Together, food and packaging/containers account for almost 45% of the materials landfilled in the United States, and some of these discarded materials are food-related packaging and containers. To reduce food reaching landfills, save money, and help communities, the U.S. Environmental protection Agency started the Food Recovery Challenge. The Challenge is part of EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management Program, which seeks to reduce the environmental impact of materials through their entire life cycle.
Food service establishments generate a significant amount of wasted food and packaging. Between 4 and 10 percent of food purchased by food service operations in the U.S. is thrown out before reaching the plate. 1 By reducing the amount of food and packaging discarded, they can significantly reduce their waste stream and save money.
Wasted food costs the commercial food service industry roughly $100 billion annually. 2 Reducing wasted food and packaging can save money by reducing not only disposal costs but also over-purchasing, labor, and energy costs. Additionally, food service establishments can receive tax benefits from donating wholesome, edible food to food banks or food rescue organizations.
Wasting food is unnecessary
Not all food that reaches landfills is inedible. Wasted food can be divided into three categories:
Avoidable: Food that can be easily prevented from going to waste. Reasons for waste include overpreparation, improper storage, or spoilage. Understanding the cause of this waste is key to preventing it. Example: An entire tray of lasagna is left over every day at a buffet.
Possibly avoidable: Food that may seem inedible but can be used or repurposed. Example: Beet tops can be cooked similarly to collard greens or spinach instead of discarded. Also, slightly stale bread can be used for croutons or bread crumbs.
Unavoidable: Food that cannot be consumed by people and should be used for animal feed, compost, or anaerobic digestion. Example: Banana peels and peach pits.
Unprecedented amounts of food are wasted in the United States. In fact, more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single component of municipal solid waste (MSW). In 2010 alone, more than 34 million tons of wasted food were generated, with a meagre three percent of this diverted from landfills and incinerators to composting. The damaging environmental effects of wasted food start with food rotting in landfills, which releases methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Thirteen percent of GHG emissions in the United States result from the growth, manufacturing, sale, transportation, and disposal of food. Additionally, large amounts of water and other resources are needed to grow and process food. More than a quarter of the total freshwater consumption per year in the United States is used to grow wasted food. Reducing discarded food avoids wasting the water, oil, and other natural resources that go into growing and delivering food.
Containers and packaging alone contribute over 23% of the material reaching landfills in the U.S., and some of these discarded materials are food-related containers and packaging. Additionally, packaging makes up a majority of the litter that ends up on our beaches and other waterways. This is a problem because fish, birds, and other aquatic wildlife are often harmed by ingesting plastic bags and other debris from packaging. Waste in the ocean also causes navigation hazards for boats and results in losses to the shipping, fishing, and tourism industries.
The Food Recovery Hierarchy identifies the preferred options for handling excess food. Listed in order from the most preferred (source reduction) to the least preferred (landfilling/incineration), these activities help reduce the environmental impact of wasting food.
Similar to the Food Recovery Hierarchy, the three main packaging reduction strategies are:
This checklist identifies common strategies that can be used by food service establishments to reduce their wasted food and packaging. Some strategies are applicable for all types of food service establishments and others are specific to certain venue types. Choose strategies based on the opportunities that exist at your facility. Tracking food waste is always the first step.
The first step in reducing waste is to measure and track the amount, type of, and reason for the food and packaging being discarded. A thorough food and packaging assessment serves as the foundation for reduction efforts. It is important to understand more than simply the quantity of total waste generated to create targeted and successful interventions that reduce wasted food and packaging. Information on the waste type (for example, bell peppers or chicken breast) and reason for loss (for example, overpreparation or improper cooking) is important to make meaningful changes. Additionally, tracking when the material is generated can also provide useful information to target specific causes for wasted food and packaging.
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