Food waste has become an enormous global problem, with an estimated one third of the world’s current food supply for human consumption being lost or wasted every year. And the solutions aren’t simple, as food waste is as complex a problem as it is dire. Food waste occurs at every step along the supply chain, including producers and distributors who reject imperfect food, stores and restaurants that discard uneaten food, and consumers who throw away leftovers or allow food to spoil. In a world where 795 million people go hungry every day, food waste is unacceptable.
In addition, 97% of food waste ends up in landfills, and the methane gas released from rotting food — the same thing that’s released in your refrigerator drawers causing perishables to expire faster — is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. So reducing food waste has an environmental impact as well, playing an important role in curbing climate change.
Addressing food waste through prevention, redistribution and composting is an emerging focus for city leaders. Inspired, in part, by the report Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, by Dana Gunders, staff scientist at the NRDC, food waste is a hot topic.
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Despite the magnitude of the problem, solutions exist to prevent food waste — many of them fairly easy and inexpensive to implement. In fact, a great deal of food waste prevention can be accomplished simply by changing people’s habits.
Everyone can help reduce food waste and there are steps that elected officials, city managers and other leaders can take to make food waste prevention a widespread practice. Countless resources, tools and initiatives to prevent waste and draw attention to the issue have already been created:
- France became the first country to ban supermarkets from disposing of unsold food. Supermarkets in France now donate unsold food to charities and food banks.
- The Food Too Good to Waste toolkit provides families and communities both strategies and tools resulting in a nearly 50% reduction in preventable food waste.
- Just Eat It, a documentary film about food waste, is screened around the world.
- National Geographic features the ugly foods movement in its cover story, How ‘Ugly’ Fruits and Vegetables Can Help Solve World Hunger.
- ReFED — a collaboration of more than thirty business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing United States food waste — creates numerous resources, including a Solutions to Food Waste interactive chart and the Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent.
- WRAP, a UK organization that works in “the space between governments, businesses, communities, thinkers and individuals,” creates the Love Food Hate Waste program to educate and instruct people about food waste prevention strategies.
- SHARECITY is crowdsourcing information about food sharing activities enabled by Information and Communications Technologies (ICT). They’re creating a searchable database of 100 cities around the world.
- Save Food, a joint initiative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Messe Düsseldorf, and interpack, forms to fight world food waste and loss through a global alliance of all stakeholders.
- Italy offers tax breaks to supermarkets that donate their waste food to charity.
- FoodCloud announces a ground-breaking partnership with Tesco Ireland to redistribute surplus food from 147 grocery stores to charities and community groups.
- The Real Junk Food Project creates cafés in the UK that serve restaurant-quality food from produce headed to the landfill.
- The Think.Eat.Save campaign of the Save Food Initiative is created to “galvanize widespread global, regional and national actions, and catalyze more sectors of society to be aware and to act.”
- LA Kitchen recovers healthy, local food from the waste stream to feed the hungry and provide culinary training to unemployed adults, particularly adults exiting prison as well as foster kids aging out of the system.
- A growing number of apps are created to reduce food waste, including Waste No Food, Copia, Zero Percent, Pare Up, Spoiler Alert, FoodKeeper, Food Cowboy and many more.
- Imperfect Produce launches to deliver ugly fruits and vegetables in the Bay Area.
- End Food Waste’s Ugly Foods movement grows into a global community connected by social media platforms.
For city officials, reducing food waste remains a matter of educating residents, providing the necessary infrastructure and creating a consistent messaging strategy that addresses both sides of the issue: preventing food waste and recycling organic matter once there is waste.
Shareable connected with three food waste reduction experts to get their recommendations for city leaders in the effort to help reduce food waste on a municipal level. We spoke with Cassie Bartholomew and Jeff Becerra from Stop Waste in Alameda County, California, which has one of the largest food scrap recycling programs in the country, and Veronica Fincher, Waste Prevention Program Manager at Seattle Public Utilities in Seattle, Washington, where it’s now illegal to throw food and food waste into the trash.
Their responses include great tips to prevent food waste, strategic partnerships for food redistribution and recycling options for food waste once it is generated. Here are their top 27 recommendations.
1. Look to Prevention First
Just as the materials recycling hierarchy places reduction as the best option, ahead of reusing and recycling, food waste has a similar hierarchy. Preventing food waste is a far more desirable option than dealing with it once it’s been created.
Composting is certainly better than letting food waste rot in the landfill. But it’s also important to remember that when food is wasted, all of the resources used to produce the food, including water, are also wasted.
As Fincher explains, at the municipal level they’re trying to reduce the tonnage of materials going to the landfill through both composting and prevention.
“It saves everybody money if we don’t have stuff going into the waste stream period,” she says. “It’s a matter of trying to use resources wisely, conserve, keep rates as low as possible, and help our customers reduce the amount of food waste they throw out.”
2. Raise Awareness of Food Waste Reduction Strategies
One of the biggest challenges of reducing food waste is breaking people’s habits and automatic behaviors. If someone has thrown away food scraps and uneaten food for decades, composting requires a complete behavioral shift.
The best way to accomplish this shift in thinking is to create awareness regarding the massive amounts of organic waste. The Food Too Good to Waste toolkit is designed to help families both track and reduce their individual food waste. It includes instructions and messaging and marketing materials as well as research conducted on reducing household waste. Numerous cities are already utilizing this toolkit for broader campaigns and food waste challenges, and it can be customized to work with any community or family.
Communities can also include food waste prevention with their municipal messaging, supplying tips and resources to help citizens implement food waste prevention strategies in their own daily lives.
3. Bring the Problem Home
Food waste prevention requires everyone to do their part. Programs that people can easily implement at home and that involve the entire family bring food waste awareness to people of all ages. Therefore, it’s essential to find and create ways to work with families to minimize food waste.
4. Reduce the Ick Factor
Some people already understand the benefits of composting, while others push back with concerns about cleanliness and rodents. As Becerra points out, compost consists of the same waste that people are already generating, they’re just sending it to a different location.
“When you have a new waste stream like this, people don’t necessarily get it,” he says. “There’s sort of this ick factor that people need to get over.”
Becerra suggests creating simple behavioral changes, such as designating a small pail in the kitchen to collect vegetable trimmings and disposing of food-soiled paper in an outdoor organic bin.
5. Support the Growing Community Composting Movement
Community composting programs use previously wasted resources as local assets and reinvest them back into the same community. Many of these food waste prevention programs are powered by bicycle. City officials can support community composting programs and partner with them to further engage the community.
6. Educate Composters About Prevention
One of the challenges that Stop Waste faces is getting people who are already composting to make a deeper commitment to food waste prevention. Composting is the fifth tier of the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, so it’s important to educate seasoned composters about the importance of reducing food waste in the first place.
“People may feel like they’re already doing their green duty,” says Bartholomew. “They feel good about [food] recycling. It’s easy to do. It doesn’t take as much thinking and analysis as prevention.”
7. Look at the Big Picture
Because food waste is a complex issue, it’s important to look at the big picture as well as the steps toward ideal solutions. Stop Waste did some strategic planning to assess the whole waste management cycle — how materials are produced, consumed and ultimately discarded in their area — to create a closed-loop cycle.
“That’s where the prevention and reduction piece came in,” says Bartholomew, “from looking at the EPA’s food recovery hierarchy and trying to develop resources and best practices around reducing waste through prevention, reduction and donation, then composting the rest.”
8. Work on a Community Level
Raising awareness of food waste prevention and recycling should be part of a top-down messaging effort, including mailers, posters and websites. But the message should also be community based, reaching community members in familiar places. Where are people in the community gathering? What messaging will they respond to? What kind of hands-on education can you provide? These are key questions to ask.
9. Develop Culturally Appropriate Materials
Developing culturally appropriate materials for community members works hand in hand with community outreach efforts.
Determine your target market, then work with community organizations to find the best ways to spread food waste messaging and disseminate resources. Be culturally sensitive. Work closely with neighborhood organizations to determine the most effective strategies for their specific community, then support them in doing the work. A marketing message has far greater impact when it comes from someone within a community.
“We work with community organizations and nonprofits so they can help educate their communities,” says Becerra. “They work in conjunction with us, but in a way that resonates with them. We’ve been visiting nonprofit groups over the last couple of years and have worked closely with them to find the best ways to reach their constituents.”
The resulting projects include a community mural about composting and a door-to-door canvassing campaign.
“It’s a little more of a grassroots community effort,” says Becerra.
10. Create Food Waste Reduction Requirements for the Garbage Franchise
Cities typically control the garbage franchise, so they can require garbage haulers to pick up the organic stream. That organic stream can be set up to allow for food waste, including food scraps from preparation, uneaten food and food-soiled paper, such as paper coffee cups and takeout containers.
“If the city is able to site a commercial composting facility, that helps a tremendous amount as well,” Becerra says, “because you’re generating this new waste stream, so you need to have a place fairly close by to process it. The city can assist by making sure the permitting process is not too cumbersome for setting up a commercial composting facility relatively close to the city.”
Becerra stresses that waste haulers need to be on board and invested in the fact that recycling organic matter is worthwhile, and not simply meeting the requirements of their agreement.
11. Find the Right Location for Industrial Composting
Neighbors will likely push back against proposed locations for commercial composting facilities because they don’t want it in their neighborhood. Finding an agreeable location will be different for every city, but Becerra advises finding an area that is close to the city, but not necessarily in an urban setting. Many of the Alameda County composting facilities are in fairly remote areas.
12. Create Diverse Strategies and Messaging
In your communications about reducing food waste, offer a variety of options. Not every food waste prevention technique will work for every family or individual. In a small pilot study in Seattle, residents received a list of possibilities to reduce waste and tested three options over the course of a month.
“We were hoping it would settle on a few key, top strategies,” says Fincher.
However, they discovered a mix of 15 different strategies that worked for different people.
“It’s so individual,” Fincher explains. “We recognized that we need to allow for a lot of flexibility in our messaging so people can pick what’s going to work for them.”
13. Leverage Waste Management Funding to Raise Prevention Awareness
Cities may have robust budgets and resources available for food scrap recycling, but fewer resources available for food waste prevention. Bartholomew advises leveraging the recycling budget to raise awareness about food waste prevention.
“When rolling out a new recycling program, for example,” she says, “see if you can you pair the messaging to use this as an opportunity to teach people how to reduce the amount of food waste they’re generating in the first place, then compost the rest.” She adds, “It’s a complex message and you’re teaching multiple behaviors. Clearly there’s an opportunity to leverage that funding that already exists for outreach by adding in the prevention messaging.”
14. Create Food Waste Challenges
Building on the resources from the Food Too Good to Waste toolkit, you can create food waste challenges in households, neighborhoods and cities to bring awareness to the issue of food waste. Rally community members around the cause, and introduce a competition where people can challenge themselves and each other.
15. Utilize the UK’s Love Food Hate Waste Resources
Love Food Hate Waste is a project of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). Their website offers a number of resources to reduce food waste, including an app to help people waste less and save money, a perfect portion tool, a two-week meal planner and hints and tips about date labels, freezing food, storing food and more.
16. Create Partnerships
Partnerships play an important role in solving food waste at a grassroots level.
“If communities are going to be successful,” says Becerra, “multiple parties need to be on board. Working together is critical to making it happen, whether it’s food waste prevention or food scrap recycling.”
Potential partners include industrial kitchens, restaurants, school cafeterias, supermarkets, local community organizations and nonprofits. To facilitate these partnerships, there’s a growing need for companies to create software and increase efficiency.
Food recovery — taking surplus food from one business and delivering it to organizations working to curb hunger — also requires key partnerships.
In Orange County, California, they found that restaurants didn’t understand the Good Samaritan Act, which protects businesses from criminal and civil liability when they donate food to nonprofit organizations. Concerns about liability had been preventing restaurants from donating food.
To educate restaurant owners, local health inspectors, who regularly visit the restaurants, were trained to discuss how to safely donate excess food.
The county then partnered with Yellow Cab and local 7-11 stores: Yellow Cab picks up the food during off-hours and takes it to the convenience stores to refrigerate overnight until pick up.
“These are innovations that are specific to that community,” says Bartholomew, “and they took a handful of partners to really think through and come up with.”
17. Sell or Donate the Compost
Compost can be sold, donated to local schools and organizations or used for public projects, such as parks and gardens.
“One thing you can do,” says Becerra, “is have free compost giveaways. It’s a way to show residents, who are essentially the customers, that their work is creating a useful product, and not just disappearing.”
One school district in Alameda County has language built into the city’s franchise agreement to donate a percentage of the finished compost to the school district for school gardens. One of the haulers also has a donation program where they donate directly to community groups and school groups that can promote the use of local compost.
18. Do a Local Study
Gathering sample data can help determine next steps toward sustainable consumption in cities. Officials in Seattle conducted a small food waste study of 119 households. They asked each household to weigh their organic waste to help determine how much of their total waste stream was organic matter.
“That gave us some data that we didn’t have from any other source,” says Fincher. “It showed that a third of our food waste is edible food waste, and that reducing it is actually something that is worthwhile.”
19. Create and Support Food Recovery Programs
Food waste recovery is an important, socially responsible aspect of reducing food waste. Businesses may be inclined to adopt food waste recovery practices, since production is unaffected. Encourage local stores and restaurants to join existing food recovery programs or to create a new program.
20. Create and Support Food Redistribution Tech Tools
Preventing food waste requires smart systems. Develop and use local tech platforms, such as online portals or mapping platforms, to connect those with surplus food to those who need food. In Seattle, for example, 200 different agencies pick up and redistribute food, but, as Fincher explains, “There are a lot of other generators and people who need the food.”
21. Celebrate Wins and Showcase Businesses Taking a Leadership Role
One of the best ways to get businesses and organizations on board with food waste reduction is to spotlight the ones that are already doing it well. This inspires and encourages other enterprises to find ways to participate.
“We’re always trying to share success stories and best practices,” says Bartholomew, “by highlighting businesses that are doing the right thing or highlighting how they overcame some barriers.”
22. Set Food Waste Reduction Goals
In keeping with the nationwide goal to reduce 50 percent of food waste by 2030, city officials can create local goals to keep leaders and residents on track.
“By setting some sort of goal, tracking how much pre-consumer food waste is being generated, then categorizing why it’s being generated and whether that food gets composted or goes to the landfill,” says Bartholomew, “we can see where that food waste is generated and where it goes.”
Stop Waste will be gathering data for the next few years to yield better insight into the county’s larger waste generators. Once they’ve pinpointed the largest problems, they can work to reduce food waste in those areas.
23. Include Food Scrap Pickup in Mandatory Recycling Programs
Alameda County has a mandatory recycling program for businesses that includes organics collection. Recycling Rules Alameda County states the rules and gives information on both the expectations and best practices.
24. Support Food Waste Reduction Legislation
There’s an increasing amount of legislation addressing food waste reduction — particularly regarding date labeling. Advocates aim to create a standard labeling system to help reduce food waste. The NRDC report The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America is a “first-of-its-kind legal analysis of federal and state laws related to date labels across all 50 states.” The report presents recommendations for a new labeling system.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree from Maine recently introduced the Food Recovery Act. The bill is aimed at reducing the amount of food wasted each year in the United States and includes nearly two dozen provisions to reduce food waste.
Supporting legislation around food waste issues is critical for city leaders working to prevent food waste.
25. Provide Food Waste Awareness Outreach in Schools
As Bartholomew explains, it’s easier to instill positive waste reduction behaviors in children than to change existing behaviors in adults. To facilitate this behavior change, city leaders can create and support programs designed specifically for local schools and youth organizations.
Organizers should work with an existing recycling coordinator or find the resources to integrate food waste education into existing programs. To create consistency, Bartholomew recommends setting up a consistent infrastructure, so kids have the same recycling bins at school that they have at home.
Stop Waste’s Student Action Project visits 5th grade and middle school classrooms to train teachers about recycling and food waste. Their team also helps families with the Food Too Good to Waste program, which works with them for four to six weeks. Bartholomew finds the citizen-science aspect to be particularly effective because students are bringing the same messaging home to their families.
26. Get Other Officials On Board
The best way to get other officials on board with a food waste reduction program is to show them projects that are successful in other cities.
“City officials have to deal with many of the same issues,” says Becerra. “It’s helpful for elected officials to know that it is possible to do these things.” He adds, “Sometimes it takes a while for people to understand that this can be done fairly easily, and that it is important.”
27. Connect with Successful Food Waste Reduction Programs
Are you ready to get started on a food waste reduction strategy? The Stop Waste team is available to advise and share its best practices. Services and programs are well established in Alameda County, and the Stop Waste team stresses that they can help connect the dots for other leaders, too.