Tipping the Scales to Reduce Food Waste

Tipping the Scales to Reduce Food Waste

JULY 15, 2021

Americans waste up to 40 percent of our food supply, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Some of the wasted food could be reallocated to the more than 10 percent of households experiencing food insecurity, but most ends up in our solid waste stream at a fiscal and environmental cost. In an attempt to curb this trend, New York State passed a Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling Law, which as of January 1, 2022 requires commercial entities that generate more than two tons of food waste weekly cull edible food for donation and divert the remaining goods to an organics recycler if one exists within a 25-mile radius. 

Diverting food waste from the solid waste stream is a growing trend on both the local and state level. New York modeled its legislation after similar laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut, with other states following suit. In 2018, we began working with Westchester County officials to identify significant sources of food waste and inform the economic feasibility of developing an in-county waste processing facility. The comprehensive Food Waste Study identified that commercial businesses and residents in the county generate more than 210,000 tons of food waste combined. The commercial sector recovers only about 22,000 tons while the remaining 103,000 tons end up in traditional waste streams. According to one food waste calculator, even diverting one ton of food waste from landfills each year can save up to 1,848 pounds of CO2 emissions. Comparatively, one ton of donated food could supply more than 1,600 meals to those in need. 

Identifying prevention and recovery opportunities

Leveraging the Center for Eco Technology (CET) Food Waste Estimation tool, we surveyed 61 businesses and institutions across 10 commercial sectors in the county. The survey revealed food waste constitutes 21 percent of commercial solid waste. Using an average calculation based on pounds of food waste per person per week, it was estimated food waste comprises 22 percent of residential solid waste. With this baseline data, Westchester County turned to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy to determine its next steps. This hierarchy prioritizes actions to prevent and divert food waste as follows: 

  • Source Reduction: reducing the volume of surplus food by scaling back commonly wasted goods, improving storage and inventory strategies, using food in its entirety, and sourcing imperfect produce.
  • Feed Hungry People: donate edible food to local food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters.
  • Feed Animals: divert scraps for livestock.
  • Industrial Uses: identify opportunities to convert food to fuel or energy. 
  • Composting: creating nutrient rich soil from a combination of food waste, woodchips, and landscaping refuse such as leaves and lawn clippings. 

Some of these measures were already occurring in the local communities. For example, two nonprofit organizations – Feeding Westchester and County Harvest – collectively recovered 1,781 tons of food from commercial businesses in 2019 to feed the hungry. Captain Lawrence Brewing Company delivers its spent grains to a cattle farm for feed. Some towns have also launched composting initiatives, offering a place for residents to dump food scraps or a curbside pick up program. 

Processing what food waste is left

Despite the prevention, recovery, and diversion efforts listed above, Westchester County still needed a solution to handle the remaining food waste. Woodard & Curran assessed five common methods and technologies for food waste processing, including open windrow composting, in-vessel composting, anaerobic digestion, combination anaerobic digestion with composting, and wastewater treatment plant co-digestion. Factoring available property, processing technology, capital and operational costs, as well as implementation schedule, the project team identified short-term opportunities to handle 10,000 to 20,000 tons per year, including: 

  • Using county-owned land at the Water Resource Facility to locate co-digestion operations
  • Using county-owned land at the Wheelabrator Waste-to-Energy Facility to locate anaerobic digestion operations

And a mid- to long-term option, which would handle 40,000 to 80,000 tons per year:

  • Developing a stand-alone anaerobic digestion facility on county-owned land

Concurrent with the county’s consideration of these recommendations, officials opted to install a food composting and education center adjacent to the Household Material Recovery Facility (H-MRF) in Valhalla. In less than a year and amid a global pandemic, Woodard & Curran experts across a myriad of disciplines collaborated on the design of CompostEd. The demonstration scale static pile composting facility is designed to accept up to two tons of food waste weekly using easy to source, straight forward technology.

Public food composting facility located in Valhalla, NY.CompostEd provides the opportunity for area residents to dump food waste at the site where operators will mix the organic material with woodchips and yard waste. This combination is then pushed into a concrete bunker where it will stay for about five weeks with constant aeration from piping designed to keep airflow moving even with the composting materials piled on top. Once the composting is complete, the material is moved to a curing windrow for another eight weeks before it is screened and stored on site. Remaining solids are returned to the beginning of the process while the resulting compost will be used in landscaping on county-owned properties.

As the composting facility begins accepting residential food waste this summer, educational signs will help raise awareness among residents as county officials move forward with other recommendations made to accommodate commercial food waste. 

Author

Senior Client Manager
Government & Institutional

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