A study published by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in November 2009 found that U.S. per capita food waste has increased by approximately 50 percent since 1974, reaching more than 1,400 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day. This food waste contributes to excess consumption of fresh water (more than one quarter of total U.S. fresh water consumption) and fossil fuels (approximately 300 million barrels of oil per year). Needless to say, the United States wastes a lot of food. However, there is one positive that comes from all this waste: it presents a tremendous opportunity for increased efficiencies. To help take advantage of this opportunity, the following best practices offer guidance on how communities can use food (and food waste) more efficiently.

Prevent Food Waste

WRAP, a British environmental consulting firm, found that one third of all food purchased in England is discarded because of poor management. WRAP took its findings and put together a Web site, www.lovefoodhatewaste.com, which showcases strategies for effective food management, such as "plan meals," "follow recipes," and "make shopping lists." Sounds simple, but what the firm is effectively promoting is source reduction. The lesson is clear: the best way to manage food waste is to not create it in the first place.

And it's not hard to see the motivation. Reducing food waste saves both money and resources. WRAP estimates that every metric ton (mt) of food waste prevented has the potential to save 4.2 mt of CO2 equivalent.

There are myriad ways to reduce waste. Some college campuses have cut food waste by removing the delivery system. According to Mother Jones, the Rochester Institute of Technology spent 10 percent less on food when they removed trays from dining halls. Other communities have found an opportunity to redistribute potential food waste to charitable organizations. For instance, Metro, the regional government in Portland, Ore., organized a food donation program called Fork it Over. Through the Fork it Over Web site, businesses are able to identify food items suitable for donation, ensure the items have been properly handled and arrange a pickup by a food rescue agency.

Recycle Food Waste through Composting

Even with mindful consumption (food waste prevention) and efficient distribution (food donation), a certain amount of food waste is inevitable. Think of all the onion peels, fruit rinds, coffee grounds, plate scrapings and pizza crusts that get tossed into the trash. These are resources that can be put to use as renewable energy and high-quality compost. Among the options:

  • Compost in your backyard, balcony, school or business
    The catch phrase in the organic processing industry is "compost happens." And it does, more or less, so long as organic materials get enough air and moisture. For example, an apple core starting to turn brown is an early sign of composting. A composting bin can be simple or complicated. One type of composting — vermi-composting using worms — allows people to compost in tight quarters, such as on balconies or under kitchen sinks. Larger volumes of food scraps can be composted on site as well. According to the Bainbridge Island Review, Bainbridge High School in Washington state recently installed an Earth Bin, a 9.9 yard machine that can process anywhere from a quarter of a ton to a full ton of biomass in a single day.

  • Produce power from food scraps
    High solids anaerobic digestion (HSAD) uses microbes to extract energy from organic waste. Imagine a series of garage-like containers with food scraps and yard debris inside. Inside the containers, naturally occurring microorganisms break down the waste into methane and carbon dioxide (biogas), which are captured in airtight enclosures. The biogas can be combusted to produce renewable electricity, cleaned to pipeline natural gas standards or further processed into compressed natural gas (CNG). Anaerobic digestion has been used for years to process food waste's organic cousins, wastewater and sewage. HSAD is specifically designed to process drier or "high solids" feedstocks, such as food waste and yard debris. It is a new waste-to-energy equation that more communities can now adopt as a source of renewable energy.

  • Compost food waste in a commercial composting operation
    According to findacomposter.com, at least 203 U.S. composting facilities process food waste, with more being permitted every day. Increased participation in composting will drive the development of more facilities to create a vibrant composting industry for converting more waste into usable resources.

In conclusion, food waste abatement presents several opportunities. Reducing wasted food saves money. Donating potential food waste links local resources and gets food where it is needed. Composting food waste creates a nutrient-rich soil amendment. And using food waste to create biogas through HSAD generates a local, renewable source of clean energy.

Further, the organic waste management industry not only increases sources of renewable, clean energy and compost, but also promotes green jobs that contribute to economic growth. A focus on food waste can help the United States take advantage of food, rather than waste it.

Meredith Sorensen is outreach manager at Harvest Power, based in Waltham, Mass. The company provides technologies, project development and product marketing capabilities to extract value from organic waste through the production of renewable energy in combination with high-quality compost-based soil and mulch products.

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