Food Loss, or Waste?

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Last month the US EPA announced a joint food waste reduction effort with the USDA. Their goal of food waste reduction of 50% by the year 2030 is ambitious. First, we must understand that reduction means two separate efforts – loss and waste.

Simplistically, “losses” occur in the supply chain of production and distribution, while “waste” takes place when consumers over-purchase, improperly plan, store or prepare their meals. So where is the greatest opportunity – reducing loss or waste? To find a solution, one has to define exactly what the problem is.

Upon first glance at “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, consumers are the main problem – the percentage of waste for consumers by food type is higher than the other four categories.


Graph adapted from “Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40% of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill” by Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, August 2012.

On average, about 23% of food waste is wasted by consumers, versus less than 5% for all other parts of the supply chain. However, when looking at percentages it is imperative we understand the denominator. So what is the total amount consumers purchase — as compared to the amount produced?

A 2011 report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations titled, “Global Food Losses and Waste” shows the biggest opportunity is on the loss side of the equation.


Graph from “Global Food Losses and Waste” by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2011.

Where does food lost in production go? After looking at a report prepared for the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, it appears much of this loss is diverted to animal feed.


Graph prepared with data from “Analysis of U.S. Food Waste Among Food Manufacturers, Retailers and Wholesalers.” Food Waste Reduction Alliance, April 2013.

So is this food waste really “lost” if it is returned to the cycle of production of more food? I submit that as long as food waste from production goes back into making more food, it is not really wasted or lost.

Which raises the question, “With the USDA involved in food production and so much already diverted to produce more food, how much can they move the needle on reducing food losses?” Won’t this mean higher food production costs and therefore higher consumer costs if they have to supplement animal feed with other sources?


Wasted Energy?

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by Casey Furlong


According to an EPA report (1), approximately 20% of all trash is managed using Waste to Energy (WtE). Most of us know this as incineration. The same report describes a considerable amount of that garbage consists of paper, plastic, metal and food scraps. Incinerating trash at a WtE plant as a method of municipal solid waste (MSW) management misses the opportunity to optimize resource recovery. It converts almost everything to heat and ash. Food consists mostly of water, so does it make sense to burn it?


Government officials in charge of improving recycling rates have a difficult task, especially in areas that have WtE plants, which require a constant supply of trash. However, officials may be surprised that a facility’s generating capacity won’t be significantly diminished if some or all of the food scraps are eliminated from the trash.

Moisture in food inversely correlates to heating value of MSW

A paper titled “The Effect of Food Waste Diversion on Waste Heating Value and WtE Capacity(2)” evaluated how heating potential of garbage changed as increments of food waste were removed prior to being disposed of in an incinerator. The authors found by removing just one quarter of the food scraps (7.3% of the total trash), the heating value per ton of incoming trash reduced by 3.4%. The affect is nearly linear with 50%, 75% and even the unlikely 100% diversion of food scraps from the landfill.


If a community was to redirect all of their food scraps to anaerobic digestion and composting, there would be almost 30% less trash being burned at the WtE facility, but only a 14% reduction in heating value. So, the overall amount of energy generated is less, because less garbage is incinerated. However, the amount of energy per ton of garbage is actually higher without food waste. The moisture content contributed by food inversely correlates to the heating value of general MSW.

Starving a landfill after starving an incinerator

In order to avoid an expensive service shut-down and power supply interruption before the incoming trash runs out, the authors suggest officials redirect certain waste streams from landfills to make up tonnage shortfalls. Starving a landfill after starving an incinerator — now that’s a conclusion I agree with.

(1)United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2015. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2013.

(2)LoRe, Anthony M. and Harder, Susana Harder. 2012. “The Effect of Food Waste Diversion on Waste Heating Value and WtE Capacity.” 20th Annual North American Waste-to-Energy Conference 2012.

Casey Furlong is an Environmental Specialist for InSinkErator. With an extensive background in landfill engineering, Casey has designed, permitted, constructed and operated municipal solid waste landfills and large-scale food and landscape waste compost facilities. He is a certified landfill manager in Wisconsin and registered professional engineer in the states of WI, IL and IN.


Elemental Composition of Biosolids vs. Soil

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Center for Urban Horticulture, University of Washington. 2002. “Using biosolids for reclamation and remediation of disturbed soils.” Plant Conservation Alliance, Bureau of Land Management, US Department of Interior, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Special thanks to Ned Beecher and Chuck Henry


Better than dirt

As I mentioned in my post last month, biosolids are the byproduct of wastewater treatment and are processed to reduce pathogens, which results in a material that’s much different than human waste. Biosolids are comprised of the remaining cell walls of microorganisms left over from the treatment process, as well as the organic biomass remaining after digestion. On an elemental level, the composition is somewhat similar to soil. Except it’s better.


The main difference between biosolids and soil is that biosolids have more Carbon and less Silicon. It also has more Nitrogen and Phosphorus. So not only are biosolids good fertilizer, the organic content of biosolids actually helps to replenish soils by adding more carbon.

Biosolids also help soil retain more water. Replacing carbon and improving the moisture holding-capacity of soils reduces the negative impacts of erosion, a challenge for all farmers.

Contrary to what people think, biosolids are a lot more (and less) than a bag of waste.