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The broken system that sends most food waste and organic matter to landfills
Jim Giles
Fri, 09/04/2020 – 00:15

How about this for a series of maddening statistics?

  • Landfills in the United States generate 15 percent of the country’s emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas with a potential warming impact 34 times that of carbon dioxide.
  • The single largest input into U.S. landfills is food waste, yard trimmings and other organic matter.
  • Sending organic matter to composting facilities rather than landfills dramatically lowers emissions — in fact, expanding composting globally would avoid or capture the equivalent of around 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050.
  • Only 4 percent of U.S. households are served by a municipal composting service.
  • Most commercial food waste is also dumped, meaning that just 6 percent of all U.S. food waste is diverted from landfill or combustion.

In summary: This is crazy. We’re dumping the feedstock for a valuable agricultural resource in landfills, where rather than fertilizing crops it generates emissions that accelerate the climate crisis.

I wasn’t aware of quite how broken this system is until I moderated a panel on composting infrastructure at Circularity 20 last week. (Video of the panel soon will be online — sign up for Circularity updates to get notified when that happens.) Afterwards, I called up my fellow moderator Nora Goldstein, editor of Biocycle magazine, in search of solutions.

Goldstein explained that most waste management firms are compensated for every truckload of material they send to landfill. This locks them into the existing model. Some firms might want to move into composting, but doing so would cause a double financial hit: Reduced landfill fees plus upfront expenditures for creating new composting infrastructure. That’s not going to look good in the next quarterly earnings.

What can the food industry do to help fix this?

Structural change will require government action such as California’s SB 1383, which commits the state to reducing organic waste by 75 percent by 2025. (Climate Solution of the Year, according to one industry publication.) But that doesn’t mean the industry can’t take smaller steps without outside help. I heard a bunch of exciting ideas in the panel, during my conversation with Goldstein and in emails I received after the event. Here are a few:

  • Food waste producers should discuss what’s possible with local waste operations, said panel member Alexa Kielty of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Long-term collaboration between waste producers, local government and disposal companies enables the waste industry to invest in composting solutions.
  • Do due diligence on contractors who offer organics disposal services, advised panel member Kevin Quandt of the Sweetgreen restaurant chain. To see why, read about Quandt’s tussles with less-than-honest contractors in this excellent Los Angeles Times story.
  • Companies involved in the farming end of the food business should incorporate targets for compost use into their regenerative agriculture commitments, Goldstein suggested.
  • Large composting facilities can take years to set up, but food waste producers can investigate smaller-scale options in the meantime, wrote Ben Parry, CEO of Compost Crew, an organics waste collector operating in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area.
  • Speaking of small-scale solutions that companies could collaborate with, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced funding for 13 pilot projects to “develop and test strategies for planning and implementing municipal compost plans and food waste reduction.”

I hope that list provides some ideas for how your organization can get involved in fixing this crazy problem. What did I miss? As always, I value your feedback. Email comments, critiques and complaints to jg@greenbiz.com.

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