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Why Food Waste May Be One Of The Most Pressing Climate Issues Facing Maine

Composting food scraps is one way to reduce food waste, but preventing excess food in the first place is better, says the EPA.
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Composting food scraps is one way to reduce food waste, but preventing excess food in the first place is better, says the EPA.

According to the United Nations, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world behind China and the US. For Susanne Lee, that makes food waste one of the most pressing issues of our time. She is not a climate scientist, as you might think. In fact, her background is all business. She was an Executive in Residence at the Maine Business School. She is now a faculty fellow a the University of Maine's Mitchell Center for Sustainability, which this summer launched Food Rescue Maine, an action campaign to try and tackle the problem of food waste. She spoke to All Things Considered Host Jennifer Mitchell.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jennifer Mitchell: So you know, this talk about food waste is really just kind of ramped up probably in the last maybe 10 years or so. How big of a problem is it today?

Susanne Lee: The statistic is about 30 to 40% of the food that is produced in the United States, never is eaten. So it's an astounding, it's something like 133 billion pounds of food that's wasted annually in the United States worth about $160 billion, which is not counting the cost of the water, the energy, the labor that goes into producing that food that's produced but never eaten. They said it's analogous to going to the grocery store buying five bags of groceries and on the way to your trunk, you actually dropped two of them is sort of, you know, the level of waste.

So why are we doing this? Like, I can't imagine this conversation taking place, you know, pretty much at any other point in history. I know you've pointed to date labeling as an issue. We've heard a lot of talk about that lately about best before dates and use by dates, people being confused by those and just basically throwing things out before they really have to as being a factor. But is anybody actually benefiting from wasted food? And, you know, what are some of the more business aspects to why we're doing this?

I think that we used to value food, we used to appreciate it as the tremendous resource that it is, but in some ways how our food system has developed, it's kind of separated producers from the consumers. And, you know, how did we get to this place, and who's benefiting really has a lot to do with consumer products and packaged goods. A business is very bottom-line oriented, I mean I taught at the business school, it's about the bottom line. So even if I have food waste, as long as my revenues are higher, and my costs are lower, and I'm making enough profit, I have already factored in whatever amount of food waste and the cost of disposing. That's another [issue] - cost of the food that's wasted, the cost of the inputs into that food, not to mention the cost that you have to then pay somebody to haul away the food that you're disposing of. So that's a third level of cost to food waste. So businesses, as long as they have covered those three costs, and they've charged enough so that they make a profit, they don't actually care. And there are some, you know, notable fast food chains that have, you know, if you were to check their dumpsters a tremendous amount of food, but yet they're profitable. So they have taken no steps to sort of mitigate that food waste at all. Because it doesn't matter, only if it starts to cut into your bottom line, do you start to care.

So that kind of begs the question, is there a role that maybe the state or the municipalities could be playing? And also, how big is the problem in Maine?

Well, just to give you the statistic right now in our state about 97 to 99% of food waste is being landfilled. So the number one single component in our waste stream is food. So you'll not find anything in any other component part as much as you'll find food, it's 30% of our wasting. So it is a problem and the state is aware of it, which is why they are trying to do things like pilot communities. So even in the rural areas, communities like Winslow, and we just set up with Readfield, Wayne, and Fayette, these consolidated collection sites, and in many cases at the transfer stations, they're starting to do composting there, which really helps the communities. What's happening is in our neighboring states, so Vermont and Massachusetts, Vermont with the most aggressive organic waste ban, they have a complete ban, and what that's done is donations have increased by 40%. So people are starting to think, okay, I can no longer put food in the trash. So now I'm gonna have to start thinking about what am I going to do with this food? Well, maybe I'm going to have to, you know, manage it more carefully. If I have some good edible food, maybe I should be taking that to the food pantry or sharing it with my neighbor or family or something. So that is a step that some states in some communities have implemented laws restricting food going into the landfill.

What you've described here is sort of this big problem, you know where you've got the methane gas element, you've got massive wastage, economically, you've got water resources being used travel costs, fossil fuels, they go into transporting food that gets put in a landfill to create more greenhouse gases. And it just seems like a really huge problem. But at the same time, it also seems like something that everybody can do a little something about. If I just don't let that bunch of bananas go moldy, am I really making an impact?

You know, in the climate program for the state, there was a lot of emphasis on energy and cars and things like that. And, okay, that doesn't count for a lot of people. But everybody eats food, so everybody can be impacted by this issue and make an impact on the issue. You know, I say that I was blessed to get on this project, even though I had no idea about any of this two years ago, because there's not to me a single issue that could be more important right now. You know, feed people, forestall climate change, save money that could be used for a lot better resources. You get all those benefits by just addressing this one issue.