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"Still life on composter" by is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Should The US Mandate Food Waste Composting?

What if the US had different policies in place about excess food disposal? How can cleantech help to lessen the amount of organic waste in landfills?

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Throughout the world, food waste issues continue to plague almost every country. Multiple ideas and solutions have been conceived and are continuously being tested by scientists and government bodies to mitigate food waste management issues. South Korea, for example, recycles close to 100% annually due to mandatory municipal composting, while in the US most food waste ends up in landfills.

Should the US mandate food excess composting? What other solutions might work to reduce methane emissions in landfills? How does the use of digital technology, which has been increasingly accessed since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, offer opportunities to further reduce food waste?

Food is the single largest category of material placed in US municipal landfills, where it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Considering that nearly 690 million people worldwide suffer from hunger, wasting food is not only uneconomical but also ethically unacceptable. Moreover, the resources needed to produce food, such as energy for transport, processing and storage, or the use of artificial fertilizers, pollute the environment.

Food waste can be categorized according to its origin:

  • receiving waste, when acceptance of raw materials is refused at the incoming goods inspection
  • storage waste, which arises from spoiled goods or goods whose best-before date has expired
  • preparation waste, resulting from trimming of food or errors from cooking
  • safety margin waste, comprising food which is overproduced and does not leave the kitchen
  • serving waste, which does not reach the guests’ plates
  • plate waste, which consists of food leftover on the plates

Reduction of food waste is a part of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals because approximately one-third of all food produced globally is never consumed, and this loss creates negative impacts on financial well-being, food security, natural resource stocks, and environmental quality. From a social ecological perspective, food waste and the ability to diminish it is influenced not only by personal factors but also factors associated with a person’s household, community, and the physical and social milieu in which person lives.

South Korea’s Mandatory Composting Program

Since 2013, under South Korea’s mandatory composting scheme, residents have been required to use specific bags to throw out their uneaten food. Printed with the words “designated food waste bag,” a single 3-liter bag costs 300 won (about 20 cents) apiece. As reported by the Guardian, all consumers have to do is squeeze out any moisture and place the bag by the street in a special bin after sunset.

Beginning in the late 1990s, as landfills in the crowded capital area approached their limits, South Korea implemented a slate of policies to ease what was becoming seen as a trash crisis. The government banned burying organic waste in landfills in 2005, followed by another ban against dumping leachate — the putrid liquid squeezed from solid food detritus — into the ocean in 2013. Universal curbside composting was implemented that same year, requiring everyone to separate their food from general waste.

At a processing plant, the plastic is removed, and the contents are recycled into biogas, animal feed, or fertilizer. Some municipalities have introduced automated food waste collectors in apartment complexes, which allow residents to forgo the bags and swipe a card to pay the weight-based fee at the machine directly. The revenue from the yellow bags is collected by the district government to help defray the costs of this process, in effect working as a pay-as-you-throw tax.

Because food composting in this way is easy to use and accessible, the system has been embraced by consumers. In 1996, South Korea recycled just 2.6% of its food waste. Today, South Korea recycles nearly all of its edible leftovers.

In the US, food discarded in landfills is causing state and municipal governments to look at numerous solutions to recycle more of their discarded food. Only 9 US states currently have some sort of ban on landfilling organic waste, while others are facing the high costs and logistical complexities of building new recycling infrastructure.

New York City, which has long struggled to find a workable food recycling system of its own, recently introduced its first borough-wide universal curbside composting program in Queens. The borough can use this fertilizer to use for landscaping in public parks.

Could such a program be applied in other municipalities? What are some alternatives to such large-scale municipal composting? How can cleantech help?

Addressing Food Waste with a Smartphone App

A variety of different digital and social contexts occur where technologies are applied: social, mobile, analytic, cloud, and Internet of Things. The concept of technology-aided tailored sustainability interventions is relatively new in food waste discussions. It is an approach that leverages technology to individually tailor interventions to achieve pro-environmental behavior change.

An interesting research study suggests that food disposal interventions that track behaviors across multiple domains of activity are the most likely to produce positive results. Such interventions leverage technologies such as mobile phones that complement or replace human touchpoints. More than 95% of the US population have some type of mobile phone. A smartphone app was specially developed to provide waste measurements equivalent to directly weighed waste measures during food preparation and eating occasions.

This methodological advance not only permitted the evaluation of interventions in multiple spheres (food disposal, nutrition, and food acquisition) for multiple food related behaviors (shopping, preparation, consumption, and waste) but also enabled rapid feedback necessary to support just-in-time, tailored interventions.

Using Cleantech to Minimize Food Waste in Restaurants

In order to understand how digital technologies can be used to reduce food waste in the food service process, the authors of a European study created a categorization scheme based on a selection of 18 digital food waste reduction technologies available in their area. Tools were selected that have a direct impact on food waste and whose reduction function is explicitly advertised as such by the institutions offering them.

The analysis of the tools revealed that the application of such digital technologies can be roughly clustered in the following 4 scenarios:

  • Forecasting tools, mostly intelligent software based on data analysis. A demand forecast can be established by analyzing data from past business activities in combination with external data (such as weekday, season, weather condition) with the help of algorithms. Demand forecasts improve planning reliability, with the potential of affecting multiple key processes;
  • Waste analysis tools, mostly based on a combination of hardware and software solutions with a focus on the distribution process of food service businesses. Waste Analysis tools can facilitate the detection of the major sources of food waste, whether caused by storage deficiencies/issues, overproduction, or serving and plate leftovers. They can increase sensibility on the level of management, kitchen and customers towards food waste;
  • Redistribution tools, focus on reselling food surplus at a reduced rate or donating to other businesses, institutions or customers. The consciousness towards accrued food leftovers by customers is affected, as they perceive the offers and amount of food surplus; and,
  • Measure catalogs, providing practical support for handling food. Measure catalogs can support the strategic leadership down to operational processes by providing an overview of food reduction principles and supportive digital tools.

Digital transformation has the potential to coalesce business and society, creating new ecosystems. The process of digital transformation will affect all value-adding processes of a company, from core processes to supporting activities up to strategic alignment.

food waste

“Municipal food waste composting in Brooklyn” by andyarthur is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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