March 2020 set a new tone for my work in the sustainable material management space. Not because that’s when COVID solidified itself as a force in our lives, but because that’s when I listened-in on Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Waste Prevention Impact Analyst David Allaway’s webinar presentation Rethinking Recycling. Give yourself an hour and check it out. You will not be let down.
From that presentation I realized that my passion for recycling and composting had unintentionally minimized my perspective and assumptions of the average consumer’s knowledge base around food and packaging waste. Nine months of learning later, I’m seeing three trends in the sustainable waste management and material recovery space to look out for in 2021.
Trend #1: Growth in food waste prevention education and infrastructure
Food waste prevention education is a blip on the average consumer’s radar. I was no different until I met Corvallis (OR) Sustainability Coalition’s No Food Left Behind (NFLB) Director Jeanette Hardison. The reality is that food waste makes up 24% of the materials in U.S. landfills (EPA). Even worse, 43% of food wasted happens in our homes (ReFED). According to ReFED, households are the largest source of food waste in the U.S.
Let’s take a moment to establish the difference between food waste and wasted food. Wasted food (the focus of this article) at home is the stuff that gets forgotten about in the refrigerator for three months until it ultimately spoils and gets tossed in the trash. Food waste is the rind from your orange, bottom of your celery stalk or avocado peel leftover after you’ve prepared a meal. Composting both wasted food and food waste is an important means of sustainably diverting food from landfills. The trend we’re focused on for 2021 is wasted food prevention education that reaches a consumer before composting even becomes an option.
Americans waste about 25 percent of the food and beverages they purchase, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). That equates to about $1,365 to $2,275 annually. Household wasted food prevention education has begun to trickle into the lives of consumers in the Pacific Northwest and Northeast Atlantic. Most consumers in the middle of the country have yet to hear much about the topic in any meaningful way – but they will in 2021.
Why? The environmental and economic implications of wasted food are surprisingly substantial. Globally and in the U.S., GHG emissions are enemy No. 1. In the U.S., the EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills or combustion facilities than any other single material in consumer trash receptacles. All of those organics contribute to the methane emitted from U.S. landfills, making up 20 percent of the country’s total methane emissions. As a reminder, methane is a problematic GHG given its aptitude for absorbing the sun’s heat and warming the atmosphere (Environmental Defense Fund).
The economic tribulations of wasted food are just as severe. According to ReFED, food waste in U.S. homes costs consumers $114B, annually. Add that to your New Year’s better budgeting resolution.
In 2020, wasted food bubbled to the top of some waste management discussions because of the magnifying glass COVID had on our nation’s lack of infrastructure to get produce off of farm fields and into stores in a timely manner during the pandemic. Lack of mechanisms for dealing with grocery retail food spoilage and getting edible food to donation networks also surfaced. Some of the awesome companies working on food waste prevention before food gets to a consumer include:
Flashflood – An app that connects consumers to grocery stores offering discounts on certain food items that must be sold due to sell-by dates.
Apeel – A company that designs natural barriers applied to fruits and vegetables using edible materials that can slow down the rate of produce spoilage
Pinpoint Software – A company whose software Date Check Pro is an expiration date management system for grocery stores allowing for the tracking of inventory expiration dates.
The advent of new infrastructure and technology to prevent food waste before groceries make their way into the home will simultaneously extend to consumer-facing publicity around household wasted food. You’ll see more of this in 2021.
The focus on household recycling behaviors over the years has prevented household wasted food from receiving the attention it deserves. The rise in home meal prep fueled by the pandemic and heightened consumer frustration about the state of recycling (check out part three of this series for more on this topic) make 2021 the perfect time to make preventing household wasted food the new norm.
The new year is a ripe opportunity for solid waste management professionals to put serious effort into promoting household wasted food prevention education. Our team at Betterbin is excited to be a part of this important work.