Federal Program Aims to Reduce Food Waste

  • Quinn Reil takes her food scraps to a composting bin at the Garfield Community Farm in Pittsburgh. Photo: Jenelle Pifer

  • The 3-acre Garfield Community Farm occupies land that once held blighted homes and today uses compost to improve poor soil quality. Photo: Jenelle Pifer

  • Reil also keeps a worm composting bin in her apartment and occaisionally teach workshops on the practice. Photo: Jenelle Pifer

August 2, 2013

Quinn Reil lives in a second-floor apartment in Pittsburgh. Recently, she spent some time cleaning out her refrigerator.

"I went on vacation and some things got left in my fridge. They are no longer edible, so I am putting them in the bucket," she says, dropping in soupy watermelon, old greens, and several eggshells.

The bucket she's holding is not a trashcan. Instead, it’s a small white pale that serves as a temporary holding cell for food waste.

From here, Reil will take the food waste to a nearby urban farm—the Garfield Community Farm in Pittsburgh—or she’ll walk to her living room and scrape the scraps into a big plastic bin that contains her very own worm composting operation. She thinks of the worms a little bit like pets.

"When I was little I always wanted an ant farm and my mom always said no.  And then when I moved out and I was on my own, I realized that I can do whatever I want," says Reil, now a facilities analyst at Dollar Bank.

Reil has been composting in various ways for about 6 years. And thanks to her efforts, she only takes out about one grocery-sized bag of trash every month. It turns out, eliminating food waste does a lot toward reducing waste in general.

"As a matter of fact, food is the number one material we sent to landfills and incinerators in the U.S. That means we now send more food than paper, plastic, any of those," says Jean Schwab, a senior analyst in the waste division of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Food waste takes up over one fifth of landfill space, according to Schwab. She says people are doing a better job with recycling—diverting things like paper and plastics from the dump—but the amount of food waste is actually growing. An estimated 35 million tons of food waste will reach landfills this year.

"The shame about that is much of this food is not waste at all, but it's actually wholesome, healthy food that could go to feed millions of hungry Americans," Schwab says.

A few years ago, the EPA and US Department of Agriculture began a long-term effort to address this problem. It’s motto, Schwab says, is to “feed people, not landfills.” At first, the idea was to prevent food waste from even being created. The agencies set in place systems to capture perfectly good food—say, a tray of lasagna that a restaurant made but didn’t serve—and turn these goods into food donations.

Now, a new program called the Food Waste Challenge is meant to raise public and industry awareness about the environmental and health impacts of food waste. Not only could wasted food be going to people who need it, Schwab says, but letting food decompose in landfills can actually impact climate change.

"You know that stinky smell in your trash can? That's the food starting to rot," Schwab says. "It's releasing things like methane and other little nasty stuff, and all of that going into a landfill creates landfill methane."

Behind agriculture and natural gas and petroleum production, landfills are the third biggest source in the U.S.  of methane—a potent greenhouse gas.

"If we didn't have that organic waste in the landfills at all, we wouldn't have this large amount of methane," says Schwab.

So who is responsible? Schwab says about half of food waste comes from business and industry, and about half comes from individual consumers. "The bad news is it's everybody and the good news is it's everybody—which means that everybody can make a difference on this."

The Food Waste Challenge hopes to register 400 partnering organizations by 2015, and 1,000 by 2020. While individuals can't officially register, the project offers tools for people to use at home—including trips for how to store food and a guide for reading labels and expiration dates properly.

The hope is that more people will adopt behaviors like those of Quinn Reil. "For me it was so overwhelming to try to do everything at once. But now that I’ve been doing it for 6 years or so, it’s a huge difference," she says.

After cleaning her fridge, Reil leaves her apartment for the Garfield Community Farm. She dumps the contents of her white bucket onto a compost pile and covers it with leaves. Seeing how compost can help the farm keeps her motivated.

"That was the most important part of the farm. Because without the compost enriching the soil, we weren’t going to get anything out of this farm," says Reil. The farm occupies land that once held blighted homes and contends with poor soil quality.

Bucket empty, Reil heads back home. The whole process took about 20 minutes. If the EPA and USDA are successful, more people across America will decide investing this time is something they will do, too.