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Food Waste: Reduction, Recovery, and Diversion

Between 30%-40% of food is wasted along the supply chain, from processing through in-home and dining-out consumption. Only 5% of food waste is currently diverted to compost or anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities; as a result, food waste is typically the first or second largest component of the municipal solid waste stream. In 2015, the U.S. announced the first national goal to reduce food loss and waste by half by the year 2030, which will help feed the hungry, save money for families and businesses, and protect the environment.

In its Food Waste initiative, ELI is conducting research and working with stakeholders to meet the U.S. food waste reduction goal by designing and implementing public policies and public-private initiatives to promote food waste reduction, edible food donation, and diversion of remaining food waste from landfills and waste-to-energy plants (see ELI Senior Attorney Linda Breggin discuss some of our work on “Today in Nashville”). This initiative builds on ELI’s extensive law and policy experience researching, convening, and publishing related to climate change mitigation, sustainable production and consumption, and state and local waste management programs.

In one project, ELI analyzed business strateges and developed diagnostic tools to expand adoption of a specific food waste diversion strategy: co-digestion of food waste at waste water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs). Substantial potential exists to achieve broad economic, environmental, and community benefits by diverting food waste to anaerobic digestion at existing municipal wastewater treatment plants. This diversion strategy fits with new “utility of the future” vision of transforming the utilities’ enterprise from managing waste to managing the recovery of valuable resources; further, substantial excess capacity exists in AD facilities currently serving the sector. 

In another project, we will develop guidance for municipal and state policy makers on strategies to promote recycling of food waste from landfills and waste-to-energy plants, to composting and anaerobic digestion. The foundation for the guidance is a review of regionally-representative municipal and state initiatives to identify key drivers of success and lessons learned for creating high–performing programs. A major constraint is lack of food waste processing facilities. The initial stage of the research focuses on diversion of food waste from landfills and waste-to-energy plants, including the design of state and local policies and programs to facilitate diversion. The subsequent stage will integrate policies and programs to promote reduction and donation into the analysis.

To complement this research, ELI is developing relationships with public and private sector organizations in local communities that seek support for developing new food waste reduction, recovery and diversion initiatives. We are currently working for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Tennessee as their local Project Director for the Nashville Food Waste Initiative which is working with stakeholders to develop and implement a food waste strategy that can serve as a model for other cities. The Nashville Food Waste Initiative was recently feaured in a Nashville Public Radio segment, "When It Comes To Food In Nashville, It's Waste Not, Want Not."