Cutting Carbon While Feeding People: The Role of Food Rescue in Slowing Climate Change

Posted on December 11, 2019 by Adam Kahn

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that up to 40% of all food in the United States is wasted, even as 40 million Americans lack consistent access to adequate and nutritious food. Donation of useable food has palpable and obvious social benefits.  Recovering (or rescuing) edible food from restaurants, groceries and institutions that would otherwise go to waste can help “bridg[e] the gap between abundance and need.”  Reduction in food waste (through food rescue or otherwise) will also yield big reductions in carbon emissions.

From an environmental regulatory perspective, managing food that has been deemed unsalable has traditionally been considered a solid waste problem.  Four northeastern states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont) and California limit the disposal of “food waste” or other organics in conventional waste streams that go to landfills or waste to energy facilities.  Getting usable food out of the waste stream, for the most part, satisfies most existing regulatory schemes, regardless of how it is done.  However, these rules do not create a clear preference or incentive for “rescuing” food so that it can be eaten by people. 

This is not to suggest that regulators are ignoring benefits of food waste reduction in setting solid waste policy.  The USDA and US EPA have presented inverse pyramids of priorities for preventing or diverting wasted food; food rescue is number two, right after prevention of food waste at the production level.   These efforts and similar efforts may be having some effect:  In my home state of Massachusetts, the current draft Solid Waste Master Plan appropriately highlights the 60% increase in rescue of fresh and perishable food between 2010 and 2018.  The non-profit ReFED has developed an impressive Food Waste Policy Finder that compiles ways in which food wastage can be reduced, and an equally impressive Roadmap to identify cost-effective regulatory, policy, and business solutions to reduce food waste.  Outside of solid waste rules, food waste can be reduced by improving “sell by” or “use by” date labeling requirements, food handling practices and regulations, usage and waste tracking information, packaging and portion sizes, consumer and business education, and donation-related tax incentives.  

Food rescue and other forms of food waste reduction can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that 8-10% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions result from food loss and waste.  In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) similarly found that food wastage accounted for 3.6 billion tons of CO2e, or as FAO put it “if food wastage was a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world” (right after China and the US and right before India and Russia).  Of that figure, about 35% comes in the distribution and consumption phases of the food supply chain, which are the stages where food rescue comes into play.  Similar statistics abound in other reputable publications.

So, what role can environmental law serve to help realize the climate benefits of food rescue, apart from continued improvements in solid waste policy?

Jurisdictions that regulate carbon emissions, or have carbon emission caps or reduction targets, should consider providing tradable credits for rescue of food or other beneficial reuse.  This will be complicated, particularly in the absence of economy-wide regulation of carbon emissions.  Nonetheless, an administrable system would create a new avenue to enable would-be producers of food waste to monetize their good deeds through tradable carbon-avoidance credits.  As a first step to any of this, we should agree on a transparent and understandable standard for measuring the carbon impact from food rescue.  The Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard is one potential example.  Once a methodology is accepted, the carbon benefits of food waste reduction can be quantified and then rewarded. 

Even in the absence of tradable credits, requiring carbon offsets in the form of food waste reduction could form part of a jurisdiction’s larger carbon reduction plan.  For example, state and local regulatory authorities with mandates to minimize environmental impacts could require development projects (particularly those involving the food industry) to offset incremental greenhouse gas emissions through food waste reduction.  Similarly, environmental regulators that retain the ability to consider supplemental environmental projects could consider food waste reduction as part of resolution of environmental enforcement actions.

These ideas will take time and collective will to put in place.  But individual action does not need to wait: reducing food waste today will have carbon benefits today even if no one is measuring, regulating, or rewarding it. 

Supreme Court Puts Clean Power Plan on Hold, but Clean Agriculture Can Move Forward

Posted on February 12, 2016 by Peter Lehner

The Supreme Court's unexplained stay of the clean power plan was "one of the most environmentally harmful judicial actions of all time," writes Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School in a recent, excellent blog. Rather than venting outrage, Gerrard quickly moves on to explain that the Clean Power Plan isn’t the only way to cut carbon pollution.

Ramping up efforts like fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and building efficiency standards, he notes, will also help reduce carbon pollution. Gerrard mentions a couple of points about agriculture, but often, this sector is overlooked when it comes to climate solutions. It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the opportunities to reduce climate pollution from our food system.

Food waste is the second largest component of most landfills. As it rots, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that 2 percent to 4 percent of all manmade climate pollution arises simply from food rotting in landfills.

Keeping food waste out of landfills can help reduce methane pollution. Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some cities have enacted laws to manage organic waste disposal in landfills. The idea is to create incentives to reduce food waste and divert it to other purposes, such as animal feed or composting. Instead of being thrown away and becoming a source of pollution, this “waste” can be put to good use. Landfill gas collection systems can be further incentivized. And the nascent effort to reduce food waste from businesses and households can be significantly ramped up.

Another major source of greenhouse gases is the over application of fertilizer. Excess nitrogen fertilizer causes two big problems. The first is water pollution. Nitrogen that isn’t taken up by crops runs off farms and enters larger waterways, where it stimulates the growth of algae and creates “dead zones” deprived of oxygen. The second, and less frequently discussed issue, is the volatilization of nitrogen into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2.  The IPCC estimates that 12 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions come from synthetic fertilizer application.  

A number of techniques can reduce these emissions while also providing a cost benefit to farmers. Farm policies could encourage practices like cover cropping, which reduces the need for fertilizer by making soils more rich and fertile. Crop rotations can do the same, yet current crop insurance programs actually discourage the use of these practices. Precision application technologies for fertilizers are getting ever better, but their uptake on farms is slow.

Manure from animals, and the "enteric emissions" from cattle (more commonly thought of as belching) are two more significant sources of climate pollution. Enteric fermentation alone may account for as much as 40 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IPCC. Changes in diet might help with these emissions, but this is an area that needs more research.

Some of the emissions from manure can be captured if manure lagoons were covered and better managed. As it stands, these pits are only slightly regulated and are major sources of water pollution sources as well as odor nuisances. An even better practice is to raise cows on rotating pastures, where their waste can enhance soils and help store carbon. And, of course, if Americans did shift to a diet lower in red meat, as per the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, we could further reduce climate pollution from cattle.

Agriculture is one of our nation's most important economic sectors, and is especially vulnerable to the extreme weather impacts of climate change. Its product -- food -- is critical not only for our economy, but is an integral and uniquely personal part of our everyday lives. When we think about how to address climate change, it makes sense to think about food and agriculture. The food we choose to produce, and how we produce it, use it, and dispose of it, all have an impact on climate pollution—and therefore have the potential to become climate solutions. 

When Will My Leftover Turkey Power My Electric Car: A Post Thanksgiving Reflection on the Promise and Challenge of Food Waste Bans

Posted on December 1, 2014 by Adam Kahn

Food is a big part of why Thanksgiving is my family’s favorite holiday.  Over the years, we have tried to eat sensibly and sustainably, and to waste less food. But on the Monday after Thanksgiving, I suspect we are not alone as we contemplate the wilted salad, the wan sweet potatoes, and the last of the now not-so-attractive leftover turkey.  Indeed, one recent study by NRDC estimated that Americans throw away 40% of their food. 

In the last few years, declining capacities at conventional solid waste disposal facilities, combined with the realization that there are more beneficial things to do with food waste and other organics than to throw them in a landfill or burn them have led to partial food or organic waste bans in California, ConnecticutMassachusetts, Vermont, as well as in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco,  and New York.

Of course, these ambitious waste segregation programs require that there be an alternative location to reuse or process these materials.  Historically, organics have been transformed into compost or animal feed.  Unfortunately, the volume of the waste stream is far in excess of what existing, generally small composting facilities can handle.  Larger facilities that might be able to increase capacity are generally located far from urban and suburban centers that generate the waste.  Many regulators have recognized the need to create an infrastructure to handle this material but a more comprehensive national program is needed if we are really going to stop throwing our food into landfills.

One of the most promising technologies to manage the large amount of organic waste generated near city centers is anaerobic digestion (“AD”). AD systems use anaerobic bacteria to break down organic matter into methane and carbon dioxide. The resulting methane can generate energy in place of traditional fossil fuels.  A large-scale system might generate as much as 8-10 MW of electricity (enough to power 8-10,000 homes), while diverting thousands of tons of organics from landfills.  And as a bonus, the residual materials can be used as compost or soil amendments.  AD systems are well established at wastewater treatment plants and are emerging at certain large agricultural operations.

But there have not been many large scale AD systems designed to handle the anticipated flood of organics that will soon be separated from the general waste stream.   Part of the problem may be one of raw material supply – a single large AD system may need hundreds of thousands of tons of segregated organic materials annually.   The waste bans may help develop a reliable supply.   Siting of these facilities presents other challenges.  Some states, most notably Massachusetts have amended regulations to make it easier (though certainly not “easy”) to permit these facilities, at least on a state level. Hopefully other regulators will follow suit, allowing market forces to coalesce and expand what is now a nascent industry. Otherwise the organic material diverted from the solid waste stream by well-intentioned laws and rules will pile up in unpleasant ways.