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Solving America’s Food Waste Problem

by andrew l. yarrow

andrew yarrow is a former reporter for The New York Times. His next book, Look Magazine and Mid-20th Century Mass Media, will be published later this year.

Published March 30, 2021


The salad in the refrigerator has turned brown, nobody has touched the remains of the tuna surprise in days and there’s an unintriguing smell emanating from the cottage cheese stashed behind the OJ.

What will we do? Probably toss the mess in the trash and let somebody else worry about it. What we should do is quite different, though, in light of the massive scale of food waste in the United States.

That’s long been the view of assorted activist groups, along with the nice folks who wear properly aged LL Bean flannel and drive vintage Subaru Outbacks. But there is change in the air (and, one hopes, the landfills): these groups are being joined by growing numbers of state and local officials.

Another Reason to Like Vermont

Look no further than Vermont. Since last July, throwing away food and dumping it with other garbage has been illegal in the Green Mountain State. To make the law work, Vermont also increased its capacity to manage food scraps by funding more haulers, composting facilities and organics transfer stations. Other states have enacted assorted laws to discourage food waste, and dozens of additional bills are wending their way through legislative committees.

Food waste is an economic problem: 35-40 percent of the food produced in the United States, some 80 million tons, is wasted each year. And according to ReFED, an anti-waste research and advocacy organization, that is 12 percent more than a decade ago. Waste occurs all along the supply chain, beginning upstream with farms and manufacturers, though stores, restaurants and households account for more than 80 percent of discarded food.

But food waste is also a moral problem: some 50 million Americans are food-insecure, a number that has risen sharply during the Covid-19 pandemic. And an environmental problem: food is the biggest source of waste in landfills, many of which are not properly isolated from drinking water sources. Moreover, decomposing food releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

So why have we abandoned our mothers’ sage advice to become lifetime members of the Clean Plate Club? “We have enormous refrigerators at home and many of us make infrequent shopping trips, whereas people in some other countries are accustomed to purchasing for a day or two at a time,” explains Andrea Collins, sustainable food systems specialist for the National Resources Defense Council. “Our supermarkets only stock visually perfect produce, leading to upstream waste on farms that don’t have buyers for their crooked carrots and overly large cabbages. Our restaurants have extensive menus and stock ingredients to support them. … And our fear of liability — though unfounded because of [legal] protections — causes food to be wasted rather than redistributed” to people in need.

Carrots — The Inedible Sort

State and municipal laws to curb this waste take both carrot and stick approaches. On the carrot side, tax credits in California, Iowa and Virginia incentivize farmers who give unsold crops to food pantries. In Missouri, all taxpayers are eligible for this kind of tax credit. Restaurants in Arizona can take tax deductions for donating food. In Austin, the city government offers $750 “zero waste event rebates” to organizers who demonstrate that they have not let food go to waste.

As for sticks, organic waste bans and recycling requirements for businesses and institutions generating large amounts of waste are now on the books in Connecticut, Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. In Massachusetts, this applies to any entity generating more than one ton of waste per week. Thus far, Vermont is the only state where bans also apply to households.

“In general, the disposal ban has been successful, even with Covid,” said Josh Kelly, materials management section chief for Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “Facilities like transfer stations can document the increase in waste coming into their facilities. … Another metric of success has been the growth in food scrap haulers.” Meanwhile, food donations have grown substantially since the law was phased in for businesses between 2014 and 2017.

ReFED estimates that a $14 billion investment over 10 years could reduce food waste in the U.S. by 43 million tons per year, resulting in net savings of $73 billion and the creation of 51,000 new jobs.

Other states have also phased in stringent requirements. In 2016, California’s organic waste recycling lawapplied to businesses generating at least eight cubic yards per week; last year, the threshold went down to two cubic yards. The goal is to divert 75 percent of food waste from landfills by 2025 and recover/recycle 20 percent of edible food now tossed.

Several cities have targeted schools, where cafeteria trays typically overflow with mystery meat and abandoned string beans. San Francisco, which set the ambitious goal of diverting all waste from landfills, has launched a food-scrap collection program in some schools. Seattle, which requires homes to have green bins for food and yard waste along with blue bins for recycling other materials, has demonstrated that residential “organics diversion” is less costly than adding food to the garbage load.

Because confusing date-labeling on food contributes to waste, some states have passed laws to require “best if used by” labels on all foods. The Food and Drug Administration has called for this label to be used nationwide.

Capitalism to the Rescue?

Some nonprofits and businesses have taken up the waste reduction cause. For example, the national Food Recovery Network mobilizes college students to collect dining hall food that would be thrown away and to give it to people in need. Sodexo, a global catering services company that prepares food for colleges and hospitals, is a partner in this effort. The company is also involved with the U.S. Food Loss and Waste Champions, a business group that includes Walmart, Kroger, General Mills and Hilton that have made commitments to cut waste by half by 2030. 

Critics — among them Austin Bryniarski, a writer who specializes in sustainability issues — see such corporate efforts as PR moves designed to “wash their hands of their responsibility to ensure their workers are paid — and therefore fed.” For her part, Dana Gunders, ReFED’s executive director, gives high marks to some business efforts, but acknowledges the “risk of … greenwashing.”

That suspicion explains why many observers prefer not to rely on the goodwill of activists and “woke” businesses to move forward. They think a combination of legislation, going hand in hand with society-wide changes in attitudes and behavior about food waste—are essential.

Indeed, growing public awareness is continuing to drive legislative action. About 30 new bills in 12 states were introduced in 2019. New Jersey passed legislation mandating recycling by large generators of food waste last spring, and a Washington, DC, law addressing organic waste management and establishing a reuse and donation program took effect on January 1.

American Particularism

Despite these efforts, the United States lags behind other rich countries. Britain established a waste fee schedule to progressively increase the cost of sending food to landfills. The European Union instituted a Landfill Directive in 1999 that was amended in 2018 to restrict dumping any waste “suitable for recycling” or reuse in landfills by 2030. South Korea banned dumping food in landfills in 2005 and took the more radical step of installing high-tech food waste bins in Seoul where citizens must pay to dump food based on its weight. These measures have increased the amount of food waste that is recycled from 2 percent in 1995 to an astonishing 95 percent in 2019.

In America, federal action could be the key to catching up with the rest of the affluent world. Dana Gunders of ReFED argues that “We need a single federal rule rather than a bunch of state rules. “It could be a bipartisan issue. It’s pretty hard to be for food waste.”

• • •

Divine intervention (or even altruism) isn’t needed to get the job done. ReFED estimates that a $14 billion investment over 10 years could reduce food waste in the U.S. by 43 million tons per year, resulting in net savings of $73 billion and the creation of 51,000 new jobs. Still, the boost offered by Pope Francis won’t hurt: “If we wish to build a future where no one is left behind,” Il Papa weighed in, “we must create a present that radically rejects the squandering of food.”