By Camille Szramiak-Arneberg
Besides making it easier to do the dishes, there really was a good reason your mother raised you to be part of the clean plate club.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, about 40 percent of all edible food is thrown away in the United States. Supermarkets lose $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables alone, while restaurants throw out around 10 percent of the food they purchase, contributing to one-fifth of all food that ends up in landfills.
Most people seem to have an inherent understanding of the senselessness and tragedy of wasted food while there is so much need in the world. But what if you knew that every time you threw food away you were contributing to another global problem?
Fourteen percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S. that are contributing to climate change stem from getting food from the farm to your fork…and then to the landfill. While gas-guzzling vehicles and fossil fuel burning power plants are often the first to be blamed for climate change, the impact of the food we consume on a daily basis is easily overlooked.
According to the EPA, food waste has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s and is now the largest solid waste contributor to landfills. As your dinner remnants sit with 31 million tons of other Americans’ unfinished meals in landfills across the country, they produce methane — a gas with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. It’s estimated that eliminating food waste would have the same impact on greenhouse gas emissions as taking a quarter of all cars in American off the road.
While the latter might seem a daunting and overwhelming task, eliminating food waste is something that everyone, from individuals to food service companies and restaurants, can be a part of. A recent U.K. survey found that 80 percent of customers want businesses to tackle food waste, and companies are responding by showing more interest and dedication to exploring solutions to the issue. For example, many companies such as Unilever and General Mills have incorporated waste reduction or “zero waste” goals into their long-term targets. They show wisdom in doing so considering consumer sentiment, financial and environmental impacts and emerging regulatory measures. (Boston for example announced a plan to ban commercial food waste last summer.)
The EPA suggests a food recovery hierarchy, ordered from highest priority (source reduction and prevention) to lowest (sending waste to the landfill). A variety of companies have stepped into this food recovery pyramid at different levels in an attempt to address their food waste problems.
1. Reduction and prevention
Developing countries produce four times the amount of food they actually need. Reducing food amounts should be the highest priority in managing food waste and companies are approaching this in a variety of ways. National chains such as TGI Fridays, Au Bon Pain and Cheesecake Factory all now offer smaller-portion options to side-step the issue of unfinished plates or forgotten-about doggie bag leftovers. Sodexo started operating more than 300 “trayless” cafeterias on college campuses, discouraging students from overloading their trays, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in food waste. And grocery stores such as Stop and Shop and Price Chopper have saved an estimated $100 million annually by reducing the amount of food in overfilled produce displays.
2. Feeding people
While reduction and prevention is preferable, it’s inevitable that food service companies will end the day with food that didn’t sell. Darden Restaurants and Panera Bread have created programs to efficiently dispose of this food for the benefit of others rather than sending it to the landfill. The Darden Harvest program for example reduces its restaurants’ food waste by donating excess to thousands of food banks across the country. In the past 10 years Darden has donated more than 62 million pounds of edible food to communities in need.
3. Feeding animals
When excess food isn’t fit for humans, the EPA suggests donating the waste to farm animals. The Quaker Oats plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa sells oat hulls, oat fibers and cereal scraps (that’s right, pigs get to enjoy Cap’n Crunch as well) to third-party companies and farmers. The hull of an oat for example makes up about one third of the grain and cannot be consumed by humans, but Quaker Oats sells the hulls for animal bedding or to be burned as biomass to make energy. Because of their initiatives less than 1 percent of the Quaker Oat plants’ waste ends up in a landfill where it rots and produces methane gas.
4. Industrial uses and composting
A new startup spearheaded by students from MIT’s Sloan School of Management called Spoiler Alert steps into the scene at the end of the EPA’s food recovery hierarchy in a last ditch attempt to divert food waste from landfills. Spoiler Alert is designed to connect food retailers with large quantities of already rotted food with farmers, composters and bio-energy producers who are capable of “converting that waste into less energy-intensive forms of fertilizer and fuel.”
The last solution in the pyramid is to send food to the landfill, which is unfortunately the easiest and most commonly selected option. Every company’s waste stream is unique and each must determine their best solution and where they can fit into the pyramid. As consumers we can reward companies that make efforts to divert their waste away from landfills with innovative solutions and programs that are benefitting local communities as well as the environment. But all of the responsibility can’t fall on the private sector. Consumers can make smarter choices to alleviate the impact of food waste by not “overbuying” in the grocery store, managing portion sizes, composting spoiled food and not falling prey to eyes that are too big for their stomachs at meal time.
Long live the clean plate club!
Image credit: EPA
Camille Szramiak-Arneberg, a graduate of the College of Communication at Boston University, is an independent corporate sustainability consultant with interest and experience in the food and beverage and healthcare industries. She has worked on projects for clients such as Keurig Green Mountain, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Johnson & Johnson and Nestlé Waters. She is currently working with the Lwala Community Alliance, a nonprofit that addresses women’s empowerment, education and healthcare issues in Kenya.