How Leftovers Get Recycled
Of the organic material that ends up in the dumpster, roughly one-third is produce, one-third is bakery and one-third is dairy, according to Dick. Those foods can be reused in four ways, and companies like Quest Recycling follow the EPA’s Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy when deciding where foods should end up next.
This set of guidelines dictates that the best way to reuse food that is no longer grocery-store quality is to give it to people in need. After that, animals should be considered.
“At Quest, we have a network of food banks, shelters and rescue centers that we are able to donate to for food consumption. Then we look at the second option, which is feeding animals. Quest has a network of about 350 animal parks, zoos and rescue centers. All these locations are certified and all hold veterinary licensing permits from the state,” Dick said.
By first looking to this portion of the hierarchy, unnecessary waste is eliminated, since food does not need to be transformed into something else to be usable, which saves time and energy.
When food waste is no longer suitable for consumption by people or animals, however, it can still be utilized.
The EPA recommends converting organic food waste into energy. One way this can be done is through a process called anaerobic digestion. According to the EPA, this process involves breaking down organic matter to produce methane, which can in turn be used to produce energy. “Anaerobic digestion is typical in well-populated European countries, but in the U.S. [it] has not really taken off,” Dick said.
Only 5 percent of organic food waste collected by Quest Recycling is used in this way, though the energy that is produced through anaerobic digestion is put directly onto the energy grid where it can then be used by cities, businesses and consumers.
The biggest portion of collected organic food waste – in the case of Quest, 65% – goes to composting, the last recycling option in the Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy. The majority of compost goes back to the farming community, Dick said, while a smaller portion is bagged and sold at home improvement stores.