Food Waste Management in USA

food_wasteFood waste is an untapped energy source that mostly ends up rotting in landfills, thereby releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Food waste is difficult to treat or recycle since it contains high levels of sodium salt and moisture, and is mixed with other waste during collection. Major generators of food wastes include hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, residential blocks, cafeterias, airline caterers, food processing industries, etc.

In United States, food waste is the third largest waste stream after paper and yard waste. Around 13 percent of the total municipal solid waste generated in the country is contributed by food scraps. According to USEPA, more than 35 million tons of food waste are thrown away into landfills or incinerators each year, which is around 40 percent of all food consumed in the country. As far as United Kingdom is concerned, households throw away around 8 million tons of food each year. These statistics are an indication of tremendous amount of food waste generated all over the world.

Food Waste Management Strategy

The proportion of food waste in municipal waste stream is gradually increasing and hence a proper food waste management strategy needs to be devised to ensure its eco-friendly and sustainable disposal. The two most common methods for food waste recycling are:

  • Composting: A treatment that breaks down biodegradable waste by naturally occurring micro-organisms with oxygen, in an enclosed vessel or tunnel;
  • Anaerobic digestion (AD): A treatment that breaks down biodegradable waste in the absence of oxygen, producing a renewable energy (biogas) that can be used to generate electricity and heat.

Currently, only about 3 percent of food waste is recycled throughout U.S., mainly through composting. Composting provides an alternative to landfill disposal of food waste, however it requires large areas of land, produces volatile organic compounds and consumes energy. Consequently, there is an urgent need to explore better recycling alternatives. Anaerobic digestion has been successfully used in several European and Asian countries to stabilize food wastes, and to provide beneficial end-products. Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Germany and England have led the way in developing new advanced biogas technologies and setting up new projects for conversion of food waste into energy.

Of the different types of organic wastes available, food waste holds the highest potential in terms of economic exploitation as it contains high amount of carbon and can be efficiently converted into biogas and organic fertilizer. Food waste can either be used as a single substrate in a biogas plant, or can be co-digested with organic wastes like cow manure, poultry litter, sewage, crop residues, abattoir wastes, etc.

Food waste is one of the single largest constituent of municipal solid waste stream.  Diversion of food waste from landfills can provide significant contribution towards climate change mitigation, apart from generating revenues and creating employment opportunities. Rising energy prices and increasing environmental pollution makes it more important to harness renewable energy from food wastes. Anaerobic digestion technology is widely available worldwide and successful projects are already in place in several European as well as Asian countries which makes it imperative on waste generators and environmental agencies in USA to strive for a sustainable food waste management system.

Plastic Wastes and its Management

Plastic seems all pervasive and unavoidable. Since the 1960s our use of plastic has increased dramatically, and subsequently, the portion of our garbage that is made up of plastic has also increased from 1% of the total municipal solid waste stream (household garbage) to approximately 13% (US Environmental Protection Agency). Plastic products range from things like containers and packaging (soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles) to durable goods (think appliances, furniture and cars) and non-durable goods including things from a plastic party tray to medical devices. Sometimes marked with a number and a chasing arrow, there is an illusion that all plastics are recyclable, and therefore recycled. But there are a number of problems with this assumption.

While use and consumption of plastic is increasingly high, doubts about viable options for reuse, recycling and disposal are also on the rise. Complications such as the increasing number of additives used alter the strength, texture, flexibility, colour, resistance to microbes, and other characteristics of plastics, make plastics less recyclable. Additionally, there is very little market value in some plastics, leading municipalities to landfill or incinerate plastics as waste. Based on figures from the EPA (2011 data) only 8% of plastic materials are recovered through recycling.

Another major concern about plastics in the waste stream is their longevity and whether or not they are truly biodegrade. It is estimated that most plastics would take 500-1000 years to break down into organic components. Because of this longevity and the low rate of recycling, much of our plastic waste ends up in landfills or as litter. Some of this plastic waste makes its way via rivers and wind to the ocean. Garbage barges, and the trans-continental transport of recyclable materials also lead to an increasing amount of plastics in our oceans and waterways.

Plastic waste directly and indirectly affects living organisms throughout the ecosystem, including an increasingly high impact on marine life at a macro and micro scale. According to United Nations, almost 80% of marine debris is plastic. Policy enforcement remains weak, global manufacture of plastics continues to increase, and the quantity of plastic debris in the oceans, as well as on land, is likely to increase.

With limited sustainable recovery of plastics, there is a growing global movement to reduce the generation of plastic. Certain types of plastic may be ’safer‘ for the environment than others, however, there are troubling issues associated with all of them, leading to the conclusion that action is needed to remove plastic waste, and stricter controls are required to limit new sources of plastic pollution. Efforts such as light weighting of packaging and shifts to compostable plastics are options. Policies limiting the use of plastics such as bottle bills and bag bans are other ways to decrease the production and consumption of plastics.

Mining the debris fields in our oceans and turning plastic waste into usable materials, from socks made of fishing line to fuel made from a variety of plastic debris, is one way to mitigate the current situation.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link