Did you know that more food ends up in landfills and incinerators than any other single material found in everyday trash? The EPA estimates that food scraps take up 22% of all discarded municipal solid waste. In 2015, that translated to 36.9 million tons of food in the U.S alone. Aside from the obvious “how are the powers that be allowing people to go hungry if there’s all this excess food” question that arises, in the grand scheme of things is tossing out that half-eaten lasagna you know you’re not going to finish before your business trip really so bad? It’s not a battery or a piece of plastic after all. It’s basically just organic matter that turns into compost all on it’s own…right?
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. While it’s true that food is organic material that decomposes regardless of its environment, modern-day landfills — unlike your typical moisture-filled, air-exposed garden composts which produce carbon dioxide-emitting heat that in turn fertilizes new plants and nourishes gastropods — are lined with geo-textiles and clay and collect dehydrating fluid run-off, both of which contribute to a suboptimal anaerobic environment that generates toxic methane gas rather than the life-giving carbon dioxide of a designated compost environment.
Luckily though, steps are being taken on both a local and state level here in New York to address the problem. In August of 2018 for instance, The New York City Department of Sanitation enacted a set of new rules requiring larger restaurants and grocery stores to put their food waste to beneficial use that requires food service business to do one of four things:
Hire a private carter, self-transport, or process their food scraps on site for beneficial use, such as for compost.
Use the food scraps in anaerobic digestion, which is also a way of generating renewable energy.
Donate food that would otherwise be thrown away to a third-party charity or food bank.
Sell or donate the food to a farmer for feedstock, or sell or donate meat by-products to a rendering company.
And just this past spring, the New York State Legislature successfully launched a first-of-its-kind food waste bill. The The Food Donation and Food Scrap Recycling Act is expected to save an estimated 250,000 tons of food from ending up in landfills each year under the following provisions:
The food waste hierarchy has been codified into state law.
The largest generators of food waste — those generating more than 2 tons a week, like grocery stores, colleges and restaurants— are now required to separate wholesome food for donation to food rescue organizations and to report the amount of food they donate each year to the state.
These same large generators are required to recycle any remaining food scraps instead of sending it to landfills. This requirement only applies, however, if they are located within 25 miles of a food scrap recycler (compost or anaerobic digestion facility) with capacity.
While it’s no surprise that we are in favor of such rules given the mandate on food distributors to increase the amount of food donated to food rescue organizations like us, the overall sentiment behind these regulations echoes Rethink’s commitment to sustainability in all shapes in form. Our primary goal has and always will be to maximize donated food into as many meals as possible for those in need, but we are also attuned to the fact that the underlying problem of food excess which allows us to create these meals is a problem in and of itself that needs to be addressed head on across all levels of government, as well as within the private sector.
Smaller restaurants and grocery stores may not face the same legal obligations as the bigger ones just yet, but it’s only a matter of time before such standards are enforced industry-wide. And in the short-term, these new policies bring greater public awareness and understanding to the issues of food excess and hunger -- a positive trickle down effect that further drives up the demand for food rescue organizations, as food purveyors -- big and small, mandated and voluntary -- help lead a cultural shift in the rethinking of food.