This report reveals the climate and environmental impacts of producing, processing, distributing, and retailing food that is ultimately wasted and projects the environmental benefits of meeting the US goal to prevent 50 percent of food waste by 2030. The report was prepared to inform domestic policymakers, researchers, and the public, and focuses primarily on five inputs to the US cradle-to-consumer food supply chain — agricultural land use, water use, application of pesticides and fertilizers, and energy use — plus one environmental impact — greenhouse gas emissions.
This report provides estimates of the environmental footprint of current levels of food loss and waste to assist stakeholders in clearly communicating the significance; decision-making among competing environmental priorities; and designing tailored reduction strategies that maximize environmental benefits. The report also identifies key knowledge gaps where new research could improve our understanding of US food loss and waste and help shape successful strategies to reduce its environmental impact.
The new report reveals that each year, the resources attributed to US food loss and waste are equivalent to:
140 million acres agricultural land – an area the size of California and New York combined;
5.9 trillion gallons blue water – equal to the annual water use of 50 million American homes;
778 million pounds pesticides;
14 billion pounds fertilizer – enough to grow all the plant-based foods produced each year in the United States for domestic consumption;
664 billion kWh energy – enough to power more than 50 million US homes for a year; and
170 million MTCO2e greenhouse gas emissions (excluding landfill emissions) – equal to the annual CO2 emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants
In short, significant resources go into growing, processing, packaging, storing, and distributing food. Thus, the most important action we can take to reduce the environmental impacts of uneaten food is to prevent that food from becoming waste in the first place.
A companion report, “The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste: Part 2,” will examine and compare the environmental impacts of a range of management pathways for food waste, such as landfilling, composting, and anaerobic digestion. EPA plans to complete and release this second report in Spring 2022. Together, these two reports will encompass the net environmental footprint of US food loss and waste.
According to GRF, more than 28 million glass bottles and jars end up in landfills each year, despite the fact that glass is endlessly recyclable. Recycling glass can protect the environment, economy, and sustainable manufacturing by capturing materials for reuse and keeping them out of landfills, as well as preventing litter from polluting the ocean and beaches.
To improve glass diversion from landfills and educate the public about the importance of glass recycling, Constellation Brands and its popular beer brand, Corona, have teamed up with GRF for a glass recycling initiative as part of the Corona Protect Our Beaches campaign.
This pilot program involves glass bottle recycling at Chicago-based bars and restaurants. Participating locations will separate their glass bottles into a separate bulk bin for pick up, starting in late June 2021. The GRF pays a hauler for the pick-ups; there is no cost to the participating locations. Any glass bottle, not just Corona-branded bottles, can be recycled, and no color sorting of bottles is required (as noted during the webinar Q&A). Additionally, a small amount of incidental contamination (e.g. napkins or straws) is acceptable. This creates a simple system for the participating pilot locations.
The glass recycling pilot will be paired with special events including an interactive experience that sheds light on the need for glass recycling and helps “crush the problem.” At these events, empty bottles will be turned into a sand-like powder using a grinding machine that allows members of the public to watch the process, thus capturing their attention and imagination. Event attendees learn about the program and the call to action, “#DontTrashGlass.” Select consumers will be able to feed empty bottles into the grinding machine. Events will also feature a sand art station for attendees to enjoy as they learn about the benefits of recycling glass. According to Defife and Lang, the grinding machine is actually relatively quiet; the generators used to power the machine at these events is louder than the machine itself. The sand-like substance fits well with the theme of Corona’s Protect Our Beaches campaign and brand identity. GRF recognizes that there are many ways to use recycled glass and beach restoration is one of them; in addition, bottles can become new bottles, fiberglass, construction aggregate, sandblasting, and more.
Over the course of nine weeks this summer, the grinding machine will tour ten different wholesalers and corresponding accounts. The complete list of grinding events is available at https://protectbeaches.com/events/. Events kick off on June 25 at two locations in St. Charles, IL, and one in West Chicago.
During the webinar, it was noted that additional restaurants and bars can be added to the pilot in the Chicagoland area by contacting Defife or Lang (their email addresses are provided at the end of the webinar recording). Also, the collaborative team is trying to figure out what it would cost to continue the recycling program beyond the pilot period. A similar pilot is taking place in Phoenix, AZ, in partnership with Glass King. At the end of the pilot the total tonnage of glass recycled will be measured to illustrate diversion impacts. Participating locations will also learn valuable information about the nature of their waste streams from those measurements.
Food waste in the home can often occur because of boredom or limited knowledge of how to use certain ingredients. A consumer may have leftovers in their fridge that they don’t want to waste, but can’t bear to eat one more time in the item’s current form while simultaneously not knowing how to repurpose the item for a new dish. Or perhaps they’ve acquired an edible item that’s completely new to them, so they’re not sure how to use it in the first place. This can happen when shoppers impulsively buy exotic produce or other ingredients at grocery stores without having performed research ahead of time–maybe the item just looked intriguing on the shelves, or its praises were sung by a friend or trusted podcast, prompting a desire for a new experience without adequate guidance.
This type of food waste also happens when food banks distribute fresh produce in an effort to promote healthy diets without simultaneously distributing tips on how to use the produce. Donated commodities may not always fall within the range of familiarity for a food recipient and they may find themselves having no idea what to do with the celery root or artichokes in their pre-packed food box.
Even if one is familiar with an ingredient, sometimes it loses its appeal when used in the same way time after time. Imagine a parent who frequently buys peas because their children love them. Those kids might become less receptive to the peas after having them prepared the same way at least once a week for a year. Below are several sites that provide inspiration for cooking unfamiliar foods or preparing familiar ones in new ways.
Recognizing that inspiration is as important a tool in keeping food out of landfills as compost piles and meal planning, the Love Food Hate Waste Canada website includes a section called “Get Inspired.” This section not only includes tips on how to preserve or store foods to prevent waste and meal planning, it also provides a page called “5 Ways With.” This page presents five interesting ways to use ingredients in the categories dairy, fruits & veggies, grains & bread, and meat & eggs.
For example, broccoli stalks can be used in fritters or pesto or as an addition to soups, salads, or stir-fry. Links to recipes are provided when the suggestion calls for more detailed instruction.
The flagship Love Food Hate Waste website, launched by the UK organization Waste & Resources Action Programme, or WRAP, includes a “Recipes” section that allows users to search for ideas based on dietary parameters, preparation difficulty, or cooking time.
CookIt from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Save the Food website helps consumers find recipes for a wide variety of ingredients, including those that are commonly thrown out as scraps, such as overripe avocados or cheese rinds. It also provides ideas for transforming ingredients that are “past their prime” to get the most use out of available food. Some of the recipes are accompanied by videos of Chef Joel Gamoran making the recipe.
The next time you’re faced with unfamiliar or uninspiring food, don’t throw it out! Get out your smartphone and consult these online tools and resources to find a way to make that edible appealing.
Note: This post was originally published on the ISTC Green Lunchroom Challenge blog, which is maintained by Technical Assistance Program staff. Check out that blog for more news, resources, and tips on preventing food waste and diverting food from landfills via rescue, repurposing, composting, and other strategies.
The Urban Action Network has partnered with Lincoln Land Community College’s GIS Program since 2017 to provide an online map of all things “green” in Springfield. The Sustain Springfield Green Map (SSGM) is a user-friendly, GIS-based, online resource that guides residents, visitors, organizations, and businesses to sustainable or environmentally-friendly services, sites, and amenities. Map users can easily find recycling locations, community gardens, car charging stations, and much more. The SSGM has been redesigned to make searching even easier.
This completely redesigned Map streamlines category headings, tells its story better with tabs and graphics, and includes a new Special Projects section in the Gallery. The special projects mini-maps currently include Springfield’s tiny libraries and micro-pantries and the section provides an opportunity for more LLCC GIS students, the public, and special audiences to contribute to its development through emailing suggested additions. A Steering Committee (see Supporters tab in the online map) formulates new ways to expand Map content and engage the public.
The Sustain Springfield Green Map is a project of the Urban Action Network (UAct) which provides executive oversight and operational support. The original map was created as a classroom project by Jordyn Lahey, an LLCC GIS student. The SSGM is hosted by LLCC under the guidance of Geography Professor, Dean Butzow and is maintained as an in-kind service by LLCC GIS Instructor, Rey de Castro and Think GeoSpatial Educator, Jenni Dahl, who are also members of the Steering Committee.
“Springfield is remarkably green for a city of its size and we must continue to cultivate and support sustainability in Springfield. The Sustain Springfield Green Map is a dynamic tool that showcases Springfield’s environmental services, sites, and amenities placing the information at our fingertips,” said UAct President Sheila Stocks-Smith. “Please share the Map widely with your family, friends, and social networks, and perhaps the Sustain Springfield Green Map can help inspire us all to make conscious choices and act collectively to make every day Earth Day.”
America Recycles Day is celebrated on November 15 annually and serves as an opportunity to raise awareness of consumption, proper materials management options, and procedures, and to encourage Americans to commit to increasing and improving their recycling actions in the coming year. It’s also an opportunity to highlight the importance of recycling not only for environmental integrity but also for the US economy. According to the US EPA, on a national average, there are 1.17 jobs, $65,230 wages, and $9,420 tax revenues attributable, for every 1,000 (US) tons of recyclables collected and recycled.
To provide some context, EPA regularly releases updated data on the management of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), or the discarded materials generated, landfilled, or recycled from US residences. Because it takes a great deal of effort and coordination to gather and analyze all the data required for a national overview, reports typically reflect the reality of material flows from a few years prior. Last week, EPA released the 2018 Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures report. The data reveal that “the recycling rate (including composting) was 32.1 percent in 2018, down from 34.7 percent in 2015.”
Increasing the recycling rate to 50% in the US would be a significant improvement. Seeing our national recycling rate increase, instead of continuing the disappointing downward trend, would be great news for those of us who care about sustainable materials management.
The reasons behind the underwhelming US recycling rate are many and complex, and we’ll only touch on some of the factors here. As is the case with so many environmental issues, there is a patchwork of policies and laws across the different states. With no federal policy or national or global coordination among impacted industries about labeling and product design to facilitate material reclamation at the end of a product’s life, there are a number of issues. These include confusion about what can be recycled, technical issues related to differing product structure, mixed messages, and inefficient implementation of programs.
Even within states, materials accepted in recycling programs often differ widely from one municipality or county to another. That’s because even materials that are technically recyclable (able to be recycled scientifically) may not be practicallyrecyclable in a given location, due to lack of processing infrastructure, economic factors that make collection and processing of materials infeasible (e.g. availability of end markets, the volume of a material that can be collected in a given timeframe, etc.), and lack of clear, effective information for consumers to follow.
There are also issues of “wishcycling”–when people want to believe an item is recyclable and put it into their bins without knowing if it’s accepted in their local program. This leads to contamination of batches of genuinely recyclable materials, potentially rendering them useless, as well as posing risks for recycling facility workers.
The way materials are collected can impact contamination levels and the quality or marketability of recycled feedstocks. Single-stream collection, for example, in which all materials accepted for recycling by a program are placed in the same collection bin, leads to higher contamination. In the case of glass, this often leads to breakage and a reduced rate of reclamation alongside increased hazards.
International policies, such as the infamous “China ban” in which China stopped accepting imports of certain materials from countries like the US, have left recyclers and program coordinators with a domestic glut of materials for which there aren’t adequate end markets. In some cases that means materials separated by consumers for recycling have been sent to landfills. In the worst cases, recycling programs have ended due to budget constraints. All of this has lead to a lack of faith in recycling programs and options among US consumers, even where programs are available.
Today, recommended actions within the draft National Recycling Strategy are organized under three strategic objectives:
Reduce contamination in the recycling stream
Increase processing efficiency
The draft National Recycling Strategy is open for public comment until December 4, 2020. To leave a comment, go to https://www.regulations.gov/and search for the docket EPA-HQ-OLEM-2020-0462. This is your opportunity to let EPA know your concerns, perceived challenges and barriers to progress, ideas to effectively increase our national recycling rate, and any suggestions for additions or improvement to the actions already outlined.
When you enter the docket number as listed above, you’ll see a “Memo Opening Docket for Public Comment” in the search results. Open that, and if you see “Open Docket Folder,” open that as well so you can view the primary document (Memo Opening Docket for Public Comment, with a “Comment Now” button next to it) plus two supporting documents–the actual text of the draft National Recycling Strategy and an executive summary of the text. (Note, if you’re redirected to a beta version of the new regulations.gov website, the process will be slightly different and you won’t have to open the docket folder to see the three relevant documents). You will also be able to view all previously submitted comments if you choose. Comments can be made anonymously.
To simplify the submission process, you may want to prepare your comment in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or similar program ahead of time, and copy and paste your thoughts into the online form. Note that if you want to refer to documents in your comment, you can upload supporting files via the comment form as well. For example, if your community has a particularly effective consumer education publication, you might want to provide it as an example or include a copy of a recycling policy, journal article, etc. For further guidance, consult the regulations.gov “Tips for Submitting Effective Comments” document, available in PDF format. Additional guidance on the comment submission process and contact information if you experience difficulty is available at https://www.regulations.gov/help.
Meanwhile, if you represent a US-based organization interested in working toward a more resilient materials economy, consider signing the America Recycles Pledge. This signifies your willingness to participate in ongoing dialogues and to take action with other pledge signers to improve America’s recycling system. Learn more at https://www.epa.gov/americarecycles/forms/america-recycles-pledge.
Coffee has a rich history rooted in cultures around the world. International Coffee Day, Saturday, September 29th, celebrates coffee and its history, which is a good time to also consider its sustainability.
The United States is the biggest consumer of coffee, which is the most traded commodity in the world after oil. Globally, people drink more than 600 billion cups of coffee every year.
Coffee growing has a large environmental impact. Coffee has been reported to have a water footprint of 140 liters per cup. This includes all of the water required to bring the product to market.
Many growers adopted the sun grown method of growing coffee in the late 1970’s to expedite the growing process. This led to extreme deforestation and biodiversity loss. Shade grown coffee is a much more sustainable growing method. It requires little or no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.
Coffee companies and researchers have recognized the problem and are making changes. Counter Culture Coffee and Think Coffee are two examples of businesses that have embraced sustainability.
Counter Culture Coffee makes detailed contracts with each of their partners that sets specific goals for quality and sustainability. Think Coffee believes that sustainability starts with people. They have invested in housing reconstruction in Colombia, feminine hygiene in Ethiopia, or clean water access in Nicaragua.
At ISTC, Drs. Wei Zheng, Kishore Rajagopalan, and B.K. Sharma along with other colleagues from the University of Illinois and the United States Department of Agriculture found a way to use every part of spent coffee grounds by using them to make biodiesel, bio-oil, and biochar. Transforming coffee waste into usable products is a great way to minimize the environmental impact. ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering published the research results in 2013.
Climate change is also becoming an increasing threat to coffee production because coffee is grown in very specific conditions. Climate change is causing the once ideal temperature and precipitation levels in the tropics to fluctuate dramatically. It is also causing drought, which has led to an increase in the range of diseases that kill insects that pollinate coffee plants. Drought can also lead to soil degradation that can make once fertile land unproductive.
Coffee, like many things we consume every day, has impacts beyond what we see on the surface. Remember the environmental impact each cup has the next time you take a sip. Consider decreasing your consumption or switching to tea, which requires about eight times less water than coffee.
Those of us in the Great Lakes region (and the rest of the US and Canada) live in a so-called “throw-away society” in which consumerism is rampant, and goods are not often designed or produced with durability in mind. In fact, in recent years, more and more goods are designed to be explicitly or implicitly disposable. Even complex products, such as consumer electronics, are treated as if they are meant to be ephemeral. The classic example is the smartphone. These devices are astounding feats of scientific innovation and engineering. For perspective, consider ZME Science’s article from September 2017: Your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969. Despite their complexity, and the fact that you, and probably everyone you know, barely scratch the surface in terms of using these devices to their full potential, we are constantly bombarded with cues to upgrade to the latest model. And new models seem to be released ever more frequently, always being touted as somehow greatly more advanced than their predecessors. A simpler example is clothing–when was the last time you sewed up or patched a hole in a shirt or pair of pants? Something that once would have been done by most people as a matter of course might now be deemed peculiar. A modern member of our culture might wonder why one would bother to patch a pair of pants when a new pair could be obtained so cheaply.
Our “take-make-dispose” model can also be called a linear economy, and the message you receive in such a system is clear: if you have something that becomes damaged or has minor performance issues, you should just replace it. In fact, even if what you have is working well, the time will quickly come when you should just replace the old with the new. Replace, rinse, and repeat. A linear economy is one in which natural resources are extracted and used to create goods which will entirely, or partially, inevitably end up in landfills or incinerators. Some materials may be recovered and recycled, but over time these materials degrade in quality and are used for increasingly lower grade purposes, so that ultimately they will become waste, of little or no further use.
Of course, in order to replace whatever is being disposed of, new goods are required. And those new goods require as much or more resources as the ones that went before them–new minerals and other raw materials must be extracted. Extraction processes can have negative environmental and social impacts (e.g. pollution, habitat destruction, human rights issues related to labor practices, health issues related to exposure to chemicals or physical risks, etc.). Materials are transported to factories (requiring the use of energy in the form of fuel) where they are transformed into new products, again potentially with new human exposures to toxins or other adverse conditions, and potential new emissions of toxins or other substances of concern. In the case of products such as electronics, sometimes components are manufactured in places distant from each other and must be further transported to be brought together in yet another factory to create a complete device. And the finished product is in turn transported across the globe to reach consumers, resulting in more expenditure of energy, more emissions. By the time most products reach the consumer, a great deal of natural and human resources have been invested in them, and however positively the product itself may impact a human life or the broader ecosystem, the number of potential negative impacts all along the supply chain have stacked up. Clearly, any tendency to treat products as disposable, purposefully or incidentally, exacerbates those negative impacts by requiring the manufacture of more products, more quickly than might otherwise have been the case, as long as the demand for product does not diminish.
The tragedy of this linear cycle of use and disposal has lead to the advocacy for a circular economy–one in which extraction of resources is minimized and products and services are designed in such a way as to maximize the flow of materials through resource loops as close to perpetually as physically possible. In such a system, what might have once been considered “waste” continues to be valued in some form or another. A circular economy is built upon design for durability, reuse, and the ability to keep products in service for as long as possible, followed by the ability to effectively reclaim, reuse and recycle materials.
There are many barriers to repair, including costs (real or perceived), knowledge, confidence in those performing the repair (one’s self or someone else), and access to tools, instruction manuals and repair code meanings which tell technicians exactly what the problem is so they can address it. Manufacturers of a variety of products, particular those with electronic components (everything from automobiles to cell phones to tractors) have come under pressure in recent years over the attempt to monopolize access to parts, tools, and necessary information for performing repairs, leading to what is called the Right to Repair movement. Currently, 18 US states, including Illinois, Minnesota, and New York in the Great Lakes region, have introduced “fair repair” bills which would require manufacturers of various products to make those tools, parts, and pieces of information accessible to consumer and third-party repair shops. You can read more about the history of the right to repair movement and right to repair legislation on the Repair Association web site.
In an increasing number of communities around the world, citizens are coming together to share their knowledge, tools, and problem-solving skills to help each other repair every day items for free. I’m writing this on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and here are some examples of local projects that can help you repair the items you own:
Illini Gadget Garage. This one’s my favorite, but I’m admittedly biased, since I helped launch this project and coordinated it for the past few years. The IGG is a collaborative repair center for personally-owned electronic devices and small appliances. “Collaborative repair” means that project staff and volunteers don’t repair your device for you; rather they work with you to troubleshoot and repair your device. Assistance is free; consumers are responsible for purchasing their own parts if needed, though staff can help determine what parts might be necessary. In addition to working with consumers by appointment at their campus workshop, the IGG crew conduct “pop-up” repair clinics in various public spaces around the Champaign-Urbana community and across campus. Consumers not only benefit from the “do-it-together” approach, they also get access to specialized tools (e.g. soldering irons, pentalobe screwdrivers, heat guns, etc.) that enable device repair, which many folks wouldn’t have in their tool box at home. Though successful repair obviously can’t be guaranteed, project staff say that if it has a plug or electrical component, and you can carry into the shop (or pop-up), they’ll help you try to figure out and fix the problem.
The Bike Project of Urbana-Champaign. Including both a downtown Urbana shop and a Campus Bike Center, this project provides tools and space for bicyclists to share knowledge and repair bicycles. This project sells refurbished bikes, and individuals who are willing to work on fixing up a donated bike (with assistance) can eventually purchase a bike at a discount. See https://thebikeproject.org/get-involved/join-the-bike-project/ for membership fees; an equity membership based on volunteer hours is available.
CU Community Fab Lab. Though technically a makerspace, this project provides access to a variety of tools that individuals may not own themselves, as well as a community of tinkerers and creative minds to foster sharing of knowledge. See http://cucfablab.org/inside-the-lab/tools/ for available tools. Note that some fees may apply for consumable materials. Workshops are also offered to help you learn various skills. The Fab Lab is free to anyone in the community during open hours.
Restart Project. Focused on electronics, this is a UK project, but you can host a “restart party” anywhere, and some K-12 schools, including some in the US are integrating restart centers to help teach repair skills and instill ideas of sustainability among students.
During the summer. GLRPPR communications intern Trent Esker wrote a series of blog posts that looked at various sustainability topics from the perspective of someone who is completely new to the sustainability field. Check them out over on the GLRPPR blog.
Today is an important “holiday” of sorts for those of us who are sustainability professionals. On this day in 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm Sweden, began (June 5-16, 1972). The purpose of that conference was to discuss human interactions with the environment, as well as encouraging governments and international organizations to take action related to environmental issues and providing guidelines for such action. This was the UN’s first major conference on international environmental issues, and it culminated in what’s commonly called the “Stockholm Declaration”—the first document in international environmental law to recognize the right to a healthy environment. Two years later, in 1974, the first World Environment Day was held on June 5 with the theme of “Only One Earth.” Since then, World Environment Day has been celebrated annually on June 5th. Each year has a theme around which activities center, and beginning in the late 1980s, the main celebrations began to rotate to different cities around the globe. Learn more about the UN Conference on the Human Environment at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/milestones/humanenvironment and the history of World Environment Day at http://worldenvironmentday.global/en/about/world-environment-day-driving-five-decades-environmental-action.
This year’s World Environment Day theme, chosen by the host nation, India, (New Delhi is the host city) is “beating plastic pollution,” with the tagline “If you can’t reuse it, refuse it.” According to the World Environment Day web site: “While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become over reliant on single-use or disposable plastic – with severe environmental consequences. Around the world, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute. Every year we use up to 5 trillion disposable plastic bags. In total, 50 per cent of the plastic we use is single use. Nearly one third of the plastic packaging we use escapes collection systems, which means that it ends up clogging our city streets and polluting our natural environment. Every year, up to 13 million tons of plastic leak into our oceans, where it smothers coral reefs and threatens vulnerable marine wildlife. The plastic that ends up in the oceans can circle the Earth four times in a single year, and it can persist for up to 1,000 years before it fully disintegrates. Plastic also makes its way into our water supply – and thus into our bodies. What harm does that cause? Scientists still aren’t sure, but plastics contain a number of chemicals, many of which are toxic or disrupt hormones. Plastics can also serve as a magnet for other pollutants, including dioxins, metals and pesticides.”
Choose which type of single-use plastic you’re ready to give up.
Take a selfie (photo or video) showing yourself with the reusable alternative that you’re ready to embrace.
Share your selfie on social media and “tag” three friends, businesses or high-profile people to challenge them to do the same within 24 hours. Be sure to use the #BeatPlasticPollution hashtag and mention @UNEnvironment.