What if Food Waste Collection was Mandatory?

What If…?

We as humans are naturally inquisitive and we have all been down that oh-so-tempting rabbit hole: what if…? What if I could fly? What if I didn’t pay my taxes? What if I learned to speak Quechua? What if I ate this entire quart of ice cream? Well, you’re not alone and when it comes to our future as a sustainably-minded race, I for one am here to follow through on some of these musings. Over the next few weeks, this blog will offer a glimpse into possible realities.

Big changes, especially those that include a fine, take a while for the public to get used to. Federally mandated food waste collection, like so many laws, would be met with resistance by some and greeted with messianic acclaim by others. There would be concern that waste regulation could impinge on social liberties and lead to armies of governmental henchmen digging through one’s personal refuse. Opinion wars would rage on even after the initiative took effect. Then, gradually the opposition would lose interest as the benefits became clear. And the benefits would be undeniable.

According to the FAO, nearly half of all food produced worldwide is wasted in private kitchens, restaurants, processing plants, supermarkets, and during transportation. In the U.S., as much as 30% of our food goes to waste after production. This means over $48 billion is pulled from our collective pockets and tossed right into the garbage can every year. Anyone who has worked in a high traffic restaurant or eaten at a buffet can attest to just how much we waste on a daily basis. All this discarded food is sent to rot in landfills, where it generates tons upon tons of methane – a greenhouse gas 23 times more destructive than CO2.

On the federal level, the collection of food waste and yard waste would not only immediately decrease the amount of organic material that is heaped into landfills, it would also begin the shift in consciousness from “waste” to “resource.” Food waste still has a lot to give. It can be composted and used as a rich soil amendment, or it can be converted into energy to power the community. It can even be converted into new, usable products!

Food waste is some of the most energy dense material out there. As the majority of you are likely aware, BME’s very own AGATE system is capable of processing all manner of organic waste to produce biogas for energy, and biochemicals to replace toxic petrochemicals. This not only includes food scraps and moldy leftovers, but soiled napkins and compostable paper products. Imagine then that each scrap of food saved from the maw of the garbage bin is a battery, holding the potential to power your home and displace petroleum. We may yet add a new phrase to the environmentally conscious vocabulary: “Don’t throw that away, it’s AGATE-able!”

Think this is a pipedream of the future? In many cities it is already reality. Across the U.S., temporary pilot programs have been setup to test the feasibility of food waste collection in their particular urban environment. Such programs have been underway in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Colorado. Longstanding regional programs have flourished and expanded in areas like California’s Alameda County and our own King County. Seattle boasts both recycling and organic (food/yard) waste collection mandates. San Francisco has also enacted mandatory residential organics collection. Since the enactment of this mandate, the amount of food waste collected in San Francisco rose from 400 to 500 tons per day.

The big concern on critics’ lips has been monitoring and enforcing these mandates. There’s really no getting around the fact that the idea of someone inspecting your trash is creepy at best and invasive at worst. That being said, we have yet to see a takeover of the Department of Sanitization by Big Brother in any of the cities currently practicing mandatory food waste collection. It may help to think of food waste mandates as an extension of litter or hazardous material laws. And when it comes to fines, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief. According to officials from Seattle Public Utilities, families failing to separate food waste from their trash do not immediately receive a fine; suffering instead the minor inconvenience of having their trash tagged and left until it has been properly sorted. Only after a residence has been tagged 3 times, will the family receive a fine ($50 in case you’re curious). These fines are intended to provide punitive incentive, not line city coffers. In 2008, only 18 of the 6,000 apartment buildings served by Seattle Public Utilities were fined.

In most cases, cities across the globe with mandatory food waste pickup report a rise in the standard of living. Compostable food waste no longer besmirches apartment building trash chutes and basements, affording tenants a distinctly fresher outlook on life. Salvaged food waste has enriched the soil of local parks and gardens, nourishing plants and improving the public experience. Private companies and municipalities with waste to energy agreements are enjoying the mutual benefits of the shift from “waste” to “resource.” It’s hard to argue with something this full of win, and we can only hope that this regional trend will soon go national.