With funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, EPA is developing two grant programs that have the potential to significantly improve progress toward our country’s goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030. The first program focuses on improving the effectiveness of residential and community recycling programs through public education and outreach, while the second grant program covers solid waste recycling infrastructure.
The agency has participated in several listening sessions and is asking stakeholders for information on local needs, best practices and models to consider when developing the programmes. NRDC sees four elements as an important part of the effectiveness of the grant program.
I. Grant programs for recycling infrastructure must include food waste and other organic materials
Food is the largest contributor to landfill nationwide – contributing over 36 million tonnes to landfill each year and accounting for 24% of MSW dumped. To meet zero-waste and climate goals at the local, state, and federal levels, food waste (along with other organic matter) must be treated separately from the other materials in the municipal solid waste stream. Even with the best efforts to prevent food from becoming waste, there will always be inedible parts of food that need to be recycled. Food waste recycling has the potential to divert 20.9 million tons of material from landfills and prevent 4.94 million tons of CO2e of climate pollution from entering the atmosphere per year, as well as a net financial benefit of $239.7 million per year year to achieve. There are currently over 5,000 composting facilities nationwide, but only about 500 facilities accept food scraps. Investment is needed to support current composting operations to receive and process food waste, as well as to build new facilities of all sizes and to add or expand organic matter collection. All federal funding programs to support recycling infrastructure should include recycling of organic matter and explicitly include food waste as an eligible material.
Preventing and recycling organic waste, including food waste, also helps mitigate the significant environmental justice considerations associated with landfill and incinerators. Nearly 80% of incinerators in the US are located in chronically underserved communities where the majority of residents are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, resulting in environmental degradation, adverse health effects, and other burdens. To address longstanding injustices, communities of color that have suffered from environmental justice impacts should be prioritized in providing funding to support food waste collection, recycling and other materials management efforts. At the same time, while composting infrastructure has less harmful environmental impacts than landfills or incinerators, waste management facilities (including organic matter recycling facilities) should not be disproportionately located in communities of color. To prevent this, one of the grant requirements should be the development of a site plan that includes significant community involvement. The plan should include an assessment of the potential pressures on the surrounding community and appropriate measures to address them.
II. Grant programs must fund assessments, planning efforts, and policies
Proper planning, whether through assessment, planning or some other mechanism, is the first step to a successful infrastructure project that will work over the long term for the communities it serves. Through NRDC’s Food Matters work, we helped the cities of Denver and Baltimore conduct food waste recycling assessments and recognized the importance of these feasibility studies to determine which composting infrastructure would best serve the community. The assessments have fed into cities’ work plans and helped prioritize future actions. For example, based on the assessment, the City of Denver is exploring how to create more composting infrastructure and recently passed a new law that makes collection for recycling and composting free, but sets monthly fees for collecting trash at the landfill. Any grant funding should include support for assessments and other planning efforts in addition to facility upgrades and new development of processing facilities or collection infrastructure.
Additionally, state and local policies such as organic waste bans, waste diversion requirements, landfill taxes, pay-as-you-throw policies, and efficient permits have been shown to encourage food waste recycling, in addition to expanding food rescue and creating new jobs. A recycling infrastructure is essential to implementing these guidelines, but the planning and assessment processes that must be undertaken to effectively implement these guidelines are costly. In addition to facility design efforts, this grant program should provide funds for state, local and tribal governments to plan or implement proven policies that reduce food waste in landfills and incinerators through organic recycling and waste prevention.
III. Grant funding needs to support infrastructure at various scales
Not all organic recycling infrastructure needs to be concentrated on an industrial scale; Some communities may be better served by locally managed, community-scale compost processing at sites such as city gardens, schools, farmers markets, and other regional food centers. In addition, collecting and processing food waste on-site and on a smaller scale can limit the potential negative environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transport of waste. Small collectors and processors should receive grants for the purchase of land, materials, labor, transportation, and other operational needs.
When awarding grants, consideration should also be given to whether the management method (composting or anaerobic digestion) uses the materials with a view to their highest and best ecological use. Anaerobic digestion (AD) may not always be the best technology to process a given organic waste stream, depending on whether or not the feedstock has been separated at source and how the end products (digestate) are treated. When choosing AD over composting or other options, consideration should be given to whether nutrients are retained or lost (for example, if digestate from AD is landfilled after energy production, nutrients are lost) and how to maximize the potential for organic matter to contribute to soil health by processing them as soil improvers.
IV. Grant funding should also support waste prevention and awareness and educational materials
Education is critical to the success of recycling operations. The best-planned projects can’t be utilized if the community doesn’t know about them, and projects can fail if the community doesn’t know how to properly participate. For example, plastic contamination in food waste continues to be a problem for processors, often as a result of residents and businesses adding the wrong materials to compost collection. Community education is essential to ensure residents participate appropriately and thus materials can be properly managed.
Education and outreach should also prioritize waste prevention. The greatest environmental, economic, and social benefits of reducing food waste are associated with reducing or preventing food waste, which is reflected in the EPA’s food waste management hierarchy, which emphasizes the need to reduce the source before any other management strategy. Educational and awareness-raising materials on food waste prevention and recycling can draw on many existing resources. For example, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine 2020 report A national strategy to reduce food waste at the consumer level makes several recommendations relevant to EPA’s grant program. This grant program should provide funding for education and outreach projects, and if this is beyond the scope of this grant, all grant applications should include an education and outreach plan that includes prevention.
Finally, NRDC sees a great opportunity to address interconnected issues of climate and environmental justice through better management of food waste through the Solid Waste Infrastructure for Recycling program. Through this important funding, EPA can ensure that across the country, food waste is better prevented and that more food waste is recycled into nutrient-rich soil amendment, rather than producing greenhouse gases and other harmful pollutants when landfilled or incinerated. Increasing our capacity to properly manage food waste is critical to achieving zero waste and climate goals, such as: B. Our national goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2050, as well as for other environmental, economic and social benefits.