How Your City Can Tackle Food Waste, Too
Food waste is a bigger conversation than that spinach-gone-bad in the back of your fridge. Food waste is a massive, systematic problem, and cities are finally doing something about it.
Many people don’t think twice about tossing those leftovers in the trash. If they do, the guilt doesn’t last much longer than the trash lasts before you leave it on the curb. However, food waste is part of a larger problem that has intense climate change implications.
One group called Project Drawdown has ranked the top 80 necessary steps needed to make vigorous, but doable, effects on the energy and climate state of the world. Reducing Food waste is the third most important step out of 80 proposed solutions to affecting climate solutions, according to Project Drawdown.
The top five on the list, from first to fifth, are as follows: refrigerant management, wind turbines (onshore), reduced food waste, plant-rich diet, and tropical forests. See the full list here.
“If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter,” according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. To put that into perspective, in the U.S. alone, food waste generates the same amount of greenhouse gases as—wait for it—37 million cars, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council. That accounts for both energy used in agriculture to grow unused food as well as the methane that’s released when the food rots in landfills.
That’s the other thing: most people think the majority of damage that comes from food waste is the trash aspect, and the piling of uneaten stuff. But it’s a lot more than that.
About 40 percent of America’s food goes uneaten. That is almost half of all food produced that goes from farm to fork to landfill. The environmental issue with that is not just a simple waste of food, but it includes the resources used to grow that food, the carbon emitted in cultivating uneaten food, the energy used to deliver and stock food in stores, and the methane that is emitted while the food decomposes in the landfill.
This problem is a lot bigger than we let on.
However, not all is doomed—yet. Cities are coming up with solutions. Because most municipalities run their own sanitation systems, deputy food waste director at the Natural Resources Defense Council Yvette Cabrera said “they’re uniquely positioned to tackle the problem.”
Below are are the three main strategies cities are using, according to a New York Times article:
Seoul, South Korea and Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. are two examples of cities going above and beyond to tackle food waste—mainly through legislation.
For example, in Seoul, the city charges a fee for food waste, and it currently recycles 95 percent of its food waste, compared to less than 2 percent in 1995. How does it work? Families pay by weight. At recycling sites, the waste is processed: part is used for biofuels, while some is turned into fertilizer for urban farms. The city also has over 6,000 automated bins where residents can weigh their food waste and pay their fees, according to the World Economic Forum.
Seattle, Washington has been using similar approaches. In 2015, the city introduced an anti-waste program that, among other things, made it illegal to toss out food. A year later, this was dismissed as unconstitutional when a judge dismissed the measure’s enforcement provision, saying trash collectors should not have to snoop through garbage for edible morsels.
However, the law is still being considered in different forms. For example, the program included other ideas for tackling food waste like education campaigns focused on waste reduction, smarter shopping ideas, and smarter composting strategies. “The right kind of food composting system produces lower emissions than a similar volume of food in a landfill, and you get something useful from composting: fertilizer,” says the Times article.
In Seattle, compost is doing well—more than 50 percent of food waste gets composted, according to Hans Van Dusen, the city’s solid waste contracts manager. And, waste sent to landfills is at a record low of 0.81 pounds per person per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Businesses Play a Huge Role
While the average consumer does play a part in contributing to food waste, the reality is, businesses play an even bigger role. Cities have restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, and malls. This many forums for food presents a huge opportunity for food waste—but also an opportunity to reduce food waste.
New York City is one of the leaders of compost. The city works with supermarkets and chefs in the city to run the largest composting program in the country. This is part of a multimillion-dollar program to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions by turning food scraps and yard waste into compost and, then, clean energy. The goal is to get the city to zero waste by 2030.
But New York City’s efforts don’t stop there. In addition to the composting program, the city runs an online food donation portal, food waste fairs and waste-reduction challenges that recognize successful efforts by restaurants and supermarkets.
If you still aren’t aware of the amount of food waste contributed by restaurants, chew on this: of the city’s four million tons of thrown out food every year, 500,000 tons come from restaurants. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that reducing commercial food waste by five percent would actually save over 120,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere each year.
“Baby steps so far, but we want to be sure that restaurants have the tools to do well,” said the city’s sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia. “There are some seriously committed chefs out there to ensuring that nothing gets wasted.”
In France, national law there requires large supermarkets to donate, not throw away, food that is still edible—a measure that has largely increased food donations to charities, according to the government.
Other cities are following suit to reduce their food waste. Los Angeles, Denver, and Baltimore are all setting public goals to decrease waste, expand curbside composting and work with chefs and restaurants to raise awareness about food waste.
Not all food waste has to be composted, or sent to the landfill. For surplus food that is still edible, there are ways to sustainable use that, too.
Food rescue programs are incredibly important, but they don’t get enough credit. Food rescue programs are not climate programs, strictly speaking. However, many of them have the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also helping those in need of food.
Milan, Italy is one impressive leader of food rescue movements. Since the year 2015, the city has been redistributing surplus food to homeless people—in 2015 alone, 15 tons of food was given to the homeless in just a few weeks with the help of chef Massimo Bottura. Since then, the city has written the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact which sets international food waste protocol for cities. It also led a charge that helped the national government pass food waste legislation.
The food policy has thus far been signed by 207 cities around the world with over 450 million inhabitants.
Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire and former mayor of New York City who is now running for president, does not shy from this topic, either. Bloomberg was one of few U.S. representatives who attended the United Nations climate change talks in Madrid this week. Bloomberg and Gov. Jerry Brown of California co-founded the coalition, America’s Pledge, with the purpose of helping the United States stick to the goals of the Paris climate agreement, despite President Trump’s plan to abandon the pact.
Bloomberg is one of many voices calling for immediate action to effect climate change and carbon emissions. Read the New York Times article on food waste to learn more about Bloomberg’s role during the UN meeting, as well as some general goals of the meeting to best tackle climate change.
The takeaways on the food waste topic? First, this problem is massive, and systemic. It affects city functionality, human quality of life, and the climate. Second, this is a problem that does have solutions, and many cities are already making strides and allocating resources to affect change. Third, we aren’t done yet and we have a long way to go to reduce food waste around the globe.
After all, the world wastes almost half of the food it produces.