Skip to content Skip to navigation

When Sustenance Becomes a Pollutant: California Aims to Steer Wasted Food from Landfills

Carolyn P. Rice
May 28 2019

Forty percent of food produced for consumption never gets eaten, instead filling landfills and releasing greenhouse gases. With a recent law, California aims to drastically reduce the amount of food that ends up in the ground.

Byxbee Park in Palo Alto, by Igor Krivokon via Wikimedia Commons

The Bread Shall Rise Again Palo Alto’s Byxbee Park was formed from a onetime landfill. The pipes seen here are used to collect methane, which is captured under an impermeable layer and used to generate energy. The gas emanates from organic materials buried in the dump years ago. Igor Krivokon via Wikimedia Commons
 

By Carolyn P. Rice

A bruised apple. A broccoli stem. A jar of tomato sauce with a March 1, 2019 expiration date – all destined for the dumpster.

Consumers and retailers in the United States send 52 million tons of food to landfills each year, according to an analysis by ReFED, an anti-waste nonprofit organization. This doesn’t include 11 million tons of food that farmers and processors can’t sell. The 63 million tons of food trashed represents one fifth of all the food produced. Add to that food that is sold as animal feed, turned into compost, or otherwise “recycled,” and 40 percent of the food produced to be eaten never is.

Food waste statistics

The bill for this waste is huge. Those 52 million tons of food cost more than $200 billion to grow and move, according to ReFED. Decaying in the landfill, the waste produces greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions from 23 million cars each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Half the gas that seeps out of landfills is methane, the same gas emitted by cows and natural gas. Methane, like carbon dioxide, warms the planet, but more potently, although it does not last as long. The EPA estimates that landfills released one sixth of the country’s methane emissions in 2016.

Waste only recently became an environmental issue. In times past, avoiding waste showed thriftiness. In the postwar era, advances in agricultural technology encouraged farms to overproduce. Abundance made frugality less relevant as food became cheaper. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that food prices dropped steadily until the early 2000s; they are now rising. Still, American households spend 10 percent of their incomes on food, far less than in less wealthy nations.

Waste makes a statement. Not only does it squander resources, it also shows the cavalier attitude of the well-fed. The USDA reports one in ten Americans do not have enough good food.

California, which leads the nation in agricultural production, is the only western state with a food-waste management program.

Regulations to curb waste sprang up late in the last century. In 2015, the USDA and EPA announced a nonbinding goal of 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030. In 2016, though, California raised the stakes by passing the Short-Lived Climate Pollutants Act to reduce methane emissions. By 2025, the amount of organic waste that enters landfills must be reduced by 75 percent from 2014 levels. California, which leads the nation in agricultural production, is the only western state with a food-waste management program.

These state and federal goals recognize the importance of reducing waste, but are less specific on how to do it. Waste happens at many points from farm to fork, which means that there are many opportunities for intervention, and no all-encompassing solutions. Fresh food faces challenges ranging from weather, to time, to aesthetic standards, to human habits. A National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) video illustrates the many opportunities for waste by following the journey of a single strawberry.

Wasting Food Is Easier and Cheaper Than Preventing Waste

Curbside recyclingBill Lane Center for the American West

“We live in a world where not only is food cheap, but incomes are high,” said Marc Bellemare, Northrop Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. “It’s easy to waste food,” he said, even though consumers “know that wasting food is bad.”

Given the choice between eating potentially spoiled food and putting it in the trash, many consumers choose the trash. “Sell-by,” “best-by,” and “best before” guidelines carry authority; consumers will throw out edible food because its sell-by date has passed. However, these labels are not federally regulated and have no consistent meaning, according to a report by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the NRDC. One suggestion in a ReFED report: do away with these dates, which do more harm than good.

Another issue sprouts at the intersection of the food producer, the retail seller, and the consumer: aesthetics. Grocery stores have appearance standards for “quality” produce and will reject unusually sized or shaped (but edible) fruit and vegetables. “The way the chain stores and grocers operate, they want perfect-looking fruit to sell, which is perfectly understandable,” said Paul Wilson, a pear grower with Rivermaid Trading Company.

Not all food that farmers grow meets these standards, and it costs money to pick, ship, and store “off-grade” produce. It is often more cost-effective to leave off-grade produce on the field, according to Chris Drew, Vice President of Operations for Ocean Mist Farms, than to harvest and store it, only to have it rejected. If farmers till it back into the soil, it acts like fertilizer.

Ugly produce that arrives at a grocery store might be given away. “Say we get a large shipment of strawberries that doesn’t meet our quality standards, we would donate that whole package to the food bank,” said Diego Romero, Communications Manager for Sprouts Farmers Market, a national grocery chain.

For farms and grocers, getting food to places that won’t waste it – be it a compost facility or a food bank – can be costly, as fresh food has a high water content, making it heavy.

Chart: Food donations on the rise

Food banks, which collect and distribute food to people who need it, often cover transportation and storage costs in return for free produce. Even so, some grocery stores do not have the capability to organize donations. “While most employees are eager to help, I often hear ‘I don’t have time for that,’” Shelby Senna, Food Sourcing Representative for Second Harvest Food Bank, wrote in an email.

Even food banks can’t serve everything they receive. “No matter how much we try to avoid waste, there’s always going to be bruised apples,” said Cat Cvengros, Vice President of Marketing and Development at Second Harvest. Second Harvest sends damaged produce to become animal feed, as does Sprouts.

Comparing Food Waste Reduction Methods

The nonprofit ReFED, which draws support from foundations and industry sources, has explored a number of different practices that could reduce the amount of food that ends up uneaten and in landfills.

For ReFED’s description of each of these practices, hover over or tap on the? icons below. Click the headers to sort.
 


Click to view in a new window.

Source: ReFED

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

Does Avoiding Waste Mean Ignoring Those in Need?

Farmers sell substandard or surplus produce at a discount to processors such as canneries and baby food companies. Doing so isn’t lucrative, given the costs to harvest and ship it. If they have a local food bank that can come pick up the produce, many farmers choose to donate. “We want as much of this food to go to good use as possible,” said Wilson, of Rivermaid Trading Company.

A startup company, Imperfect Produce, aims to be a new destination for this food. Founded in 2015, Imperfect Produce aims to reduce waste by buying “ugly” and surplus produce from farmers and deliver it to individual subscribers. “You’ve got to just look at [Imperfect Produce] like any other customer that takes off-grade fruit, and there are a lot of them,” said Wilson.

Is there enough to go around? Some say no. Phat Beets Produce, a Berkeley-based community food justice organization, authored an op-ed that accused Imperfect Produce of profiting at the expense of the needy: “The reality is that this produce would have otherwise gone to food banks, to be redistributed for free.”

Imperfect Produce CEO Ben Simon responded that his company buys only a small portion of farmers' off-grade products – effectively arguing that there is plenty for all. Wilson concurs. “I really think there’s enough food out there for everybody,” he said.

The Second Harvest Food Bank in San Jose

The Second Harvest Food Bank in San Jose  Carolyn P. Rice
 

Getting Food to People in Silicon Valley, Where Hunger is Hidden

The recent California legislation requires that 20 percent of unsold but edible food be diverted to the hungry. “Food rescue” is what food banks have done since their inception in the 1960s; now, laws like this one formalize donations.

You can make an assumption that someone who is homeless is probably hungry. However, at Second Harvest, the majority of people we serve are in fact housed and probably working.”

“The food rescue program is really important to us because we’re not only keeping food out of the landfills, we’re also helping feed people in our local communities,” said Romero, of Sprouts.

“Everyone knows Silicon Valley for having so much wealth and success, and yet we are serving more people at Second Harvest Food Bank since we have since the recession,” said Cvengros. Second Harvest Food Bank, a member of the Feeding America network and the California Association of Food Banks, serves one in ten people who live in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. “We’re not even close to meeting the need,” she added.

Why? “A lot of people are embarrassed,” said a longtime client of the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto, who asked to be referred to as Pety. But she said she did not feel that way when her sister first took her there. And, she encourages others to come: “I send everybody here.”

Food banks and public resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program “have, over decades, become a fact of life in America,” said Garrett Broad, an assistant professor of communication at Fordham University.

In Silicon Valley, hunger can be hard to see. “You can make an assumption that someone who is homeless is probably hungry,” said Cvengros. “However, at Second Harvest, the majority of people we serve are in fact housed and probably working.”

Charlotte Brown, the resource and volunteer coordinator for the Ecumenical Hunger Program, said, “The majority of our clients work two or three jobs because it’s so incredibly expensive to work in the Bay Area.” She went on to say, “In all candor, I think most of us are about a minute from changing sides of the desk.”

 

and the west logo

 

Edited by Felicity Barringer and Geoff McGhee.

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Cattle or Tourists? Utahns Debate Which Is Harder on Public Lands

In Utah, outdoor recreation is more and more of a booming business. Its impact on the land is still being understood, but there are few limits in sight.


 

Back to main page

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Madison Pobis, and Sierra Garcia

Articles Worth Reading: December 2, 2019

A Downward Trend for California’s Colorado River Water Consumption is shown by the most recent datasets. A favorable snowpack melt in the Sierras reduced the stress on Southern California water needs from the Colorado River. “Simply put, we are consistently using less water,” in spite of population growth, says Eric Kuhn, a retired general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. John Fleck/Inkstain

Idaho Fisheries Managers Predict Long-term Success for Sockeye Salmon despite a small percentage of recruits making it back to Snake River. Unusually high water temperatures and harsh transitions from soft to hard water led to low success in the past few years. New adjustments to the program and favorable conditions could mean much higher returns of salmon to the Sawtooth Basin in 2020 and 2021. Associated Press/Idaho Falls Post Register

The First Recording of a Blue Whale Heartbeat Suggests an Upper Limit for Animal Size. Researchers at Stanford University recovered the data from a monitor that the team attached to a blue whale with suction cups while it was surfacing between dives near Monterey, California. During dives up to 200 meters, the 220-ton whale’s heart rate can slow to as few as two beats per minute in order to conserve oxygen. Even after surfacing, their hearts likely can’t beat faster than 37 beats per minute, and this ability to bounce between such extremes is what helps such a massive animal dive so deep for food. If a deep-diving animal were any bigger, it’s likely the heart couldn’t beat fast enough to compensate for the oxygen lost during dives. The Atlantic

Lighthouse Relocation Stirs Up Tensions in a Coastal California Town. Eroding cliffs surrounding the original landmark prompted the community to move the local Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse. Some locals want to preserve the names of those buried or lost at sea, but native tribes are worried that a new location would disturb ancestral burial grounds and reinforce painful histories. Los Angeles Times

A Man Unearths His Ancestral History of the Crow Tribe in Yellowstone Valley by inviting tribal members to share stories and spending time in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. An archaeological excavation revealed the original foundations of a fort that had remained intact for more than 130 years. A new school curriculum centered on the fort and the history of the land has sparked new energy to honor the Apsalooke people and their traditions. Mountain Journal

Articles Worth Reading: November 18, 2019

Mining Expansion Poses Risks for a Colorado Tourist Destination. The town of Glenwood Springs relies on water flows from the Colorado River and subterranean heating to supply its popular hot springs. Denver-based mining company Rocky Mountain Resources acquired a nearby limestone quarry in 2016. Now the firm has proposed plans to expand from 20 acres to more than 450 over the next few decades. Several surrounding towns, including Glenwood Springs — a bedroom community for ski resorts — have passed resolutions opposing the expansion, citing impacts of dust, traffic, and impacts on water (read our recent report from Garfield County, Colorado). The Bureau of Land Management has not yet decided whether or not to allow it. The Denver Post

Caribou Take Home the Gold for Long-Distance Migrations. A recent study confirmed the widely cited evidence that caribou are the mammals that routinely make the longest migrations over land. Over the course of a year, caribou will travel as much as 840 miles. The New York Times

Bird Rehabilitators Seek to Ban Lead Ammunition after seeing the devastating impacts of lead toxicity in raptors like Wyoming’s golden eagles. Lead bullets shatter easily upon impact, which means that birds feeding on prey that have been shot can ingest the toxic substance and suffer severe impacts to the brain and nervous system. Many hunters are resistant to the transition because lead-free ammunition tends to be more expensive and less-suited to certain styles of hunting. WyoFile

Dry Lakes are Kicking Up Dust Throughout the West and prompting air quality officials to consider legal action. The Salton Sea in California’s Imperial County and the Utah Great Salt Lake are two of the largest contributors to dust in the wake of increasingly dry conditions. Dust in the air clogs lungs and airways and carries with it toxic compounds from agricultural sources. Bitterroot

Mountains Could Act as Batteries for Storing Gravitational Potential Energy according to new research. As western states work to meet their renewable energy goals, lithium-ion batteries often fall short when it comes to storing energy from solar or wind for more than a few hours. But by using a contraption similar to a ski lift to hoist sand up mountainsides, gravitational potential energy is stored and ready to generate electricity once the material falls down again. The system would increase the time and scale of energy storage while avoiding the drawbacks of hydropower storage, like evaporation. Utility Dive

Articles Worth Reading: November 5, 2019

Devastating Sea Urchin Invasion is Spreading to the Oregon Coast and wreaking havoc on abalone fisheries. Rapacious purple urchins have decimated California’s kelp ecosystems in recent years, and new estimates suggest that as many as 350 million of the spiny critters were latching onto a single Oregon reef — a 10,000 percent increase over the 2014 numbers. “You can't just go out and smash them. There's too many,” says Scott Groth, a shellfish scientist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Conservationists and other stakeholders are hoping to combat the issue by paying divers to remove the urchins by hand so they can be farmed for their meaty roe. Associated Press

Lasers, LiDAR, and Drones Can Detect Methane Leaks that contribute to global warming and cost the oil and gas industry as much as $30 billion per year. Tech entrepreneurs in Colorado are working to design monitoring systems that are rugged enough to be left unattended in the oil fields forlong periods but accurate enough to identify even small leaks. Yale Environment 360

The Wild Population of California Condors is Well on its Way to Recovery. There are now more than 300 condors throughout the Southwest thanks to an aggressive breeding program and a ban on lead ammunition put into effect in July. Scientists are finding that an abundance of marine mammals contributes to healthier chicks. Soon the population will reach the goals originally set for the species in the 1996 plans Hakai

New Law Requires Texas Homeowners to Disclose Flooding Risk to potential buyers in the wake of damage from Hurricane Harvey. The new law means that buyers are more informed about flood history and risk, but properties in floodplain areas may have more difficulty selling. Surveys suggest that more than 74 percent of Americans are in favor of a disclosure law that can help buyers decide whether or not to purchase a home or seek flood insurance. NPR

Navajo Woman Reflects on the Importance of her Grandmother’s Weaving. Melanie Yazzie remembers holding yarn between her feet as her grandmother wove traditional rugs in their home in Arizona. Now a printmaker and educator, she draws from her memories of her grandmother to find purpose in her work. The piece begins at the podcast’s 11:41 mark. The Moth Podcast

Articles Worth Reading: October 22, 2019

Greater-Sage Grouse Populations Stand a Better Chance, thanks to a new court ruling that found a lack of acceptable scientific support for the Trump administration’s rollback of protections on more than 9 million acres of the bird’s habitat in states like Wyoming and Oregon. The rollback in March was an effort to lease prime land for oil and gas drilling projects. This week’s court ruling, in which the judge wrote, “When the [Bureau of Land Management] substantially reduces protections for sage grouse contrary to the best science and the concerns of other agencies, there must be some analysis and justification,” is a win for conservation groups suing to get the plans thrown out. The sage grouse has already lost some 90 percent of its historic numbers. Audubon

Colorado Cannabis Growers Are Becoming More Energy-Efficient by taking advantage of sustainable investments in technology. Carbon emissions are rising with the expansion of the legal marijuana industry because indoor growing operations rely on huge amounts of electricity to power cooling and lighting equipment. Creative design systems and a rigorous energy offset program are helping to keep the state on track for its efficiency goals in the next few years. The Denver Post

Shellfish Farming Permit Thrown Out Due to Concerns for the Marine Environment in the Pacific Northwest. A federal judge found the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t properly analyze the environmental impact of aquaculture farms. The industry takes in nearly $150 million per year in Washington state, the hub of shellfish aquaculture. Critics said the original permit doesn’t account for potential damage from microplastics, herbicides, and tideland conversion. The Seattle Times

Ecologists Lobby for Wildlife-Friendly Highway Crossings Along the Border With Mexico. Mexico’s Highway 2 intersects a wildlife corridor that could be used by populations of endangered species like jaguars, ocelots, and black bears traveling between Arizona and Sonora. Wildlands Network is pushing for additions to highway construction that would direct animals to safe crossings and maximize their chances of survival during dangerous travel. ASU Cronkite News/Arizona PBS

Wild Burros Aren’t All Bad for the Death Valley Ecosystem according to ongoing research. Yes, the donkeys compete for resources with the park’s native species, but they may also serve other beneficial purposes. By digging wells in dry streambeds, they create small water sources for insects and amphibians and help struggling tree species germinate. The default option is to round up and remove the burros, but there may be unintended consequences for the complex desert ecosystem. Undark

Articles Worth Reading: October 7, 2019

California Fisherman Are Repeatedly Catching and Releasing Protected Great White Sharks Without Consequences due to cloudy language in the law. Although state regulations strictly prohibit killing a Great White, it’s almost impossible to prosecute because anglers can claim the catches were accidental. Changing ocean conditions mean that more of the animals are sticking around in Southern California, spurring advocates to call for heftier penalties for illegal takes. Hakai Magazine

More Than 80,000 Wild Horses Ended up in Foreign Slaughterhouses Last Year even though killing horses for food is illegal in in the U.S. “Kill buyers” say that exporting to Canada and Mexico decreases the exploding population and helps feed the world, but animal rights activists say that the Bureau of Land Management can do more to protect adoptable horses. The New Food Economy

The Western Rivers Conservancy Conserves Vital River Habitat by Purchasing Land and partnering with local managers. The recent acquisition of old-growth forest surrounding the Blue Creek watershed marks a 10-year effort to preserve critical salmon streams. The organization has purchased and conserved an estimated 175,000 acres of riparian habitat since its founding three decades ago. The acquisitions are handed over to stewards who are expected to implement long-term conservation management plans and make the lands more accessible to the public. Modern Conservationist

The Right of Personhood for the Klamath River Means It Can Bring Cases in Tribal Court, opening up avenues for legal advocacy and shifting the conversation around indigenous knowledge. The move follows a precedent set by New Zealand tribes and an international indigenous movement called Rights of Nature. Although no case has yet been brought to court, the Yurok Tribe’s resolution means that issues like pollution, diseased fish, and even climate change can now be addressed through tribal court. High Country News

A Small Alaska Town Is Slowly Being Consumed by Rusting Cars along with refrigerators, forks, shoes, and everything else imported by plane and boat. With limited options for removing waste once it arrives, Bethel’s citizens instead create graveyards of junk and spare parts. Native Yup’ik Elder Esther Green says that the abandoned cars are more than an eyesore — they’re a disturbance to their native land. “Everything around us has ears, and they can see and they can feel. Just like us human beings.” 99 Percent Invisible Podcast

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

Dec 2 2019 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
California is not as thirsty for Colorado River water as it once was; bouncing back from salmon struggles; listening in on blue whale heartbeats; and other environmental news from around the West.
Nov 11 2019 | Center News, Happenings, ArtsWest
A curatorial tour of a new Cantor Arts Center exhibition gave audiences a glimpse of iconic Western photographs.
Nov 1 2019 | Stanford News Service | Center News, Research Notes
The new normal for Western wildfires is abnormal, with increasingly bigger and more destructive blazes. Understanding the risks can help communities avert disaster.