New York gets serious about curbing food waste

Starting July 19, 2016, the city will mandate that many hotels, wholesalers, and other large vendors separate their organic waste to recycle.

Ted S. Warren/AP
David Morales, a garbage driver with Recology, dumps a garbage container for Seattle Public Utilities, Friday, April 15, 2016, in Seattle.

New York City is taking a giant bite out of food waste. In an attempt to be more ecologically friendly, starting July 19, 2016, the city will mandate that many hotels, wholesalers, and other large vendors separate their organic waste to recycle.

"Organic waste, such as food waste, food soiled paper and yard waste makes up approximately one-third of the waste generated by businesses in New York City," according to the NYC Department of Sanitation. "This material can be processed to create soil-enhancing compost or used as an energy source in aerobic and anaerobic digesters."  

Businesses will have the option of disposing of the waste by themselves, having a third party pick it up for them, or processing the waste on-site, which essentially means that they would be recycling it on their own. In the case of this third option, businesses would be able to use an ORCA, a steel machine that "digests" over a ton of food waste per day and, through an aerobic process that requires electricity and oxygen, transforms it into environmentally safe water that flows into the municipal sewage system.

Similar machines like the Harvester process organic food waste as well, but produce fertilizer instead of sewage water. Often city programs transport waste to be processed off site, such as at a landfill. In such cases, the waste is processed anaerobically, without oxygen, and hence emits methane gas as a bi-product.

Food waste is a huge problem not only in New York, but all over the United States and the globe. Almost one third of all the fruit, vegetables, meat, grains, and packaged food produced around the world get thrown out each year. American consumers and businesses throw away 40 percent of their food, which hikes up to $165 billion wasted. The average American throws away on average 20 pounds of food each month, which costs between $28 and $43.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recommends that governments should remove inefficiencies in the system by conducting a comprehensive study of food losses. A similar study by the European Commission was a useful preliminary step to establish reduction goals: The European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2012 cutting food waste by 50 percent by 2020. "The most important problem in the future will be to tackle increased demand for food, as it will outstrip supply. We can no longer afford to stand idly by while perfectly edible food is being wasted," the European Parliament said in a statement. "This is an ethical but also an economic and social problem, with huge implications for the environment."

While the American federal government has done little to reduce food waste throughout the country, the NRDC recommends that state governments set targets for reduction of food waste, and create tax and other incentives to encourage donating edible food. Some city governments have also been stepping up to plate in recent months. In addition to the new regulations in New York, Seattle recently established a new law allowing garbage collectors to check people's trash to see whether they are disposing of recycling items and food waste incorrectly.

Organizations like the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) work with different national food providers to reduce waste, as well. Food companies like Cheesecake Factory, Safeway, and Nestle are all members of the FWRA. Aimed at reducing food waste, increasing the amount of safe, nutritious food donated to the needy, and recycling unavoidable food waste by diverting it from landfills, the FWRA conducts original research to understand the root causes of food waste, identifies useful technological solutions, advocates for policies that incentivize food donation, and engages the community.

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