Working to Solve New York’s Food Waste Problem

In the United States, food waste (i.e. wholesome and edible food that is thrown away) is estimated to be between 30 and 40 of the total food supply (approximately $218 billion worth of food). Food waste makes up roughly 18% of the waste stream in New York State, and roughly 20% of the city’s waste stream. Approximately 3.9 million tons of wasted New York food makes its way into landfills each year, where it decays and contributes massively to methane (a greenhouse gas even more harmful than carbon dioxide) production. This is a harrowing fact considering 13.5% of New Yorkers are food insecure, as well. Additionally, with landfills such as Albany’s Rapp Road scheduled to reach capacity within the next five years, it is becoming more and more crucial for state and local actors to make a dent in this burgeoning crisis.

It is crucial for policymakers to pass legislation to divert food waste from landfills, as only 3% of waste produced in the state does not end up at either a landfill or waste-to-energy facility, according to NYSERDA. Alternative destinations for this excess food include food banks (for wholesome food), composting facilities and anaerobic digestion plants.

Compost is an aerobic process (meaning it uses oxygen) that, over time, turns organic waste into fertilizer. Anaerobic digestion captures the methane gas produced by the food waste to be used as an energy source in the future. This renewable gas energy is often touted as an extremely useful energy source for its clean-burning properties, which make its production carbon neutral or even carbon negative.

Earlier this year, Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget included some provisions to address the food waste problem across the state. The Food Recovery and Recycling Act (that, unfortunately, did not pass) would have discouraged the production, distribution, and preparation of excess food; recovered excess food to be redistributed to those in need; and provided funding for new recycling programs specifically concerning food scraps. The proposal also would have increased recovered food from the largest waste generators from 5% to approximately 20% and increased subsidies for the regional food bank system.

Specifically, the act would have required establishments that generate more than two tons of food waste per week, on average, to divert their excess waste to a compost or anaerobic digestion facility if they are within fifty miles of one of those facilities. According to NYSERDA, potential net benefits ranged from $15.2 million for an all-compost scenario to $22.6 million for an all-anaerobic digestion scenario after cutting costs from waste hauling, tipping, and greenhouse gas emissions.

The most crucial method of reducing food waste, though, is by preventing excess food from being thrown away. This is particularly important on the consumer level and can be hugely impactful through greater education on how a regular household, as well as grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses and municipalities, can reduce their waste production.

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996 encourages food donations made in good faith by waiving donor liability except in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. Additionally, initiatives such as the recently announced Food Waste Reduction & Diversion Reimbursement Program can help those trying to make an impact on the food waste stream in their community. A collaboration between the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the Rochester Institute of Technology, the program offers assessment, assistance and reimbursement for businesses, municipalities, and not-for-profits attempting to divert and reduce their food waste generation.

As a private citizen interested in food management, there are a number of things you can do to improve the situation at the policy level, too. Some approaches include making donations to food banks, pantries or community centers, freezing excess food to be used in the future, and better understanding “sell by dates on food products. You can also urge your city or town council to include more composting locations, start composting in your own home/property, and encourage local businesses to donate wholesome, non-perished excess food to food banks/pantries.