Now is a Good Time to Hop on the Food Waste Bandwagon

food waste solutions are at handBarely six months ago, Triple Pundit identified food waste as one of the most pressing problems facing the world today, and it is a big one. Here in the U.S., for example, the Department of Agriculture estimates that fully one-third of the food meant for human consumption never makes it to the table, with the main sources of waste being restaurants and other food service businesses as well as individual households.

Some of the solutions under discussion, such as improved food storage technology and more efficient ordering strategies, will tackle the incoming part of the problem. However, that still leaves a huge pile of outgoing waste from households and retail establishments in the form of peelings, rinds, stems, seeds (think avocado), spent tea leaves, coffee grounds and other unused or unusable scraps, most of which is landfilled or incinerated with a consequent impact on the environment and the bottom line.

The good news is that just within the last couple of weeks, three major developments have occurred that show how quickly the food waste situation could turn from a liability to an asset, by providing forward-thinking businesses with new opportunities to build a green brand and establish themselves as community leaders.

1. The Sacramento BioDigester

Starting with the most recent news first, last week the company CleanWorld broke ground on an expansion of the new Sacramento BioDigester, which will enable local restaurants as well as supermarkets and food processors to use their food waste to generate renewable fuel and other products.

The BioDigester, which can be compared to a gigantic manmade stomach, is the largest facility of its kind in the U.S. It uses the natural process of microbial digestion to create biogas and other fuel. When fully completed by the end of this year, it will handle 100 tons per day of food waste and produce natural gas as well as a compost-like soil product. Heat and electricity are also generated by the facility.

Fittingly, the natural gas is compressed and sent to an adjacent fueling station, where it is used by the Sacramento waste hauling company Atlas Disposal to fuel its fleet.

All in all, when the BioDigester is completed it will produce the equivalent of 700,000 diesel gallons per year in renewable biogas, generate 1 million kilowatts of electricity (which powers the fueling station as well as the BioDigester), and produce about 8 million gallons of soil and fertilizer products for local farms.

2. The New York City composting plan

Also last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City announced plans for an ambitious citywide food waste composting program that will eventually send scraps to a biogas digester facility to be located in the region.

The program reportedly will start up in 2014 with volunteer households in 150,000 single family homes and 100 high rises.

Starting off with such a large number sounds a little risky, but a previous pilot project showed a much greater rate of participation than anticipated, so planners are confident that the initial phase will go relatively smoothly.

Because the numbers are so high, the initial phase could also help establish a best-practices model for many other cities around the U.S.

About 600 schools will also participate in the initial program. Citywide adoption on a voluntary basis is expected by 2016, with a mandatory program in place “within a few years.”

Because of the city’s rather unique waste hauling arrangements, the commercial sector is not involved in the plan. However, according to an article in the New York Times city officials expect that mandatory food waste recycling for restaurants and other businesses will follow close on the heels of the residential program.

3. The Food Waste Challenge

Perhaps the biggest development of all was the Food Waste Challenge announced earlier in June by the Obama Administration.

This initiative teams corporate sustainability leaders Unilever and General Mills to serve as best practices models and test beds for new strategies to reduce and reclaim food waste.

The Obama Administration expects to have 400 food businesses and other stakeholders involved in the initiative by 2015, with the ultimate goal of 1,000 partners by 2020.

The choice of these two companies to lead the initiative is particularly instructive. Both have ample success in reducing the footprint of their own operations, but both note that achieving corresponding reductions by consumers poses a greater challenge, and will require changes in habits along with any adjustments that can be made on the producer side.

The thrust of the program is also interesting, in that it links food waste directly with significant, avoidable greenhouse gas emissions from related to transportation, processing, storage, and disposal.

Turning food waste into an asset

Participation in voluntary municipal food waste reclamation programs is a good way to build a green public image, but companies don’t have to wait for local officials or environmental groups to organize one.

Last year, for example, we noticed that a company called Totally Green has come up with a new business model for its on site food composting system. Businesses can now lease the equipment from Totally Green, rather than having to purchase it outright, which should provide more opportunities for businesses that can’t manage an up-front investment.

Businesses and institutions that adopt their own food waste reclamation program can also explore unique opportunities for putting the resulting compost to work beneficially.

One standout example is provided by the Defense Department’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State. The base has been ramping up its food waste recycling efforts, and part of the compost is earmarked for restoration of habitat for the endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly.

[Image: Food waste by lotherington]

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Tina is a career public information specialist and former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She writes frequently on sustainable tech issues for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, and she is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey.