30 percent of the global food supply is wasted – roughly 1.3 billion tons of food or the retail equivalent of $1 trillion of food each year. Much of that food never even reaches a table. It’s either left in the field to rot, spoiled in transit or thrown out by consumers who typically buy too much and toss the excess.
We tend to take our food for granted as it is so plentiful, and we aren’t aware of the tremendous amount that’s wasted. In California, at the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority landfills, boxes and boxes of lettuce, baby greens and spinach are dumped. They are brought in because the boxes or bags have been improperly filled, labeled, sealed or cut. In fact, in an 8 month period anywhere from four to eight million pounds of vegetables are dumped.
Food retailers also create waste. Store managers routinely order too much, for fear of running out of a particular product. Good food regularly goes from shelves to dumpsters, sometimes simply being rejected for their looks. Supermarkets toss out $15 billion worth of unsold fruits and vegetables alone each year. Consumers are also share in the blame, throwing out left-overs and throwing away food for being a day after their “best if used by” dates (intended to communicate peak freshness and not food safety). Americans waste the equivalent of $165 billion each year by trashing so much food.
All this food waste is a significant factor in global greenhouse gas emissions. When food waste is sent to a landfill, it decomposes and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s much more potent than carbon dioxide. In fact, a 2013 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that if global food waste was a country, it would be the third largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. That’s bad news for the environment.
The good news is that awareness of food waste has risen. We still need to find better ways to deal with food waste but steps are being taken. Recently, the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which is a coalition of food industry trade groups, intensified their effort to combat food waste by working with supermarket chains on giving better details on the meaning of expiration dates and offering smaller portions of food for sale. But going beyond the social and economic implications of food waste, when it comes to looking for ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions from food waste – we have the technology to help fix it.
Anaerobic digestion isn’t a brand new idea, but it is a process that allows for a large-scale solution to organic waste as it turns the resulting gases into energy. Anaerobic digestion (AD) technology, transforms organic waste refuse into carbon-negative energy in the form of electricity or CNG fuel. This system is not only environmentally friendly, but also economically efficient. And it is accomplished while not only eliminating tons of noxious landfill gases, but significantly reducing dangerous greenhouse gases, and helping companies and communities quickly meet mandated recycling and waste-reduction levels.
Anaerobic digestion is already being done in Europe, and a handful of cities in the US and Canada are experimenting as well. Walt Disney World, the world’s most popular theme park also built an anaerobic digester. Walt Disney World creates a lot of food-related trash but these days, much of those uneaten burgers and buns end up being used to make electricity for the resort’s theme parks and hotels.
Walt Disney World is able to turn most all of their waste stream into productive products. The anaerobic digester at Disney World cost about $30 million to build, so generating enough revenue to repay the capital investment for such a large-scale facility is a big commitment. However, many garbage companies, the Waste Managements and the Republics of the world who run landfills are also looking at anaerobic digesters.
Efforts to recycle food waste are growing nationwide. Right now… there are over 150 communities throughout the United States that are collecting organics at curbside, and it seems to be a national trend. Many of those programs are still voluntary, but larger cities in North America — including San Francisco, Seattle, San Antonio, New York City, Toronto, and Portland, Oregon are moving rapidly ahead in dealing with the collection of organics at the curbside. Many eyes are on New York to see if such an effort can flourish in a dense and more vertical metropolis. San Francisco — the second-densest large city in the U.S. after New York — is considered the front runner, thanks to legislation that set a goal of diverting 75 percent of its waste from landfills by 2010 and achieving “zero waste” by 2020.
Many cities and states are doing good things, but unfortunately the problems are expected to grow worse as the world’s population increases, and by 2030 when the global middle class expands, consumer food waste will cost $600 billion a year.
Too many people don’t realize what kind of environmental impact food waste has on us. Obviously, the best solution is to prevent food waste and food loss in the first place. But we must continue to educate and raise the awareness of food waste. We must continue to innovate and find better ways to reduce and deal with food waste in an environmentally friendly way and rid ourselves from “our culture of waste.”