Food Waste Recycling and Recovery
Food Waste Recycling and Recovery
Although we should prioritize preventing food waste from occurring in the first place, thereby reducing the source of food waste, how should we move forward when we do encounter food waste?
The EPA has created a Food Recovery Hierarchy which details the processes that are preferred when we have food waste. According to the EPA, “The top levels of the hierarchy are the best ways to prevent and divert wasted food because they create the most benefits for the environment, society and the economy.”(3) After source reduction, the next steps include food recovery and recycling, but what do these mean?
Need a background or refresher on the science of food production and food waste decomposition?
(For the purpose of this post, “food waste” can also mean: all organic and biodegradable materials.)
It is likely that you know that food waste should be dealt with differently than regular Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), but do you know why? There are a few reasons.
From a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, when food decomposes, it does so in different ways depending on what type of environment it’s in. In an aerobic environment, where there is ample oxygen to add to the chemical equation, food and other organic matter (made of carbon) decompose and release carbon dioxide- CO2. An aerobic environment could be your compost pile in the backyard, or in leaf litter or other natural environments where plants fall and decompose all of the time. In anaerobic environments, those without oxygen, however, when organic matter decomposes, it has fewer oxygen molecules to distribute amongst the carbon molecules, thereby creating mostly methane- CH4. Landfills are anaerobic environments, as are anaerobic digesters.
You probably know carbon dioxide as a major contributor to the pollution causing climate change, or a greenhouse gas. Methane is also a greenhouse gas, which absorbs incoming heat from the sun. The major difference between these two gases is their relative potency- how well they absorb incoming heat. One molecule of methane is able to absorb the same amount of heat that, on average, twenty five molecules of carbon dioxide can. Flip that around. If there are 25 molecules of methane, they absorb the same amount of heat that would take 625 molecules of carbon dioxide to equate!
In a landfill, organic matter takes years to decompose, compared to a number of days or weeks in an aerobic environment. And when it does decompose in a landfill, it releases methane, which moves its may through the landfill mass, and out emissions stacks, directly into the atmosphere as greenhouse gas emissions.
It is imperative, therefore, for us to think more critically about where we want our massive amounts of organic waste to be decomposing.
Additionally, you can think about organic and food waste from a resource perspective. Think about the process of plants growing. They start as seeds, which need sunlight, water, and soil to grow. As time goes on, they use these resources to create food for themselves, and grow into full plants, with stems, leaves, and sprouts. How do they do it? They are totally reliant on the nutrients that the soil provides them- among them, phosphorus and nitrogen. Imagine a plant’s stems and roots as straws, sucking up nutrients from the soil and growing upwards.
When we pick these plants, we eat or use their nutrients, but not all of them. The food waste we create- the leftovers, ends, stems, peels, rinds, etc. all still contain vital nutrients. When we send these scraps to the landfill, we never let those nutrients fall back into the soil, to replenish that which it used to grow in the first place! The typical practice of sending organics to a landfill has thus created a one-way, linear, flow of nutrients, which is not the way that the natural world functions. To keep our soil healthy, and capable of producing more food, plants, and vegetation, we need to be returning those borrowed nutrients to it.
Reduction, Recovery, Recycling
Let’s consider this information when we think about the hierarchy of food waste. The EPA suggests that we prioritize food waste in the following order (from most to least preferred):
Source Reduction —> Feed Hungry People —> Feed Hungry Animals —> Industrial Uses —> Composting —> Landfill/Incinerator
For the purposes of this post, we will focus on the recycling and recovery options for food waste. We will consider “Recycling” to include: Industrial Uses and Composting. For “Recovery,” we’ll focus on Feeding Hungry People and Animals.
Like any other form of industrial (and local) production, the amount of time, energy, and resources used to create a single product are significant! Farmers are incredibly hard-working, and their jobs don’t stop, all year-round. Consider a piece of corn, or other vegetable, and its lifespan: from seed to plant, from plant to crop- picked, washed, packed, transported, bought. That one vegetable has been given a lot of energy since its beginning. When we think about all of this energy and time, it’s hard to justify just sending it to the landfill, or even the compost, to never serve its purpose as food. It would be very wasteful- of time and energy- to do that.
This is why we prioritize Food Recovery over Food Recycling. Much like any material resource- it makes more sense to reuse it if possible, instead of sending it to be reconfigured into a new product altogether.
Food recovery is accomplished by finding hungry mouths to feed, and a way to get excess food to them. You can probably name a few ways off the bat- soup kitchens and food pantries are common. In the Rochester area, these examples exist, as well as other innovative solutions.
Flower City Pickers
is an incredible example of food recovery in Rochester which “redistributes leftover and discarded produce from Rochester's Public Market to local homeless shelters, halfway houses, soup kitchens, food pantries, and other organizations with need for food.”(2)
Learn more about the organization and sign up to volunteer on their website.
FCP is run by volunteers, and a number of dedicated staff members, who work to send edible food to people, and inedible food to compost operations and pig farms for feed supply. Since its founding in 2015, FCP has diverted more than 300,000 pounds of food from the landfill. Their mission? To feed people, not landfills.
There are other ways in which communities work to redistribute food to hungry mouths. Social media has made it possible to quickly share information about available food. For example, Facebook groups can enable members of a community- whether it’s a school, college, neighborhood, etc.- to post about leftover food from events, extra food available at their business or home, or extra foods grown in gardens, to share with those who may want to eat it.
When food waste is not up to the standard for human consumption, it can be sent to other hungry, animal, bellies. Most typically, this food waste creates feed for farm animals, pigs being a common sink.
Food waste which can’t be diverted to Recovery can be used for recycling. Food waste can be producers of energy, compost and fertilizers, and other bioproducts like oils and gases for industrial uses. The Food Recovery Hierarchy places Industrial Uses next in line.
Some of these industrial uses include:
Bioproduct Production: extracting oils, chemicals, and other parts of food, to be used as fuels, additives, or products themselves. Think biofuels, ethanol, and “plant fibers” used to make products available for sale.
Compost and Fertilizers: whether food is decomposed in a typical (industrial) compost pile out in the open air, or in an anaerobic digester, in a carefully controlled industrial chamber, the nutrients in the final product (sometimes like sludge, and sometimes like soil) are very valuable, especially for farmers and others who want to bolster their soil quality. They can be sold as competitors to typical fertilizers.
Biogas Production: Anaerobic digesters aim to accomplish the anaerobic decomposition process in a totally controlled environment, where the methane and other emissions can be captured, “scrubbed” clean, and made into biofuels and gas that can be used for energy and heating purposes.
As we touched on before, composting is probably the most common solution we consider for food waste management. Composting in a traditional setting entails aerating and periodically moving around piles of organic matter, which include both green (like food and grass clippings) and brown organics (hardier fibers, like wood, and compostable paper products). These piles rely on variables like water, air, sunlight, worms, and millions of microbes to break down whole items into a product that resembles soil. Without worms, bugs, tiny bacteria and microbes, food would never decompose!
In vermicomposting facilities, the main contributors to decomposition are worms! Worms are able to eat half of their body weight every day, and are absolutely critical to good soil health and the creation of compost.
How can you participate in food recovery and recycling?
After your efforts to reduce unnecessary food waste have been employed, the next step is to consider any food that will become waste from whatever process you’re operating- your kitchen, your business, etc. Consider these options for food recovery:
Contact a local food pantry, soup kitchen, or shelter to ask about their policy about donated foods. Some accept perishable foods from independent donors, and some do not. Know what is acceptable before you show up, so you’re sure your donation will be utilized!
Find or create a social media platform to connect you and others locally, where donations and excess food can be posted about and shared.
Think about your social connections- is there anyone who really loves a type of food you’ve got leftover? Someone who makes a lot of one dish or who could really use what you don’t want? Reach out and let them know, and start the dialogue about redistributing food amongst yourselves!
Do some research about local farms, and whether any would be open to accepting food waste as animal feed.
When it comes to food recycling, households and organizations can contribute their organics to composting companies that will pick up from their curbside. Additional ways to send organics to composting or industrial uses include:
Creating a compost pile in your backyard.
Building a vermicompost bin for your house or office.
Asking your current waste hauler about the services they offer for organics disposal.
Inquire about local community gardens (or a friend or neighbor’s garden) to see if they currently maintain a compost pile, and would be willing to accept your food scraps.
Do you live near a University or college? See if they have available resources for food recycling. Maybe they even conduct research about food waste, and would be willing to take your contributions!
Lastly, think creatively about the resources your food waste includes, and where they can serve another purpose than in a landfill. Many more solutions exist than are listed here, and sometimes all it takes is a focus on solving the problem and knowledge of your community and locality.
Food waste reduction is a lofty goal, but by prioritizing waste management strategies and using creativity and innovation, we can make a significant impact on our own homes, and ultimately our communities.
- Sarah Quirk, Zero Waste Schools Lead, Impact Earth