BEST OF 2014: Sorting out America’s food waste problem

35 million tons of food was dumped in landfills across the U.S. in 2012 compared to 29 million tons of plastic and 24 million tons of paper. (Photo by Ralph Hammack, NET)
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December 23, 2014 - 6:45am

Food waste is a growing burden on our food system. Millions of tons of food end up in the landfill each year instead of on our plates. In the meantime, millions of Americans are going hungry and landfills are filling up.

Food is the largest single source of waste in the U.S. More than plastic. More than paper.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 20 percent of what goes into municipal landfills is food. Food waste tipped the scale at 35 million tons in 2012, which is the most recent year estimates are available.

“We just have so much of an abundance of food that we don’t realize the value of it,” said Dan Nickey, Associate Director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center. The IWRC is working with businesses to cut back on how much food goes into the garbage.

“I think it’s part of the culture today compared to when our parents grew up,” Nickey said. “Now we don’t necessarily look at food as a resource, we look at it as a given.”

Not everyone can afford to be careless with food. Forty-nine million Americans have trouble putting meals on the table, 1 in 7 American households. And Nickey says while those families struggle with food security, food waste is weighing down the economy.

“Forty percent of all the food in this country never makes it to the table at a cost of $165 billion to the U.S. economy,” Nickey said. “If we can reduce the amount of food [waste] just think of the amount of money this country can save.”

And on top of the financial price tag is the environmental cost. When food decomposes in a landfill it’s sealed away from oxygen. That causes it to release methane rather than just carbon dioxide, which Nickey said is 20-25 times stronger than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Jack Chappelle sorts through garbage to inform cities and states what goes into their landfills. He sorts through a lot of food. (Photo by Pat Aylward, NET)

On a summer day at the Bluff Road Landfill outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, Jack Chappelle took a closer look at the problem. As dump trucks rumbled over the hard-packed, clay surface Chappelle was a stone’s throw away wearing a paper sanitary suit and hard hat and pulling bits of rotten lettuce out of a Ziploc bag.

“In the country you get more peelings. You get more vegetables,” Chappelle explained.

Chappelle is a solid waste consultant with Engineering Solutions & Design in Kansas City. Cities and states hire his crew to literally sort through their garbage and find out what it’s made of. A lot of it is food. Food from homes, restaurants, stores, and schools.

“When you’re in the city you get a lot more fast food containers with half eaten food in them. A lot more pizza boxes.”

Like paper, glass, and other recyclables, Chappelle says the best option is to keep food out of the landfill where it takes up valuable space.

“From an economics perspective if you don’t throw as much away, the cells don’t fill up as fast so you’re not spending as much money in the operation of the landfill,” Chappelle said. “It’s directly a cost benefit relationship.”

Food enters the waste stream at every link along the chain of food production.

But Ashley Zanolli, who works on food waste for the Environmental Protection Agency, says people should not overlook what might be coming out of their own kitchens.

“Our best estimates are that about 40-50 percent of food waste comes from consumers and 50-60 percent from businesses,” said Zanolli.

Sherri and Kyle Erkel have a 5-year-old daughter, Asa, and live with Kyle’s parents Joyce and Pat. (Photo by Pat Aylward, NET)

All of the Erkel family’s food scraps go in a green bucket for the weight to be recorded. It always makes Sherri Erkel feel guilty so she calls it the “green bucket of judgment.” (Photo by Pat Aylward, NET)


To sum up, almost half of the U.S. food supply never gets eaten, and about half of that waste comes from families and individuals.

Zanolli helped create an EPA program called Food: Too Good to Waste. It’s aimed at helping families reduce their share of food that’s wasted. It originated in Seattle, Washington, but there are plans to roll it out nationwide this fall. For now, it’s being tested in a handful of cities around the country including Honolulu, Oakland, California, and Iowa City, Iowa.

Sherri Erkel’s family is part of the pilot study in Iowa City to measure what people are throwing out at home.

On fajita night in the Erkel house, some half-eaten tortillas, picked over beans, onion skins and other scraps went into a plastic container on the kitchen counter. Erkel calls it “the green bucket of judgment.”

Once a week she weighs what they’ve thrown out. She hung the plastic liner from a scale and found they had thrown out 4 pounds of food in just a couple days.

“These aren’t water melon rinds or anything so that’s just food on our plate we didn’t eat. So we’ve thrown away 4 pounds of food in 2 days. Judgment,” she said, laughing.

But seeing how much food they throw away convinced Erkel and her family to take food waste more seriously. She wants to put less food in the bucket so she’s following some of the EPA’s tips. For instance, her family started planning meals and following a shopping list. They also set aside a shelf in the refrigerator for what needs to be eaten first.

One in seven families in the U.S. aren’t able buy the kind of food she’s throwing away. Sherri Erkel thinks about her family’s role in that.

“Food production is not an issue,” Erkel said. “We produce enough food but we’re throwing away all this food and a mile away people don’t have enough. So that’s the first step I think.”

And it’s a step more families will need to take.

Watch Tossed Out: Food Waste in America

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2014" Signature Story report.  The story originally aired and was published in September.



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