Food for thought: Clean your plate, save the planet
Every day, thousands of tons of food waste are transported to landfills and incinerators. In 2010, statistics indicated that paper constituted the majority of the nation’s trash by weight, followed by food waste and yard trimmings. While recycling of paper and yard waste has become increasingly routine, removing food waste from the trash stream is not. The EPA now places food waste at the top of the list of materials placed in landfills.
This is an issue not only with regard to trash costs, but for environmental reasons. In landfills, food waste begins quickly to rot and generate methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. It is the result of the anaerobic decomposition that occurs because municipal solid waste is buried and does not receive oxygen. Food waste has made landfill gas emissions one of the largest anthropogenic (resulting from the influence of human beings on nature) sources of methane. Reducing methane emissions from sources like landfills has become one of EPA’s priorities in the fight against climate change.
Among the many producers of food waste, the restaurant industry has acknowledged the issue. The National Restaurant Association has initiated the program Conserve as a means of sharing information and resources across a range of environmental topics including water conservation, building and construction, energy efficiency, waste reduction and resource management. Unilever Food Solutions North America has initiated a nationwide program, United Against Waste, designed with similar goals of creating awareness regarding the issue of food waste, providing tools and resources and sharing best practices with operators in all sectors of the industry
For other organizations, such as Philabundance or City Harvest in New York, reducing food waste is a byproduct of their primary mission to address urban hunger. Philabundance accepts food donations — packaged, canned, perishable and nonperishable foods — from farms, manufacturers and importers, retailers, wholesalers and community food drives. The food is distributed to the Philadelphia community through its several programs. Grocers Against Hunger is a strategic initiative that enables Philabundance to increase emergency food distribution by collecting food that would otherwise be thrown away. Last year, 1.2 million pounds of food were collected from participating organizations including ACME, Bottom Dollar, BJ’s, Giant, Redner’s, Trader Joe’s, Sam’s Club, ShopRite, Target, Walmart and Whole Foods. This year, Philabundance and other local food agencies received 55 tons of food, equating to about 110,000 meals from ShopRite grocery stores near Philadelphia.
Thirty years ago in New York City, City Harvest created a model for food rescue. City Harvest, with its fleet of trucks, cargo bikes and volunteers on foot, collects high-quality surplus food from restaurants, greenmarkets, wholesalers, grocers, farmers and manufacturers and redistributes it to a network of nearly 600 community food programs. It costs City Harvest only 25 cents to rescue and deliver a pound of food. City Harvest rescues more than 115,000 pounds of food each day and feeds more than 1 million people each year.
On other fronts, organizations around Pennsylvania are learning to generate money by keeping food out of landfills. State College Borough is poised to become the first municipality east of the Mississippi River to offer curbside food waste compost collection to all of its residents. In Philadelphia, the first program aimed at food waste recovery is to install 200 garbage disposals in residents’ kitchen sinks. The goal is to redirect food waste from trash to the sewage treatment plant, where it will provide fuel for electricity generation and be transformed into fertilizer.
Next Great City, a coalition of more than 100 organizations — labor groups, civic associations, faith organizations, community development groups and others — seeks in its 2012 agenda for City Council to extend Philadelphia’s recycling success to three additional types of waste, including food waste to be composted. A key goal of the pilot is to document and publicize cost savings in order to promote the use of food waste composting by city businesses.
A properly managed compost pile, exposed to oxygen, undergoes aerobic decomposition, producing carbon dioxide instead of methane. Businesses providing a viable, environmentally responsible means of food waste processing through composting are being developed in the Philadelphia area.
Bennett Compost collects residential food waste from subscribers, one of the few private companies anywhere to do so. Local garden clubs use the finished compost; excess can be returned to subscribers. PhillyCompost also offers food waste collection and organics recycling services in the Philadelphia area.
Instead of wasting our organic — meaning plant-based — resources, we can recycle them into compost and use that compost to grow our food and beautify our gardens. Compost helps replace topsoil — a resource that washes away in amazing quantities every year and is not being replaced. It is estimated that in 40 years, we will run out of living soil if we don’t change our agricultural practices.
The EAC is a group of citizen volunteers working to make Springfield Township more sustainable. The EAC meets on the fourth Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. in the township building. Residents are encouraged to attend to share their views and help with any projects of interest.