Food waste reduction: It’s everyone’s job!

Our society wastes food at every point in the food chain from farms and gardens to home kitchens, restaurants, supermarkets, food service companies, and large institutions like universities that feed  thousands of people daily. Last December I was astonished to lean about the extent of food waste at the MD Food Recovery Summit organized by the Maryland Department of the Environment. 

Surplus food is the term used to describe unsold and unused food, like crops that don’t go to market because prices are too low, perishable items tossed into supermarket dumpsters, and groceries and restaurant meals bought and not eaten. 

In 2019:

  • 35% of all U.S. food went unsold or unused 
  • 23% of all surplus food is fruits and vegetables 
  • Only 15% of Maryland’s 900K+ tons of food waste was recycled 

Why it’s a problem:

  • Huge economic and environmental costs of producing surplus food
  • 1 in 6 U.S. residents are food insecure. Surplus food can feed hungry people
  • Surplus food is the #1 landfill material (24% of landfill space) 
  • Food waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can trap 28X as much heat/mass unit as CO2
  • The value of wasted food at the consumer level is $161 billion/year

Strategies for reducing surplus food

The U.S. EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy ranks strategies based on their economic, social, and environmental benefits. Reducing the amount of surplus food generated each year is the top priority. Landfilling is the most harmful way to deal with food waste. 

Triangle diagram

There’s lots we can we do at home and in our communities to save money, feed people, and mitigate climate change (see Resources below for more details):

  • Meal plan and use a shopping list
  • In restaurants and food stores, buy only what we can eat; get creative with leftovers
  • Store food properly to extend shelf-life
  • Learn the difference between “best by”, “sell by” and “use by” dates. An expired date doesn’t always mean the item is inedible

One of the benefits of growing your own food in home and community gardens is that it lasts longer when stored, resulting in less waste. It’s great to try new and exotic foods but try to avoid planting crops that you and your household don’t enjoy eating. Those rutabagas may end up in the compost bin (no offense to rutabaga lovers!) Food gardeners can also freeze, dry, can, pickle, and ferment excess produce and share their garden bounty with neighbors, and local food banks and pantries.

Recycling food scraps- home composting

Food scraps can be composted at home, in community compost projects, or at a municipal/commercial scale. Composting recycles nutrients, produces a valuable soil amendment, and keeps food scraps out of landfills.

The simplest ways of dealing with kitchen scraps at home are adding them to a vermicomposting bin, mixing them with yard waste in compost piles or bins, or burying them in garden soil.

Throwing mostly food scraps into a compost tumbler or bin can result in a wet, smelly mess due to their high water content (70-95%) and low carbon to nitrogen ratio. But this is not a problem when food scraps are buried in fertile, well-drained soil.

Soil burial method:

  • Dig a hole or trench in the soil, typically in an open area of a garden bed. Soil disturbance is minimal
  • Dump in food scraps (fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds, egg shells)
  • Covered them with at least a few inches of soil
  • Soil microbes, earthworms, and other members of the soil food web feed on and decompose the food scraps, enriching the soil  
  • Decomposition is quickest spring through fall but kitchen scraps will also break down in winter as long as soil temperatures are above freezing

This technique requires only a shovel and a bucket with a lid for food scrap collection. Food scrap burial in an unfenced area may attract animals, including rodents. They can be excluded by covering the buried food scraps with a frame covered with hardware cloth or some type of perforated (for air flow) container with a weight on top. Another option is to drill holes in the sides and bottom of a small galvanized trash can and bury it to create a more permanent destination for your food scraps. For something completely different, see the mini-greenhouse and food waste composter featured in our Climate-Resilient Gardening story map

Recycling food scraps on a larger scale

I buried my kitchen scraps for many years until my county (Howard) offered curbside food scrap collection. Residents dump their food scraps into special green bins on wheels that are emptied by crews weekly. They mix yard waste and kitchen scraps at the county composting facility to produce a high-quality compost: 

Dark compost

Municipal food scrap composting is growing across the U.S. Efforts in Maryland are getting a boost from House Bill 264, passed by the Maryland Legislature in 2021 and effective in 2023. It requires “Large Food Waste Generators” (over 1 ton/week) like supermarkets, produce warehouses, and dining halls to donate, reduce, or recycle wasted food.  

In September, the UME Master Gardener program held two continuing education composting classes to explore backyard and medium-scale composting. One class was held at ECO-City Farm in Bladensburg. Benny Erez and Thomas Fazio led us on a tour of their innovative vermicomposting and food scrap composting initiatives. They are working with partners to create a “Compost Outpost” model that uses refurbished steel shipping containers to compost wood chips and food scraps with the help of solar-powered forced aeration. The goal is to replicate the model on farms and other sites across the state.

There are other options if you aren’t able to compost food scraps at home or through a municipal program. Community composting projects that accept food scraps from households have been started in some locations and food scrap subscription services for pick-up at home are becoming more widely available (see Resources below). 

By the way, UMD researchers Dr. Stephanie Lansing and Dr. Amro Hassanein are doing some exciting research on utilizing food waste to create bioplastics to replace plastics made from petroleum.  

Resources:

Big Picture

Household food waste reduction

Food recovery

Food scrap composting

Food scrap collection companies:

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist, University of Maryland Extension, Home & Garden Information Center.

Read more posts by Jon.

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