We Can’t Compost Our Way Out of a Food Waste Crisis

Food recovery is crucial to mitigating greenhouse gases from food

Food waste.
Food waste material processed by Compost Cab workers to create compost at Howard University Community Compost Cooperative on Wednesday, August 2 , 2017, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In 2019, Oregon researchers went digging through trash in 230 homes. The study, which aimed to understand how much food people were wasting, surveyed both urban and rural homes and asked residents to keep diaries of what they threw away. What they found in the garbage was mostly food — the majority of it edible.

Participants in the study had thrown away 103 servings of soup, 41 loaves of bread, 103 servings of beans, and 52 potatoes. They said menu items had spoiled, they’d gotten tired of eating them, or that the food just didn’t taste good as leftovers. Of course they wanted to discard fewer groceries, but nearly three-quarters said they felt “less guilty” when they composted this food waste. Composting, the researchers noted, seemed to feel different than wasting food.

These days, food makes up the largest share of landfill material — 24% — releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as it decomposes. Composting, for many, offers a solution: Instead of sending organics to landfills, the process turns it back into nutrients for farming, landscaping, and other projects.

Composting dates to at least the Stone Age. In the early 2000s, it began gaining ground in the United States as a municipal waste management tool. Between 2014 and 2017, communities with access to food waste collection grew by 65%, which means that at least 5.1 million homes could contribute to curbside composting initiatives. Several cities have mandated participation, including Seattle, Boulder, and San Francisco. Vermont became the first state to ban sending food to landfills in July 2020. Composting programs offer a straightforward, feel-good option for residents, who only need to throw something in one bin instead of another to help reduce their contribution to the local landfill.

But composting alone isn’t enough to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our food supply, and experts argue that we need legislative changes to reflect that. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Food Recovery Hierarchy” model, which offers a guide to preventing and diverting food waste, we should be focusing on “food recovery” — reducing excess food where we can and feeding any extra food to humans and animals. Composting comes second to last on the model’s list of solutions to wasted food — just above landfilling.

“In terms of impact, it’s somewhere around eight to one when you look at the greenhouse gas footprint of sending something to compost versus preventing it from going to waste,” says Dana Gunders, executive director of the nonprofit Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data, better known as ReFED. The organization has spent the last six years quantifying food waste and offering solutions, including their latest Roadmap to 2030, which outlines how the United States can cut food waste by 50% in under a decade.

Redirecting unwanted food to humans might sound obvious, but until recently, the U.S. didn’t have formal policies to put the process into action. The good news is that it’s changing, Gunders says, and one state, in particular, is leading the way: California’s Senate Bill 1383 establishes a legislative model for applying, at scale, a strategy that doesn’t just manage waste — but aims to stop it before it is created.

California’s Senate Bill 1383, which becomes mandatory in 2022, expands organic waste collection to all jurisdictions in California. By 2025, the bill will require 75% of organic waste to be diverted from landfills. This will happen through improved food waste prevention, by diverting surplus food to food banks, and by making use of decomposition tools like composting and anaerobic digestion, which turns food waste into biogas and fertilizer.

More impressively, the bill sets a target to recover 20% of edible fare for human consumption. “It’s essentially a food donation law,” Gunders says. One in four Californians face food insecurity, and the pandemic exacerbated the issue, with food banks distributing 70% more food in 2020 than years prior in the Bay Area. SB-1383 encourages jurisdictions to set up the necessary infrastructure (like transportation and refrigeration) for more donations, and large grocers and restaurants to send their extra food to food banks.

Integrating food waste prevention and management into the bill represents a massive shift in perspective, says Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for the environmental organization Californians Against Waste. Historically, composting efforts and organizations working to recover food worked in parallel. This bill brings those efforts under the same umbrella.

Still, there’s much to learn about which tools will actually reduce food waste. San Francisco became the first city in the United States to mandate composting for businesses and residents, and several other cities have followed. Now, years of experience with composting means the state already understands how policies can decrease organic waste in landfills.

But when it comes to food recovery, Lapis says, “I feel like we’re guessing a lot. We don’t exactly know if the policies we’re suggesting are going to get to 20%.” Food recovery targets will be an opportunity for the rest of the country to learn what works and what doesn’t, he says.

Meeting the state’s food recovery goal will likely require strategies beyond donation structures, Lapis says. If food banks are going to be a recovery tool, they’ll need funding in addition to donations and volunteers. A utility-style tax for scraps might be one way to accomplish that in the future, he says.

Better distribution of surplus food shouldn’t be seen as a food security solution, say experts. As the pandemic illustrated, food insecurity fluctuates based on income, and distributing meals differently won’t provide people with consistent livable wages.

“Food recovery organizations always remind us that food insecurity is not a food waste problem, it’s a societal problem,” Lapis says. “We’re not going to solve hunger by reducing food waste.”

Meanwhile, the choices we make in our kitchens are important to reducing food waste. “The holy grail is: How do we get people to waste less in their homes?” Gunders says. Changing people’s habits isn’t easy, especially from a policy perspective. “It’s pretty hard to force people to [waste less] or even incentivize it very well,” Gunders says.

ReFED estimates that some 2.3 million tons of greenhouse gas could be saved through education campaigns — the equivalent of taking nearly 500,000 cars off the road for a year. And there have been some successes. An ongoing British campaign, “Love Food, Hate Waste,” led to a 15% reduction in household food waste over eight years by offering simple solutions and cooking classes to maximize food use. Standardizing expiration dates across the country would confuse fewer consumers into throwing safe food away. Manufacturers could adjust packaging size for common products like bread to better match how much consumers eat. In a crisis like the pandemic, some have even considered spray-on packaging to make produce last longer.

Other countries have just made it more expensive to squander snacks. In Seoul, for example, compulsory weigh stations charge residents based on how much food they discard. The city saw 47,000 fewer tons of food waste over the last six years and increased food recycling from 2% in 1995 to 95% today. Most waste gets upcycled into compost; some gets fed to animals.

As Seoul illustrates, composting and waste reduction go hand in hand. “There will always be banana peels,” Gunders says. Even if composting can’t make quite as dramatic of an impact on greenhouse gases, it has lots of other benefits: composting helps retain water in soils, reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, and may even aid in carbon sequestration, for example.

Composting may ultimately teach people to waste less, too. “Once you get people to separate their food from the rest of their waste, then they can see it more and it can be measured more easily,” Gunders explains. And measuring food waste will help reveal whether we’re making progress at minimizing it.

Plenty of U.S. regions don’t even have convenient composting programs yet. Many existing facilities only process yard waste, not food. Frank Franciosi, executive director at the U.S. Composting Council, estimates we need another 2,000 facilities handling food waste to get organics entirely out of our landfills.

Everyone can do a better job wasting less. The pandemic might even be helping us get there. Grocery sales are high, Gunders says, and people are cooking more. Building those skills gives you more to work with when it comes to leftovers. People describe putting more of their pantries to use. “I do see a lot of promise in some of the behavior shifts that the pandemic is forcing,” Gunders says.

Whether we can continue those habits remains to be seen. But eating the promising vegetables in the crisper drawer definitely outperforms turning them back into soil. “I don’t think people should feel bad about composting,” Gunders says. “I just don’t think they should feel too good about it.”

Journalist covering the environment, health, and outdoor recreation. colleenstinchcombe.com

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