Somewhere between farm and fork, Americans waste up to 40% of our food. Organic waste is the single-most common item to end up in landfills; this is an underrepresented detriment to the environment: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “in the landfill, food scraps decompose and give off methane, a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more powerful in global warming as carbon dioxide.” The economic costs of food waste are enormous as well. NRDC estimates nearly $165 billion worth of food is wasted annually in the United States alone.
Massachusetts has begun implementation the most aggressive state policy to reduce food waste in the country. Beginning on October 1st, any business or institution that produces at least one ton of food waste every week must now divert that waste away from landfills. These businesses and institutions include restaurants, supermarkets, and universities, among others. This act is filled with positive intentions: reducing the state’s carbon footprint, supporting hunger relief organizations, and producing green energy.
Institutions that qualify under this new law are banned from sending their food waste to a landfill. Instead, they are encouraged to:
a) Reduce as much waste as possible;
b) Donate usable food to hunger relief organizations, such as food banks, shelters, and soup kitchens; and
c) Divert any extra food to composting, animal feed, and biofuel programs.
Because of the emphasis on diverting waste to useful sources, Massachusetts has provided online resources for qualifying establishments to find recycling facilities. The local agricultural economy is supported by the significant increase of animal feed and compost to Massachusetts farms.
Furthermore, diversion of solid waste can go to anaerobic digestion facilities; bacteria process food and turn it into biogas, which is used for electricity and heating/cooling. Biogas is a growing clean energy industry that is saving Massachusetts millions of dollars. In fact, the facility that serves the Boston area is estimated to save the state government $15 million every year because of its biogas production. As part of the food waste ban, the state is offering up to $1 million in grants and low-interest loans to private businesses that start anaerobic digestion facilities. This policy is part of Governor Patrick’s larger goal of reducing the state’s carbon footprint by combining renewable energy goals with waste reduction and economic development.
For the past year, USDA has been encouraging restaurants, supermarkets, and food service companies to take the “Food Waste Challenge” and set their own goals to reduce waste. Several cities have taken the pledge, such as Seattle, New York, and San Francisco. Massachusetts’ new law is different: it signals a transition from voluntary programs to policy mandates. States have the unique power of proposing and enforcing bans on excessive food waste, while simultaneously supporting their agricultural and energy sectors.
In order to make real progress, other states and cities should follow suit and create food waste bans to divert organic waste from landfills and into useful alternatives.
State and local governments aren’t the only ones that can make an impact on food waste. As an issue that reaches every level from farm to fork, many different institutions can make a difference. Consumers should be more conscious about the amount of food they buy and conserve, and supermarkets can develop new ways to package food to reduce waste. For example, a new supermarket in Berlin, Germany, is a new “Zero Waste Supermarket” that sells every item in bulk.
Universities should invest in diversion of food waste to donate or to compost -- or even to start treatment facilities of their own. For example, UMass-Amherst has begun constructing their own anaerobic digester which is intended to take in food waste from campus and surrounding towns and generate clean energy back to campus.
Addressing food waste is a practical way that communities and states can take real steps toward reducing their carbon footprint, saving scarce landfill space, and growing their economies.
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