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Food waste action plan calls for organics diversion infrastructure, compost market expansion

Originally written by Maria Rachal and published on Waste Dive on April 8, 2021.

Dive Brief:

  • An action plan to curb food loss and waste in the U.S. — pitched to Congress and the Biden administration this week by four organizations and supported by a host of cities, businesses and nonprofits — recommends funding infrastructure that keeps organic waste out of disposal sites by providing state- and city-level investments for measuring, rescuing and recycling it.
  • Led by the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), ReFED and World Wildlife Fund, the plan also stipulates that federal facilities take steps to prevent organic waste and purchase finished compost products. The organizers urge lawmakers to spur growth of compost markets among private sector buyers as well. 
  • The plan calls for allocating $650 million annually through at least 2030 to states and cities for organic waste recycling infrastructure and other food waste reduction strategies. It also calls for $50 million for those cities and states to pursue public-private partnerships; $50 million in grants for research and innovation in the space; $3 million annually through 2030 for consumer food waste reduction research and behavior change campaigns; and $2 million to add personnel to the Federal Interagency Food Loss and Waste Collaboration.

Dive Insight:

The policy push highlights that up to 40% of food produced in the U.S. is lost or wasted, at an estimated cost of $408 billion per year. In turn, food is the single-largest input in landfills. The federal government in 2015 set a national goal to halve food loss and waste by 2030, but much policy ground remains.

The strategies in the five-point, eight-page action plan may not all represent novel approaches to food waste, but the time to package the policy priorities and get them in front of lawmakers is apt, organizers say.

That’s in part because of how the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated food insecurity in the U.S. Also, strategies to minimize food waste could align with the Biden administration’s stated priorities of investing in job-creating infrastructure improvements, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and seeking environmental justice.

It felt like “a perfect storm of opportunity,” said FLPC Director Emily Broad Leib, noting that addressing food waste garners bipartisan support, but the new administration means a moment of refresh.

Signatories to the policy outline include the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the US Composting Council and Vanguard Renewables.

Currently, city offices in Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Madison, Wisconsin, have also formally supported the plan.

While the plan points to job creation, climate and food donation benefits that have resulted from more comprehensive organics laws in California, Massachusetts and Vermont, it also lays out a number of other individual steps local governments can take. They include mandating food scrap recycling, enacting pay-as-you-throw policies and increasing disposal tip fees by adding taxes per unit of trash.

According to Helena Rudoff, a project lead in Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability, local data collection on food waste and loss is one of the most important parts of the process, but cities often lack the capacity to fund waste audits, even on a five- to 10-year basis. “That’s a huge barrier in writing this policy on a municipal scale … but it’s really difficult to keep track of this data year to year,” Rudoff said.

Having more data on the waste stream “would be extremely useful in terms of writing policies that actually address keeping food waste out of our landfill stream,” Rudoff said. “It allows us to make arguments about cost savings, but also resource recycling that we’re missing out on by not having, say, curbside composting. So having the data is really the starting point, and unfortunately it’s pretty inaccessible right now.”

The federal government can lead by example, said Yvette Cabrera, food waste director at NRDC. In the same way that President Joe Biden in January issued executive orders directing federal agencies to transition to clean energy, the plan’s authors believe the executive branch could potentially mandate that federal agencies measure, rescue and recycle food scraps and food waste.

Taking lessons from NRDC’s multi-city food waste minimization initiative, Cabrera said cities often want curbside organics recycling, for instance, but they end up not having the funds to sustain the program or the buy-in to continue to have enough material to make it profitable. “If we were able to incentivize the development of infrastructure that would enable larger-scale composting, I think that that would significantly help cities and states that are interested in this,” and enable regional collaboration.

On compost, authors recommend that the U.S. Department of Agriculture develop a marketing campaign to increase demand for finished compost and expand appropriations for municipal compost and food waste reduction pilot projects, among other suggestions.

There were no mentions of organics infrastructure in President Biden’s wide-reaching infrastructure plan unveiled last week. But the architects of the food waste action plan expect their proposals could end up in a variety of other policy vehicles, like any climate bills, or the next farm bill or child nutrition reauthorization, FLPC’s Broad Leib said.

Other sections of the plan call for policy supporting date labeling on food that distinguishes between peak use date and how long it’s fine to donate; expanding tax deduction benefits and strengthening liability protections tied to food donations; strengthening regional supply chains; passing the School Food Recovery Act; funding research and awareness campaigns to cut consumer food waste; and eliminating barriers to feeding food scraps to animals. 

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