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Issues Of The Environment: Managing Food Waste For The Holidays And Throughout The Year

Dec 13, 2017

Food Waste
Credit Wikipedia Media Commons / wikipedia.org

In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair talks to Noelle Bowman, Solid Waste Program Specialist for Washtenaw County, about the magnitude of food waste, especially during the holidays.  She addresses some of the causes and offers tips for prevention and local resources for wasting less. 


Magnitude of the Food Waste Problem

  • The amount of food wasted in the United States is staggering, 400lbs per person is thrown away annually. That’s 40% of all food! 
  • 1 in 7 Americans is considered food insecure, with 15% of those in Washtenaw County falling under this label.
  • 85% of that “waste” is happening at the back end of the chain, meaning at homes (43%) and consumer-facing business (40%) such as restaurants, grocery stores and institutions with food service.
  • Governor Snyder has voiced support for increasing the recycling rate to 30%, and for that to happen food waste (composting) would need to play a greater role.
  • Noelle Bowman, Solid Waste Program Specialist for Washtenaw County, is highly involved with the county’s “zero waste” programs and strategic plan for reducing the county’s burden on landfills.  She also participates with Ann Arbor's food waste collection program.

Mountains of Food

Noelle says that first and foremost the scale of the food waste problem must be addressed.  She provided the bulk of data from the ReFED study (www.ReFED.com), which is the most recent and comprehensive study on food waste in the US ever conducted.

The study reveals, for example, that about 40% of ALL food is wasted in the US, which amounts to about 63 million tons (126 billion pounds) per year.  Per person, that’s about 400 lbs for each person per year.  The sheer magnitude of this problem can be difficult for most to comprehend. For those for whom “dollars” make more sense, an economic equivalent to this level of waste is over $210 billion dollars annually, which is about 1.3% of the US GDP.

Hungry and Wasteful

Meanwhile, 1 in 7 Americans are “food insecure.”  In Washtenaw County, that’s also true with around 15% of Washtenaw County residents that suffer from food insecurity.  Clearly, something is not right here. 

Where does food waste occur?

While food waste occurs throughout the whole food supply chain (including: growing, processing, transporting, and end of life/disposal)…About 85% of that “waste” is happening at the back end of the chain, meaning at homes (43%) and consumer-facing business (40%) such as restaurants, grocery stores and institutions with food service.

Prevention is the Key to Stemming the “Food Tide”

The EPA’s “Food Recovery Hierarchy” prioritizes “prevention” as #1.  The next tier is “Feed Hungry People.” 

Food Gatherers

Noelle says, “We are fortunate to live in a community in Washtenaw County where we have Food Gatherers which is a true asset to the community because they are doing just this on an impactful scale locally.  I can list some food gatherers facts on the radio but essentially in 2016, through their “Food Rescue Program” saved more than 2.8 million pounds in in Washtenaw County from being wasted and entering the landfill.

That sounds like a lot, and it is.  But, for scale, if we compare that to the national catastrophe of food waste occurring in our nation per year, Food Gatherers through their work is only addressing .0022% of the problem.   

The next two tiers on the food hierarchy are industrial uses (waste to energy such as Anaerobic Digestion) and composting. 

What is Washtenaw County doing to address food waste?

Washtenaw County’s solid waste plan and its zero waste goal both help to make a dent in the amount of food wasted locally.  Noelle can speak to both of these.  She also knows a great deal about the City of Ann Arbor's food waste collection program.  Statewide, the governor has recognized the need to increase our state recycling rate to 30% (from its current 15%), and as a part of that initiative, it is recognized and accepted that in order to achieve that 30% goal, food waste must be addressed.  

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu