Food Waste: 4 Things to Know Before You Throw (it away)

Food waste. It’s heavy, it can smell, it gets sticky and soupy, and it costs a lot to collect and transport. More importantly, when food waste decomposes in a landfill, it can release greenhouse gases that are harmful to the environment. So who in their right mind would dedicate their life and profession to something as unfortunate as food waste?

I would, and I have, because food waste is an egregiously overlooked opportunity – for both economic and environmental reasons – and everyone from individual consumers to restaurant owners to large distribution centers can tap into this opportunity if they just knew where to start.

So in honor of International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW), I’d like to shed some light on the beauty of food recovery and organics recycling and how you – a business owner or an individual – can take part in turning the “nasty” into something natural.

So here’s what’s up with food waste and five things to know before you throw (it away).

Compost 101. For consumers, restaurant owners, and even distribution centers, composting or anaerobic digestion can be easy solutions for managing food waste in a more sustainable and cost effective way. In fact, one Rubicon customer saved 20% on their waste bill annually by diverting food waste to anaerobic digestion. You can set up composting onsite or get a small composting machine. Or, you can schedule regular pickups and have the dirty work done for you. It really is that easy.

Not sure about all the rules of composting? Not to worry. Your compost partner will catch you up to speed based on your typical waste contents. But as a general rule, “If it grows, it goes.” This means fruits, veggies, meat, donuts (although I’m not sure why you’d ever throw away donuts), compostable serviceware, white napkins, paper towels, and other non-plastic coated paper products, and more. I like to say “no metal, plastic, or glass,” it’s just that simple. Vermicomposting is another great onsite option for small scale food waste, because the worms create an amazing soil amendment and they’re fun to keep around!

Depackaging. Grocery stores and distributions centers often send packaged food waste (such as granola bars inside wrappers, inside boxes, surrounded by plastic wrap) to depackaging facilities, which have machines that separate the packaging from the food waste. Wasted food in packaging often happens in large quantities due to recalls, expired products, rejected loads, damaged goods, and other reasons. While depackaging sounds like a costly added step, I’ve actually seen it save businesses money – in one case, to the tune of 15% savings on their overall waste spend by diverting organics from the landfill. The packaging gets routed to recycling whenever possible, and the food waste goes to a digester, composter or to animal feed. Win/Win.

Animal feed. Aka diverting food scraps to feed animals and livestock. This is the second highest use of food waste on the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, so it’s good for the environment, and also your bottom line. Rebates are available in some instances, and one distribution center saved 40% on their annual waste costs by deciding to send food surplus to animal feed instead of to the landfill. Why put it in the garbage when you could feed a cow?

Food Donation. Saving the best for last. Food donation is the first priority on the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy. In the United States, 1 in 8 people struggle with hunger, which is why food donation makes such a huge difference (and why you should do it!). Rubicon partners with Feeding America and other organizations to facilitate food donation for many of our customers, which goes to supporting 46 million Americans in getting the nutrition they need.

So before you throw away good food (or even bad food), consider your options. What might sound like a nice-to-do can actually boost your bottom line and have a larger impact than you might think. Do something good this week – don’t let food go to waste!

Ryan Cooper presented at Waste Expo 2017 with more insights on Food Waste Reduction, Recovery and Organics Recycling for Supermarkets and Distribution Centers.