The University of Food Waste

Author Aaron Burman, Senior Engineer

Author: Aaron Burman, Senior Engineer

I have to say that I was incredibly excited when I read the recent news that California has passed a statewide ban on organic waste going to the landfill and requiring businesses and multi-family households to contract for collection of it. They have joined a growing movement spearheaded by Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts that gained momentum with New York City this past year. This, on top of the fanfare the corporate climate goals took at the recent UN Climate Summit, made for a very encouraging week in the often tumultuous life of a sustainability professional.

The growing movement toward focusing on food waste recognizes the significant climate effects that our wasted food has. It is not just the methane released when the food waste is landfilled, although that is significant. The big climate effect is in food that is grown but never eaten and this is where, to me, it gets interesting. In developing countries, the majority of food is lost between the farm and being sold; it never makes it to consumers. In developed countries, due to advances in packaging, the vast majority of food waste is by consumers. For example, according to a report by CleanMetrics, 35% of vegetables that are produced are never consumed and over 60% of that loss is by consumers! So over one in every five vegetables produced is wasted by you and me. And, the GHG emissions from the food production are over three times greater than that of the methane production in the landfill. So, food waste is a sustainability issue that we can’t blame on everyone else. We can work to reduce it in our homes and offices every day.

Universities have recognized this issue and have been targeting organics diversion for some time. It seems that almost every university, at a minimum, composts food scraps from the cafeterias. Cafeterias and kitchen areas offer two big benefits: (a) they have large volumes of both pre-consumer and post-consumer food waste; and (b) they can be strictly controlled to minimize contamination, both back of house and in the cafeteria. Cafeterias are also an ideal place for educating students on the importance of not wasting food, both in not taking too much food, and in having students separate their food waste from other materials. Although sometimes it can be efficient to have staff scrape the plates behind the scenes, it misses an opportunity for the university to push environmentally friendly practices to the students.

Setting up zero-waste programs in cafeterias and even stadiums is becoming more commonplace. Purchasing of materials can be done to ensure compatibility with the local composting program. Targeting organics diversion on the rest of campus offers more challenges, but is one worth taking on. At my local university, University of Michigan, a 2012 waste characterization showed that classroom and administrative buildings have one-third of the waste that is compostable. Much of this is food waste and napkins that staff and students bring into the buildings. Diverting this food waste requires strategic placement of bins in areas that will reduce contamination, a processor that can handle a diverse range of materials, and very clear signage and education.

Campus-wide food waste collection is the next area that universities can lead and educate, not just the students, but also the entire business community. They can demonstrate the path forward for everyone that will be affected by the growing number of statewide and city organics bans across the country.

What is being done at your local university? Share your ideas below in the comments section.