Food for thought: DEQ expert talks food waste at Science on Tap event

True or False – Is food the single largest component of the waste produced in the Portland metro area?

The answer? True. Food waste makes up about 19 percent of the waste sent to the landfill in the region. Each year that’s enough food to fill 5,000 long haul trucks.

This trivia question kicked off the most recent event in Metro’s Let’s Talk Trash series Ignoble Rot: Food Scraps as Compost and Energy.

The event featured a presentation by David Allaway, waste prevention policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. A crowd at the Clinton Street Theater attended the event Tuesday night, which was presented in partnership with Science on Tap, an ongoing local science lecture series.

The lifecycle of food waste, and its impact on the environment and our communities, was the topic of the night, and the presentation focused on statistics and options.

Much of Allaway’s presentation focused on quantifying the environmental impacts of the food lifecycle.

“Globally, if the emissions associated with making and refrigerating and storing and ultimately disposing of food that never gets eaten, if those emissions were a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world, after China and the United States,” Allaway said. “So food waste is a very significant problem.”

“And it’s not just about climate,” he said. “Approximately a quarter of all of the fresh water that is withdrawn in the United States goes to produce food that doesn’t get eaten.”

So what does this mean to the average American consumer?

“American households spend an estimated $125 billion every year buying food that they don’t eat,” Allaway said.

While all of these facts emphasize the importance of the “reduce” in Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, there are many ways to make change by reusing and recycling as well. This post consumer piece of the food waste lifecycle is where Metro’s work, and Let’s Talk Trash, focuses.

“We’ve been looking at ways to get more out of our waste stream, which is really a resource that we literally throw away,” said Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington. “Getting more of our food waste out of landfills requires that we have more places to take food scraps and that we have more policies and incentives to help you keep and businesses keep food scraps out of the waste stream.”

In his evaluation of post consumer handling options, Allaway compares the negative climate impact of each method – from collection and transit to processing – to the environmental benefits produced by that method – including displacement of electricity, peat and fertilizer, and carbon storage. When you comparing composting, anaerobic digestion, landfills, and even in-sink grinders, they each have unique levels of negative impact accompanied by unique levels of benefits from its treatment method.

Some of the benefits that can be derived from postconsumer food waste are energy production, primarily through the collection and burning of methane gas; carbon storage; carbon replacement, a method that helps re-enrich deteriorating agricultural soil for better production by putting the carbon rich compost back into the land; and water conservation, that nutrient rich, moist soil requires less water to feed and support crops.

Back to that event opening trivia – if just 10 percent of the metro area’s uneaten food last year was good, and could have been rescued and sent to a food bank, about how many meals could have been served?

The answer? 30 million meals. Hold that next to another staggering statistic shared in Allaway’s presentation that approximately 15 percent of households in Oregon are experiencing food insecurity.

“In closing,” Allaway said. “Food, how we waste it and how we manage those wastes, has very profound impacts on energy, climate, water, soil and even human welfare.”

Learn more about Let’s Talk Trash at Metro’s Solid Waste Roadmap

Learn more about Science on Tap

Original feature appeared at Metro News.
Photo credit: Scott Frey.