Organic materials, much of which are discarded food and yard trimmings, comprise approximately 40 percent of the U.S. waste stream – and Waste Management is a leader in leveraging new technologies to extract economic and environmental value from these materials.
Making more productive use of food waste is an area of particular focus not only for us, but also for a growing number of stakeholders: consumers, businesses, municipalities and regulators. Why the increasing emphasis? The opportunity is substantial, and the payoff can be significant. More than 14 percent of the material found in our trash bins today is food, yet U.S. EPA reported that in 2013 less than 3 percent of food waste was diverted from landfill. No wonder, then, that food waste, and strategies for its productive diversion, draws more recent attention than any other component of the waste stream except plastic.
It is clear that too much food is wasted at every phase of its life cycle. In fact, the Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated that 40 percent of the food grown in the U.S. is never consumed. Though many solutions focus on reducing waste upstream – in manufacturing, distribution and through donation of excess product to food banks – the largest portion of unused food ends up as food waste. There are many reasons for the growing interest in alternative solutions for managing this residual waste, in particular:
- Food waste recycling boosts recycling goals. As the recycling of paper and containers has increased, organics, when combined with unrecyclable paper, constitute the largest portion of the waste stream. And because this material is relatively heavy, improved processes can increase diversion percentages significantly.
- Food waste recycling reduces methane from landfills. The initial decomposition of food waste in landfills contributes to methane emissions. By diverting food to beneficial uses like composting and anaerobic digestion, the majority of emissions associated with initial decomposition can be negated, reducing landfill emissions.
- The energy contained in food waste can be converted to fuel and other valuable commodities via anaerobic digestion. New technologies are being developed to convert this material to fuels such as biogas, ethanol, methanol, diesel and jet fuel.