Originally published on December 11, 2019 by The New York Times. Written by Amelia Nierenberg.
When we think about food waste, we usually think about individual households. Example: those sad looking carrots at the bottom of the fridge drawer. Your fault, your loss. Not a broader concern. But those carrots are part of a systemic problem, one with grave implications for climate change. Project Drawdown ranked reducing food waste as the third most important step out of 80 proposed solutions.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. In the United States alone, food waste generates the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 37 million cars, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That accounts for both the energy used in agriculture to grow unused food, as well as the methane that’s released when the food rots in landfills.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that cities are coming up with solutions. Because most municipalities run their own sanitation systems, said Yvette Cabrera, deputy food waste director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, they’re “uniquely positioned to tackle the problem.”
Here are three main strategies cities are using.
Those sanitation systems give cities a lot of control over what happens to discarded food, and some are cracking down on waste. Seoul, South Korea, for example, charges a fee for food waste. Families pay by weight. At recycling sites, the waste is processed: Part is used for biofuels, while some is turned into fertilizer to help urban farms. The city also has over 6,000 automated bins where residents can weigh their food waste and pay their fees, according to the World Economic Forum. Seoul now recycles 95 percent of its food waste, up from less than 2 percent in 1995.
A version of that was tried in the United States in 2015, when Seattle introduced an anti-waste program that, among other things, made it illegal to toss out food. A year later, a judge tossed out the measure’s enforcement provision when she ruled it was unconstitutional for trash collectors to snooping in garbage for edible morsels.
The law is still on the books, though, and it appears to have had an effect. For example, the program included an education campaign that focused on waste reduction, smarter shopping and composting. The right kind of food composting system produces lower emissions than a similar volume of food in a landfill, and you get something useful from composting: fertilizer.
Now, nearly 50 percent of food waste gets composted, according to Hans Van Dusen, the city’s solid waste contracts manager. And, waste sent to landfills is at a record low of 0.81 pounds per person per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “We are so disconnected from where our food comes from, we don’t think about the resources that take to get it to us,” said Veronica Fincher, a senior waste prevention program manager in Seattle. “We want to help people understand those impacts.”
For an example of what could happen if more cities tackled food waste, look to France. National law there requires large supermarkets to donate, rather than throw away, food that is still edible — a measure that has sharply increased food donations to charities, according to the government.
Businesses are key
Cities tend to have lots of restaurants and grocery stores, and that presents a huge opportunity to reduce food waste. One of the leaders in working with supermarkets and chefs is New York City, which runs the largest composting program in the country. It’s part of a multimillion-dollar program to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions by turning food scraps and yard waste into compost and, soon, clean energy. The goal is to get the city to zero waste by 2030. In addition to the composting program, the city runs a robust online food donation portal, food waste fairs and waste-reduction challenges that recognize successful efforts by restaurants and supermarkets.
As of now, the city wastes four million tons of food a year. Of that, 500,000 tons come from restaurants. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that cutting commercial food waste by 5 percent would save more than 120,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere each year.
“Baby steps so far, but we want to be sure that restaurants have the tools to do well,” said the city’s sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia. “There are some seriously committed chefs out there to ensuring that nothing gets wasted.”
Other cities have also introduced curbside recycling and incrementally expanded their food waste regulation, like Los Angeles, Denver and Baltimore, which are all setting public goals to decrease waste, expand curbside composting and work with chefs and restaurants to raise awareness about food waste reduction.
Redistribute the surplus
So, some cities are saving a lot of food from the landfill. Some goes to the compost bin. Some, though, is still edible. What to do with it?
That’s where food rescue programs come into the picture. Strictly speaking, these are not climate programs. But think of them as an added bonus: Cities can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help the needy.
Milan, Italy has been a global leader in the rescue movement since 2015. That year, 15 tons of food was given to homeless people in just a few weeks when the chef Massimo Bottura helped to organize an anti-waste campaign. Since then, the city has written the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, an international food waste protocol for cities, and led a charge that helped to get Italy’s national government to pass food waste legislation.
According to its organizers, the food policy pact has been signed by 207 cities from around the world with a total of around 450 million inhabitants. It shows how a local initiative can take off, and how cities can have an impact.
“Once you tell people they can’t throw food away, they start making different, creative decisions with it,” said Emily Broad Leib, the director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.