New Climate Agenda: Food Waste
by Heather Trim
This article was originally published in January 2019
For many of us, the new year is a time to reflect on our commitments to things that are important to us. This year we encourage you to consider excess food and how it may be shared or repurposed to minimize waste.
If you mention the acronym PCC we are likely to think of PCC Community Markets. Did you know PCC also stands for Pacific Coast Collaborative?
The Pacific Coast Collaborative was founded by the governors of California, Oregon and Washington, and the premier of British Columbia, and is focused on building a strong West Coast low-carbon economy. Working together to leverage knowledge across the region, these leaders are transforming the way we approach important climate change issues involving transportation, buildings and energy. In 2017 PCC Community Markets’ VP of Social and Environmental Responsibility, Brenna Davis, participated in a collaborative meeting specifically to provide advice on minimizing food waste.
Last year at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, the Collaborative officially expanded its focus on food waste as a contributor to climate change. The Declaration on Climate Resilience, announced at the summit by Gov. Jay Inslee, includes a goal for members of the collaborative to cut food waste in half by 2030.
The Pacific Coast Collaborative is working to reduce food waste for good reasons. First, resources used to produce wasted food create unnecessary greenhouse gases. Second, when food is dumped into landfills, it creates methane gas, a highly potent greenhouse gas that has a big environmental impact.
If the West Coast is going to cut food waste in half by 2030, we all need to play a part. Meeting the goals of the Pacific Coast Collaborative will require new ways of preventing, rescuing and recovering wasted food. Citizens will play an important role in achieving this goal. Of all the climate-friendly actions we can take, reducing food waste is one of the easiest. In our homes, at restaurants, schools and at the grocery store, we all can be more mindful.
Last night’s dinner
There’s a complex story of greenhouse gas emissions behind the dinners we ate last night. The conventional agriculture sector utilizes petrochemical-based fertilizers, pesticides and fuels, contributing 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).1 “Food miles,” or the GHGs associated with the transport of food, account for about 11 percent of that carbon footprint.2 The way food is produced accounts for 83 percent of GHGs, so the ability of organic practices to sequester carbon in the soil is even more important than eating local.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 35 percent of Thanksgiving turkeys are wasted. While that may sound like a lot, Thanksgiving’s rate of food waste is similar to our national average the rest of the year, estimated to be between 30–40 percent — about a pound per person per day. Those of us with the healthiest diets — relying heavily on fruits and vegetables — may waste even more food in our daily lives because produce is prone to spoilage.3
When we waste food, we are wasting other precious resources as well, such as water. The production of food that we end up not eating accounts for a quarter of all water used in the United States.
Most of the food we throw away or compost — whether a half-eaten yogurt or granola bar — is wrapped in plastic packaging derived from extraction and production of fossil fuels — and imposes its own GHG emissions.
In the U.S., we’ve created a glut of natural gas due to hydraulic fracking. Natural gas liquids — ethane and propane — get extracted and, in turn, are processed into resins used to make packaging, bottles and synthetic clothing. According to the American Chemistry Council, there are 700 plastic processing plants applying for permits in North America. Much of this new production will be used to make plastic packaging.
With growing awareness about plastic pollution in our oceans (and the food chain), there is a global movement to reduce the amount of single-use, plastic packaging and switch to compostable options. This switch would have climate-related benefits.
In 2015 PCC replaced all our hot and cold beverage cups and lids, soup cups and lids, forks, spoons, knives and straws with compostable options, well ahead of Seattle’s ban, which took effect in 2018. This means the bits of leftover food and the packaging itself are diverted from landfills and instead help make compost. PCC has committed to eliminate plastic packaging from our delis by 2022.
Composting versus landfills
Decomposing food waste or other organic matter, such as yard clippings dumped in the anaerobic environment of landfills, releases methane. According to the EPA, methane is at least 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.4 In the U.S., landfills are the third largest human-made source of methane behind industry and agriculture.
In landfills, anaerobic bacteria that can live without the presence of free oxygen digest organic matter, such as food waste, and decompose it to produce biogas (a mix of methane and carbon dioxide). The U.S. Energy Information Administration says landfill biogas is 40–60 percent methane. Composting also emits methane but at significantly lower rates.
Overall, the benefits of composting far outweigh the downsides. Considering Washington is an agricultural state, working to improve and preserve soil is critical. Spoiled food provides terrific feedstock for backyard or commercial composting.
High-quality compost helps farmers increase soil organic matter — and high organic matter correlates closely to a soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Healthy soil high in organic matter can store huge amounts of carbon, but poor, depleted soils cannot. As the climate in our state becomes warmer and drier in the summer, healthy soil is important because it retains moisture better than depleted soils. Well-composted soil helps protect waterways from the polluting runoff of fertilizers.
Food waste in Washington
Washingtonians are good at recycling. In fact, Washington has one of the highest rates of recycling in the U.S. On the other hand, we’re not doing so well on food waste.
In 2016 the Washington State Department of Ecology published a detailed study of the wastes from every sector going to our landfills. Seventeeen percent of the material that goes to landfills every year is food waste. About half (8.8 percent), or 405,065 tons, is inedible food. The remaining (8.2 percent), or 374,490 tons, is edible food. It may be beyond the “best by” date but still is safe to eat.
Grocery stores play a role in helping reduce food waste through education programs, by donating surplus food to food banks, and composting inedible food. PCC’s sustainability goals related to food preparation practices and our grocery rescue program work to reduce our food waste footprint (see sidebar). For example, PCC has committed to donate a million meals to our neighbors in need by 2022.
What can you do
If you don’t buy it, you can’t waste it. The largest carbon footprint associated with food waste is in production. So, purchasing only what you will use, storing food carefully, and eating leftovers has the biggest positive impact.
Rescuing food by diverting surplus edible food to food banks and other organizations is second best. Donated surplus food displaces otherwise purchased food and avoids emissions related to throwing it away or even composting.
Globally, food waste emits about 8 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gases, equivalent to 43 million cars’ greenhouse gas emissions.5 By reducing food waste, we save money, help those in our communities who may not have enough food, and lessen our global warming impact.
PCC Community Markets and the Pacific Coast Collaborative both are working to reduce food waste and its associated climate impacts. We hope these efforts will help speed Washington to realize our goals of 50 percent less food waste much sooner than 2030!
Heather Trim is executive director of Zero Waste Washington, a statewide nonprofit organization working to make trash obsolete by helping pass laws, conducting research, and doing community-based pilot projects that demonstrate waste prevention.
PCC’s grocery rescue
For more than 25 years, PCC has donated food that is edible — but not salable — to our neighbors in need. The goal of our grocery rescue program is not only to prevent edible food from being wasted but also to support our local food banks financially and logistically in a socially and culturally responsible way.
In 2018 PCC entered into a new partnership with Food Lifeline, a regionally based nonprofit, to support our grocery rescue program. We needed to standardize our donation guidelines and pickup process. We also wanted more data about our monthly donations. Most important, we wanted to continue to make certain that the food we donated was wholesome and handled safely.
We kicked off the partnership with meetings between our stores and our food bank partners. Together we’re working to reduce unnecessary waste in our process and ensure quality food is donated through a standardized approach across our stores.
Today, with the help of Food Lifeline, we work with more than 25 food banks across the region to provide about 32,000 meals a month — helping good food get to our neighbors in need.
For more information on how PCC’s grocery rescue program works, visit our Grocery Rescue Page.