The Growing Trend Of Zero Food Waste And U.S. Companies

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We’ve become a throwaway society. Leftovers from a dinner out get tossed into the trash. Bruised or past due supermarket produce winds up in dumpsters and ultimately in our landfills.

There’s a growing movement to give “organics” a second life. The Zero Waste movement has taken on food waste and businesses and organizations are embracing this sustainability trend.

Here are some sobering facts about food waste:

  • Approximately 40 percent of our food supply is wasted. That’s more than 20 pounds of food per person per month – the equivalent of $115 billion per year!
  • Organic waste is the second highest component of landfills, the largest source of methane emissions.
  • In 2010, Americans wasted almost 33.8 million tons of food
  • If we wasted 5 percent less food, that would be enough to feed 4,000,000 Americans!

Revisiting the 3Rs

Zero waste goes beyond recycling, although that’s an integral component. The underlying premise is for businesses to produce less waste by changing employees’ and suppliers’ habits. This includes purchasing less, dramatically reducing or eliminating plastic, creating more sustainable packaging and embracing the 3 R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

According to Stephanie Barger, founder and Executive Director of the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, zero waste is about “upstream”.

“It’s not recycling and composting,” Barger said. It’s about retraining, refusing, returning, repairing, redesigning, rethinking and remembering. It’s about prioritizing them in the right way, she said.

But prioritizing doesn’t effect widespread change.

What’s necessary, said Barger, is for business leadership to have an awareness of trash on our natural environment and trash’s toxins on our human environment.

Barger says the Council’s goal is create a zero waste economy. That requires getting businesses to redesign their business model.

Brewing sustainability

Companies across the country are stepping up to do just that. One notable example is California-based Sierra Nevada Brewery Company.

Sierra Nevada Brewing has a history of being at the forefront of environmental issues says Sustainability Coordinator Mandi McKay.

Eight years ago they hired a recycling coordinator to handle everything – metal, plastic, cardboard, etc. The position quickly blossomed to include saving water, energy, and installing a huge solar array. The company now has a Department of Sustainability.

Approximately six years ago the company began working closely with the city of Chico and Butte County to try and get them to install a regional composting facility that would accept food waste. There wasn’t one within 100 miles of the Brewery.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company's HotRot Composting Machine

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s HotRot Composting Machine. Photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.

Sadly, there was no traction to move forward. With no recourse and a commitment to responsibly managing its food waste, Sierra Nevada Brewery bought its own composting machine.

“It’s an investment, said McKay, noting that the Hot Rot composting machine – the only one in the United States – was very expensive.

Now 100 percent of the food waste the company generates – from its on-site restaurant, gardens, employee break room and concerts – goes into composting.

Sierra Nevada averages around 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of food waste per day of spent hops and/or grain material, paper towels and compostable products that goes into their composter. This produces approximately three yards of compost per day.

“It’s a continuous flow,” said McKay.

And they have perfect onsite outlets for that compost – in their hop fields, their barley field and in their restaurant gardens.

“It’s a closed loop system,” said McKay.

This system is just one factor in the company’s sustainability efforts. When they purchased the Hot Rot, they were already at 90 percent diversion, sending their spent grain and yeast for cattle feed.

These efforts more than qualified them for certification by the Zero Waste Council. Adding the food waste and composting was the last push to get them to an unprecedented 99.8 percent diversion level and achieve the Council’s prestigious Platinum certification.

Zero Waste Facility Certification

The Zero Waste Facility Certification is the first third-party Zero Waste Certification program for facilities that meet the requirements for a valid, comprehensive verification of a company’s Zero Waste achievements. It certifies a company’s level of waste diversion, which must be at 90 percent diversion for at least a year.

To be certified, a company can gain points in fifteen categories, which include retraining, reusing, reducing, purchasing, redesigning and leadership.

In a zero waste company, everyone in every department is responsible, trained and incentivized, said Barger. Every department has zero waste policies and its own zero waste program and is responsible for being part of the company’s overall zero waste plan. It’s a sustainable program with the total participation of the entire company.

Food waste diversion

Root vegetables at grocer

In 2014, Quest Resource Management Group – an environmental consulting and management group working with Fortune 500 companies – helped clients recycle over 500,500 tons of food waste. Image courtesy of Beatrice Murch.

In 2014, Quest Resource Management Group – an environmental consulting and management group working with Fortune 500 companies – helped clients recycle over 500,500 tons of food waste.

Zero Waste Council is working to educate and train zero waste business professionals.

“There’s no college / other types of professional training (for this),” said Barger. “We’re creating a huge workforce of zero waste professionals. (And) we’re creating value to zero waste,” she said, “creating jobs, markets and healthy communities through zero waste.”

“People get excited about sustainability,” said McKay. “Sierra Nevada’s employees live and work all this (their sustainability programs).” The Zero Waste Platinum Certification was a nice recognition for them,” she said.

“It’s all about being an efficient, forward thinking company,” Barger said.

To companies looking to tackle food waste issues, McKay says there aren’t enough regional composting facilities. Among the big hurdles to creating these facilities are a difficult permitting process, expensive costs, food waste collection and contamination issues.

If businesses want to pursue food waste management, McKay suggests starting with your city or county to see about creating a momentum to open a regional facility.

“But it’s a big project,” she said.

There are onsite options for smaller businesses that aren’t as expensive, she said. “Try (starting) with local infrastructure first,” she said

There are a lot of things companies can start with, she said.

“Start with cardboard bales, then move to food waste. And, McKay added, “there (are) software programs and consultants to help you track your food waste.”

“Food waste is one of the more important issues to tackle,” she said. “We’re not dealing with it in this country.”

One exciting new development for California-based companies: CalRecycle recently announced they have some grant funding for companies to install the Hot Rot type of composting machine.

“It’s really important to keep organics out of the landfill,” McKay said.

Feature image courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

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Debra Atlas

As an environmental journalist, blogger, professional speaker and radio personality, Debra Atlas lights the way to let consumers discover exciting, useful green products that won’t make their checkbooks implode. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, she is a frequent contributor to environmentally focused publications and conferences.