Waste: Solutions, Systems and Scales

written by: Brendan McCrann (published in LinkedIn)

Wasted food is suddenly in the U.S. media spotlight.    

The USDA and EPA have teamed up to promote major food waste reduction goals for the country and many communities are already considering compost facilities and new waste-to-energy technologies.  Some municipalities have even passed organics disposal bans, fast-tracking the burden of local innovation.

With this spotlight comes an opportunity - for communities to approach "wasted food" not as a thing but rather a function of their system.  This distinction is critical because the act of wasting food is variable while the list of wasted items is not.  Food in the system, in other words, does not waste itself.

A comprehensive and dynamic food systems analysis, then, will reveal relationships which ultimately cause or generate waste.  The reduction and management of wasted food in the system, in other words, is an opportunity for people and communities to actively recover value.

With this spotlight also comes a temptation - for communities to invest only in sexy, large scale innovations and infrastructure, and thus risk repeating pitfalls of a now mortgaged, linear national recycling industry, similarly spotlighted in the early 1990s.

As Colorado gears up to introduce the largest food waste digester in the country, scheduled to generate "4,560,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day" and "approximately 450 cubic yards per day of a compost like product," the state will confront this temptation and perhaps model a diversity of solutions based on an understanding of the Colorado food system.  

The emergence of industrial solutions like Heartland Biogas in Colorado will do one of two things.  They will either: a) quickly convert the spotlight on "wasted food" into a traditional toss-and-forget option with better consequences and huge opportunity costs, or b) inspire source reduction and stimulate point-of-waste technology and enterprise for localized value recovery, while still structuring broad landfill diversion and waste-to-energy capacity around existing behavior and mechanisms.

Localized responses to wasted food such as food systems analysis and education, source reduction, compost deregulation, and livestock feeding ARE NOT mutually exclusive with the large scale, industrial options.  In fact, their co-existence in a marketplace is likely to promote optimal environmental and economic resiliency - defined by RAND Corporation as the "ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations."

Solutions to wasted food, if they are to recover and enhance resiliency, must consider their mother system and must demonstrate a diverse portfolio of scale.