As a world-leading agricultural producer, and home to some of the most recognizable and globally successful food-based brands, it’s fair to say that the US loves its food. However, many drivers behind the industry’s success have caused systematic inefficiencies and wasteful consumer habits, pushing the US towards the less than auspicious honour as THE world leader in food waste.
This has significant environmental, financial and social fallout for the nation and the world. The good news, however, is that the US is beginning to take this issue seriously, and today, new laws and legislation, municipal programs, and community initiatives, are being implemented with an overall goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030.
Here, we look at how the US is tackling the issue of food waste and why reduction and donation are preferable to composting, with input from government, businesses, and consumers all participating in more efficient food and organic waste processing.
Farm to Plate — Consumers and Retailers Waste Perfectly Edible Food
Across the world, food waste occurs at all stages of the production/consumption chain, however, as with most developed nations, the largest amount of waste generated in the US is at the consumer level. In fact, according to the USDA, around 31 percent of food was lost at retail and consumer levels in 2010 alone, equating to around 133 billion pounds—a figure that is likely growing year on year.
There are numerous reasons for this high level of waste, and among the most pervasive is a lack of education on produce itself. Unlike Europe, the US has no standardized system of “use by” or “best before”, leaving consumers confused and often reticent to eat perfectly good food which often ends up in landfill.
Efforts are being made to consolidate this system and bring greater clarity on food dating systems. While consumer habits are also changing, taking on greater responsibility for judging whether food is still good to eat, more needs to be done to tackle retailer and restaurant waste generation.
In a country that prizes economic competition above all else, the sheer range of produce on offer is driving waste at the retail level. Shelves are stacked to give the appearance of abundance, anything less than “perfect produce” is discarded, while restaurants attempt to outcompete each other with increasingly larger portions.
The US has some of the largest retailers in the world that have the power to make change, and working with partners throughout the entire food supply chain – from farm to plate — will help work towards significant reductions in unnecessary food waste.
Moving Towards Zero Waste
On a governmental level, the fight against food waste is also gaining traction across the US. In fact, in an effort to increase recycling and reduce all types of waste, states, cities, and municipalities are adopting zero waste initiatives designed to address waste generation from source to eventual disposal.
For example, as part of New York’s GrowNYC Zero Waste Program implemented in 2007, the DSNY set out a range of guidelines for waste reduction, including the curbside collection of food scraps, alongside drop-off sites for composting and a range of events aiming to raise awareness of the importance of correctly processing food waste.
Similar initiatives have sprung up across the country, with both California and Texas leading the way in food waste diversion, offering programs that aim to compost food scraps to extract the maximum benefit from organic waste.
However, as part of the food waste reduction hierarchy, composting is regarded as the penultimate tier of benefit, with only landfill and incineration lower on the scale. The aim then, for governments, businesses, and individuals is to prioritize source reduction and the donation of edible food to those in need.
To this end, Congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act which provides businesses with a certain degree of protection from liability when making donations to non-profits and other organizations that can efficiently distribute edible food.
Private Sector Innovations
While many of the most recent food waste laws and programs have come from the government level, most waste management in the US has historically been taken care of by private waste management companies.
This has been problematic in the past, but renewed stimulus within the sector placing more emphasis on sustainability and transparency has led to innovation, with waste haulers themselves driving better food waste collection, donation, and diversion—particularly for businesses such as restaurants with large amounts of food waste to deal with.
Today, waste haulers are leveraging new technology to make collection more efficient, using data to optimize collection routes, providing insightful diversion metrics to businesses to help businesses monitor what happens to their waste, and also providing education and advice on how to reduce and reuse food waste.
On the consumer level, the private sector has also given individuals more options to donate and compost waste food using apps and other portals. Apps such as OLIO allow residents to connect with likeminded residents to share unwanted produce, while Too Good to Go connects consumers with restaurants and grocery stores that have surplus food at the end of the day, offering big discounts on premium products!
Finally, as the US wakes up to the impact caused by unnecessary food waste, it is hoped that engagement with reduction strategies will rise, with governments, businesses, and consumers all working together to reach zero waste to landfill over the coming decades.
Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices.