known “Food Recovery Hierarchy” that guides choices about uneaten food:
• First off, minimize food scraps by acquiring only what you need (i.e., resist impulse purchases, overbuying, and super-sized portions).
• Share what you can’t use, while it’s still edible, with hungry people. Currently, only about 10 percent of the nation’s edible food is recovered for human consumption.
• What’s not fit for humans can be used for animal feed.
• Other scraps can go to anaerobic digesters (generating energy) or be composted, creating valuable soil amendments.
• Landfills and incinerators represent options of “last resort.”

We’ve had this all backwards, using “last resort” choices as our primary approaches. Fortunately, getting the hierarchy right is both feasible and affordable (with significant cost savings from reduced disposal fees). Change can even happen quickly, as demonstrated by states like Vermont and Massachusetts.

One key, suggests Mark King of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, is to stop calling surplus food “waste” and to see it as the valuable resource it is. That change in mindset can generate creative solutions at all levels of the hierarchy—putting food to its best possible use.

Don Morrison, Operations Manager of Wayside Food Programs, is a master at “food rescue”—networking with food manufacturers, grocery stores, farmers, gardeners and social service providers. We all share the same end goal, he says, to “recover food and get it into people’s bellies.”

At Portland’s Wednesday Farmers’ Market, for example, Wayside staff members bring crates and farmers voluntarily glean produce they don’t want to carry home—generating 400-500 pounds each week for meals served at area churches and community centers. (Wayside could do the same at Saturday’s market, Morrison hints, if it had a few more volunteers.)

Wayside also works with the Maine Chapter of “Hunters for the Hungry” in which the State pays to prepare meat from donated carcasses. That program recently expanded (with the help of the State’s Emergency Food Assistance Program and other partners) to process both road-killed deer and fish donated by ice-fishing derby contestants.

Morrison encourages those with surplus food—even backyard gardeners—to share that bounty with local food pantries. “Twenty gardeners with 5 pounds each,” Morrison says, can provide the kind of volume they need. Cooperative Extension’s Harvest for Hunger Program helps coordinate these backyard contributions.

Morrison sends Wayside’s past-peak perishables to a pig farmer (who, in turn, donates some sausage back to the program) and to two commercial composters. Composting in Maine shares some of the same challenges that food recovery does—such as high transportation costs. Other hurdles include residents’ resistance to separating food waste and a lack of carbon materials (like wood chips or leaves) needed to successfully compost.

Two bills before the Maine Legislature—LD 659 and LD 712—could jumpstart efforts to increase composting statewide. Already, several successful curbside collection programs are helping people divert food scraps in York and Cumberland counties.

The key, according to Garbage to Garden’s founder Tyler Frank and We Compost It’s General Manager Brett Richardson, is to make the experience easy, clean, rewarding and affordable. Financial incentives like pay-as-you-throw help, Frank says, but ultimately “people need to care.”

By delivering a clean bucket each week, he adds, “we overcome the ‘ick factor.’” Providing customers with finished compost helps them see the full circle of how food scraps nourish soil and generate new life. Much of the marketing has happened word-of-mouth, and those who subscribe tend to continue: “We’ve had great success,” Frank says, “with creating a movement around it.”

A bigger challenge comes in rural areas where curbside collection is not cost-effective. But Maine’s smaller communities can still get in the game. There are upwards of 60 commercial compost operations around Maine and some transfer stations already accept food scraps, composting them on site. Other transfer stations—like those in Lincoln County—are beginning to collect separated food scraps and have them hauled to a composting facility or an anaerobic digester.

Lincoln County administrator John O’Connell says he can barely keep up with demand for the compost collection totes at area transfer stations and recycling centers. “The culture is changing,” Brett Richardson concurs. “Everyone now wants to do the right thing.”

What You Can Do:

• Voice support for LD 659 and LD 712, two bills before the Maine Legislature that would help support composting.
• Plan meals; resist impulse purchases; and search recipes by ingredient to use up surplus supplies.
• Remember that food safety is rarely at play in sell by/best before/use by labels—except in the case of baby food. They’re only suggestions to manufacturers about peak quality.
• Compost your own food scraps, or sign up with a curbside collection program. If none are available in your community, ask your transfer station staff whether they accept separated organic waste for composting.
• For inspiration, see the measures being adopted in Vermont and Massachusetts.