Zero Waste: Do Commercial Wasted Food Disposal Bans Work?

I began the wasted food recycling conversation last week discussing the behaviors needed to achieve any zero waste initiative within organizations that have significant issues with recycling this type of material. Asking the question “do¬†commercial wasted food disposal bans work?” furthers the conversation suggesting that a potential path to reducing the amount of wasted food (I prefer this terminology over the often used food waste) is best done through governmental regulation.

The Current EPAs Food Recovery Hierarchy. There are various versions of this inverted graph – all essentially focused on the same goals.

I am not the first to ask this question and over the next several weeks, we will look at the various challenges facing businesses of all sizes as the 2030 EPA goal of reducing this material by 50% approaches.

(There is as of this writing, no indication at this particular point that the EPA will lessen those goals as they have with so many other environmental regulated targets. Essentially, they are only challenges at this point with the focus of the change on peer pressure. More on this effort…)

Where are these Bans?

Currently, there are five states with commercial food waste bans and although they vary by policy, they are all focused on the same goal: Reducing wasted food that is finding its way into local landfills. The states that have passed these bans targeted at commercial businesses (California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island) have by most measures succeeded according to Sustainable America. Businesses have participated and exceeded many of the small goals set forth by these bans.

Massachusetts for example wanted a one ton per week diversion and for the most part, the businesses participating have exceeded that goal – but not by much. Here’s a long list of those businesses and the reported data.

Do Commercial Wasted Food Bans Work?

From many different angles, the answer would clearly be yes. However, closer examination indicate that the benefits are not necessarily shared by all. There are several considerations that some of these data points overlook in their quest for good news. And don’t get me wrong: Every pound of wasted food that does not find its way to the landfill is an environmental win for everyone.

  1. The effort does suggested an economic benefit. Jobs surrounding the removal of this material from the landfill have created jobs in the industries tasked with disposal. Some of these jobs are simply reported differently (drivers who once hauled trash may now be working to haul wasted food) and that may have skewed the numbers slightly. If a business previously disposed of all food scrapes in the trash, the frequency of trash hauls might have occurred several times per week. Removing significant tonnage from that stream (and wasted food is often the heaviest) will lower the frequency of those pick-ups. While new jobs may have been created, some may be simple assignment changes.
  2. The economic benefit is often specific to the haulers and industries surrounding the new recycling policies. This has lead to numerous new permits for facilities centered on composting or anaerobic digestion, additional hauling companies and farm-related type digesters. This is an upside in economic activity that provides the state with additional monies. More problematic is the landfill tonnage that is shipped out-of-state, as Massachusetts currently does. And even more so is the lack of enforcement surrounding those bans.
  3. Contamination continues to prove a bigger issue for those bans than is reported. This is the problem with all recycling efforts. Some industries have created programs centered on making the process more convenient by allowing some trash to be added to the wasted food and removed through the anaerobic digestion process. But this is not the best solution to the problem and may costs businesses much more that they anticipated – in many cases, these businesses will simply trade dollars by shifting money to AD removal from previous costs of landfill deposits.
  4. Too few or well executed food donation programs exist currently and this defeats the best intentions of these programs.
  5. There are three distinct negatives at play here that offset many of the reported benefits. Many of these programs put more waste hauling trucks on the road creating higher carbon foot prints. The food rescuers also expend an enormous amount of time, human capital and energy gathering and distributing these food items when they do and may prevent some efforts to participate. Businesses cannot find (or explain) the economic benefit using the same metrics the states with bans are using.

How We can Help?

Zero Waste Consultants understands each of these issues and can offer you a path towards success. In many instances, we can offer your business a concise and workable solution to this issue before your state enacts these sorts of bans. however, that is not the best reason. This is a do-the-right-thing opportunity that can save your company money – even if your landfill costs are currently low. We have established partnerships with businesses such as Alternative Organics to bring science to your effort and dollars to your capital projects. Let’s open that conversation.

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