Food Waste Produces Some Ugly Numbers

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

The Industrial Revolution brought unprecedented economic prosperity to the United States, but it also ushered in an age of disposability. The past lack of knowledge, and in more recent cases willful ignorance, of the environmental impact of our waste and wastefulness has left a wide and deep environmental scar on the planet, especially in coastal and watershed areas such as Rhode Island.

This presents a complex problem with, for the most part, complex solutions to our society, which leads to an oft-heard cliché in ecological restoration circles that there is “no silver bullet” that could solve all of these problems.

While this tired turn of phrase may be true, the simple act of diverting food waste from landfills could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels — foreign or otherwise — enhance our wastewater treatment abilities, help re-regionalize and strengthen our agricultural infrastructure, and depending on how the scraps were handled after collection, could lower our energy costs, bolster local agriculture and extend the life of our landfill.

Food loss occurs at all stages in the food production system. At the farm level, losses are attributed to pre-harvest losses due to weather, disease and predation, harvest losses attributed to mechanization, production practices and decisions, and storage losses due to insects, mold, deterioration, shrinkage and spoilage.

The food processing and wholesaling industry contends with loss through the removal of inedible portions such as bones, blood, peels and pits, and the discard of substandard products such as bruised or blemished produce.

Food retailers lose upwards of 5.4 billion pounds of food per year — about 2 percent of the edible food supply — with dairy and fruit and vegetable spoilage accounting for half of those losses, according to a 1995 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report.

The USDA report also found that food loss by consumers and foodservice reached 90 billion pounds in 1995 — accounting for 26 percent of the edible food supply — with fresh fruits and vegetables accounting for nearly 20 percent of those losses.

The study estimated that food loss at the retail, consumer and foodservice levels to be about 27 percent of the nearly 356 billion pound yearly supply of edible food in the United States. A 2004 University of Arizona study, however, considered losses at the farm and processing/packaging levels in its estimated total food losses, bringing the estimated food loss to nearly 50 percent.

A 2008 study conducted by the United Nations found that in the United States about 30 percent of the food produced here annually and worth nearly $50 billion is thrown into the garbage.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States spends $1 billion annually on disposing of food waste.

The EPA’s 2008 Municipal Solid Waste Report stated that organic waste represented 56.9 percent of the 249.6 million tons of solid waste generated in the United States. That organic material includes paper and cardboard, yard trimmings and food waste, comprising 31 percent, 13.2 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively, of total generated solid waste.

And while the report also showed that 55.5 percent of paper and cardboard and 64.7 percent of yard trimmings are recovered for reuse or recycling of some kind, a mere 2.5 percent — less than 800,000 tons — of the 31.79 million tons of food waste generated annually in the United States is diverted from landfills.

While it’s true that most organic material will eventually break down and reduce in volume in a landfill, this digestion is occurring without the presence of oxygen. The major byproduct of this anaerobic digestion is methane, and it’s a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. One molecule of methane lasts about 20 times longer than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and retains 7.6 times more heat over a 500-year period.

Most modern landfills are equipped with methane recovery systems, usually designed to create electricity by burning the methane, but many older landfills are emitting methane directly into the atmosphere, including a site at the Central Landfill in Johnston.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what to do with surplus edible food; you feed people with it. The 2004 University of Arizona study concluded that edible food recovery rates of 10 percent and 25 percent would provide enough food for the equivalent of 8 million and 20 million people, respectively.

But what do we do with all of the food waste that is not fit for human consumption?

Historically, most food waste has ended up buried in landfills or burned in incinerators across the country, save for the small amount that is diverted to animal feed operations. But environmental policymakers have recently begun to scrutinize these methods of disposal, and in many cases have found them not only unsustainable, but also unprofitable.

Though humankind has known how to compost for centuries, most folks in densely populated areas lack the space, and an even broader slice of our ever-busier society lacks the time to care for a home or business compost pile.

Rhode Island’s incredible shrinking landfill is no secret. By the most recent state Department of Environmental (DEM) estimates, if we keep tossing things in the trash at our current rate, the sixth and final site at the Central Landfill will be full in about 22 years. It’s a sure bet that trash disposal costs will skyrocket when we have to ship our trash out of state, whether over the road or by barge.

A combination of state and municipal composting and anaerobic digestion/electricity production could easily reduce the state’s solid waste by a quarter annually, extending the life of the state landfill by up to 10 years and creating better growing conditions for Rhode Island’s farms by providing them with nutrient-rich compost.

It’s time that we started thinking about food waste in a new way. Maybe what we now throw away can actually contribute to a sustainable future.