Food Waste

A War Against Food Waste

A food industry alliance is planning a three-year initiative to reduce the tremendous amount of food that Americans still throw in the garbage even as they grow somewhat more conscientious about recycling paper and yard trimmings.

The effort, announced by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an alliance of food, beverage and packaging makers, aims both to reduce the amount of food sent to landfills and to increase donations to food banks for the poor. The effort is being carried out and financed in concert with the Food Marketing Institute.

A substantial portion of food is thrown away while still fully edible because of cosmetic blemishes or overstocking. The manufacturers association acknowledges that changing consumer habits will be a challenge. “This is not a problem that will be solved in three years,” said Meghan Stasz, a sustainability consultant for the group.

According to the most recent available statistics, more than 30 million tons of food was dumped in landfills in 2009, making food by far the most abundant material there by weight, the federal Environmental Protection Agency says. (That calculation excludes industrial, construction and hazardous waste.) This amounts roughly to 200 pounds a year for every man, woman and child in the United States.

The environmental consequences are considerable. A 2009 article published in the journal PLos calculated that food that ends up getting tossed accounts for almost one-quarter of all freshwater use in the country. Additionally, rotting food in open landfills releases significant quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas with a warming potential that is 20 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

The lack of progress in redirecting food waste from landfills has persisted as something of an anomaly over the last two decades. While overall recycling rates, including the composting of yard trimmings, has risen by 10 percent since 1990, the amount of food composted or redirected from landfills has decreased. Today, only 2 percent of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled; by contrast, 62 percent of paper is recycled.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute convened a leadership committee in June whose co-chairmen hold sustainability positions at General Mills, one of the world’s largest food processors, and Publix, the grocery store chain. Also represented on the committee are Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks, and Waste Management, a national waste removal company, among others.

The committee will first conduct a comprehensive survey of the sources and causes of food waste, “from food processing facility to fork,” as Ms. Stasz put it. Then the initiative will identify public policies that could expand the diversion of food from landfills to food banks. Third, the committee will identify new technologies and industry practices that support the other goals.

One example already proposed is locating food processors, retailers and restaurants in close geographical proximity –- a move that would not only cut transport distances but also make compost services a more viable choice economically.

A 1997 study by the economic research arm of the Department of Agriculture figured that about 10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

By Dylan Walsh