The reports affirmed the EPA’s preference for source reduction and lend support for composting over anaerobic digestion, landfilling and incineration.
Originally published on WasteDive by Jacob Wallace on October 26, 2023
Advocacy groups in the food waste and composting sphere applauded a pair of reports released by the U.S. EPA on Thursday that shed new light on the impact of food waste on landfill emissions and updated the agency’s food waste hierarchy.
One of the reports, “From Field to Bin,” accompanied a new Wasted Food Scale model which replaces the agency’s former food recovery hierarchy, adding new context to the most common food management pathways. In the report, the EPA urged food waste prevention while specifically warning against sending food “down the drain,” to landfill or to incinerators.
Dana Gunders, executive director of food waste nonprofit ReFED, said any new information from EPA about food waste was a “big deal” and was pleased to see the agency reaffirm its emphasis on source reduction through revention, donation, and upcycling. She was also pleased that the new scale more clearly contrasted composting with anaerobic digestion, which was ranked a lower priority and separated by whether digestate was put to beneficial use or not.
“Showing different pathways based on a lifecycle assessment is very helpful for users to visualize the magnitude of how much better some solutions are than others,” Gunders said via email. “The circularity assessment is quite novel, and it’s great to see EPA articulating the circularity implications of different waste pathways in such a thorough and thoughtful way.”
The U.S. Composting Council also applauded the updated food waste scale, noting it would bring “much-needed clarity” to best practices for food waste management. The group reiterated its support for the U.S. Food Loss and Waste Reduction goal as well, a joint initiative backed by EPA as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food & Drug Administration.
“Composting is a vital component in this up-hill battle, and we encourage all individuals to continue to support composting as the organics recycling method of choice. Compost the product has the unmatched capacity to enable climate resilient landscapes through actively improving soils and managing for environmental stressors such as flooding and drought,” U.S. Composting Council Executive Director Frank Franciosi said in a statement.
Gunders also noted the second report, which provides new data on methane from landfilled food waste, further underscored the need to remove organics from landfills. The agency wrote that roughly half of the carbon in food waste degrades into landfill gas within 3.6 years, which is too quick for most landfill gas collection systems to effectively capture.
“The methane report confirms two things that we long believed but didn’t have evidence for — that food is a top contributor of landfill methane, and that much of the methane from food decay occurs before a landfill is capped,” Gunders said.
The reports come amid renewed attention from the federal government on food waste and organics. The five-year reauthorization of the USDA, known as the farm bill, is currently in limbo as the U.S. House of Representatives is without a speaker. But a coalition of groups led by seeks to enhance federal agencies’ role in tackling food waste nationwide through the farm bill, in part by enhancing collaboration between EPA and USDA. The group is led by ReFED, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund and Harvard Food Law Policy Clinic.