What about food waste?

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This article was originally published in the August 2018 Princeton Echo.

Mayor Liz Lempert, Bloomberg Philanthropies Advisor Katie Appel Duda, and Matthew Wasserman digging in and doing a food waste audit.

‘What’s that smell?” When, as a little girl, I asked that question from the backseat of our car —sandwiched in between my older brother and sister — I had no clue how that subject would echo years later in my life and become a literal $100,000 question — possibly even a $5 million question — for my current hometown. My family was driving from Manhattan to New Jersey to visit my grandfather, and we had just come out of the Lincoln Tunnel when a very pungent combination of wet-feeling smells filled the car. “It’s the Secaucus pig farms,” my dad said.

“Secaucus” sounded very interesting to me. I had never been to a pig farm, so I imagined that there was a big “Secaucus Land” populated by pigs running around, having fun, and being smelly. I had no idea why so many of them seemed to have be there until recently reading about the history of landfills. What I learned was that for years the solution to getting rid of food waste was to have a pig farm near a city and truck the food there for the animals to consume. It wasn’t the pigs that smelled — it was the piles of decaying food waste.

As the population and thus cities grew, that solution for disposing of food waste was no longer feasible. A businessman in California saw the problem, bought a canyon, and in 1957 opened the Puente Hills Landfill as the privately owned San Gabriel Valley Dump. He connected with nearby cities and eventually filled that canyon to the brim — a 500-foot-high pile of all kinds of garbage. It seemed like a handy solution, and there was plenty of cheap land available to just keep on dumping. Now we are at the point of running out of available land and, of course, no one wants a landfill in their backyard. The cost of hauling is rising very quickly as the distance between destinations expands, which puts an added burden on municipalities and taxpayers.

Worldwide there are 2 to 6 trillion pounds of garbage produced every year, and just over half of that is food waste. In the United States we waste almost 40 percent of our food supply. This occurs mostly at the consumer level because of wasteful habits; markets that throw away anything that doesn’t “look good”; unconsumed food in restaurants; and plate scrapings from cafeterias and other food serving institutions. In underdeveloped countries the food loss happens between the farms and the markets due to poor or no refrigeration and insufficient availability of packing materials that protect the product while in transit. In wealthier countries the challenge is to solve the problem of how and why we produce so much waste and to transform what we do create into a product that can be returned to the soil to enrich its productivity. For less developed countries, a solution is needed that addresses the transportation system issues.

Why should you care about food waste?

  • The tons of food that is wasted prevents it from feeding hungry mouths. According to the nonprofit organization Feeding America, there are 41 million people who face hunger in the United States and 13 million of them are children. All of them may not know where or when they will get their next meal.
  • The water used to produce that food is wasted. Worldwide the water wasted every year equals three times the volume of Lake Geneva. Safe, potable water sources are becoming scarcer and scarcer.
  • The fossil fuels burned to produce, refrigerate, and transport the food are wasted and contribute to pollution. Transporting the food waste to landfill locations contributes to air pollution.
  • The carbon footprint of wasted food deposited in landfills worldwide makes it the third largest methane emitter after the U.S. and China. This impacts both climate and health.
  • Uneaten food represents nearly 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land use.
  • The demand of growing populations pushes agriculture into previously untouched land that has a major impact on the loss of biodiversity necessary to maintain a healthy, productive environment. Curbing food waste would greatly lessen this land clearing.

The town of Princeton has been grappling with this problem since 2011 when it inaugurated its Curbside Organic Program that each month keeps an average of 25 to 30 tons of food waste out of landfills. Now Mayor Liz Lempert hopes to expand the program to not only collect more food waste but also to establish a means of processing the waste locally.

Presently there are 1,000 Princeton households enrolled in the program, which is just a portion of potential Princeton households that could be participating. Each household pays $65 per year for the program. To have a more significant impact on the amount of food waste that now goes directly into landfills, the program needs to increase participation, which would decrease the cost to the municipality and thus to the taxpayers.

Meet the team: Pictured, from back left, are students Nebil Ibrahim and Sandra Sequera, Claudine Menashe-Jones of Bloomberg, Mayor Liz Lempert, Matthew Wasserman, Judith Robinson, student Emerson Thomas, and Ryann Hoffman of Bloomberg. In front are students Ashley Berland, left, Amy Li, and Anam Vadgama. Not pictured are township health officer Jeffrey Grosser, Gina Talt of the university’s Office of Sustainability, township director of infrastructure Robert Hough, and Rafe Steinhauer, director of Tiger Challenge.

A further development in this effort would be to establish an efficient and clean local processing system. The experience with large food waste processing operations is that they are less likely to succeed. Smaller and more local digester locations eliminate the monetary costs and environmental impacts that result from having to truck the food waste to distant sites to be processed and then having to transport the product back to the town for residents to use. It also creates the economic opportunity for farmers, landscapers, park managers, and other potential users to have access to the resulting compost product.

Princeton’s community effort has now attracted the attention of Bloomberg Philanthropies, created by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg to help cities become more livable and more sustainable. Princeton is now participating in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge and has been named one of 35 cities to receive a $100,000 grant to further develop its organic waste plan. The town has until the end of August to submit a final application. Five winning cites will be announced in October: four will win $1 million grants, and one will receive $5 million to continue the project.

For this grant the focus is on residences only. In the future the program will expand to include restaurants, food markets, and any Princeton location that generates large amounts of food waste.

Mayor Lempert has assembled a coalition of interested residents to work on the application for the Challenge Grant. The residents include project manager Matthew Wasserman, former chair of the Princeton Environmental Commission and cofounder and president of Sustainable Princeton; Town Health Officer Jeffrey Grosser; Director of Infrastructure and Operations Robert Hough; Gina Talt from Princeton University’s Office of Sustainability; and Rafe Steinhauer, director of the university’s Tiger Challenge program, which is providing a team of six undergraduate volunteers to help brainstorm solutions, all of which are intended to move toward Michael Bloomberg’s ethos: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

An example of one issue to be solved is the contamination of food waste. The town website, www.princetonnj.gov, provides a detailed list of what can be deposited in those green organic waste containers. It includes flower and vegetable garden trimmings, houseplants, fruits and nuts (including pits), vegetables and vegetable peels, bread, pasta, and grains, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, spoiled and expired foods, grass and leaves, paper plates and cups, paper towels and napkins, pizza boxes, egg shells, and non-styrofoam egg cartons, among other things. It also includes a few things that most people would never include in a backyard compost pile, including meat, poultry (including bones), and fish, including shellfish — things that might attract pests.

But there’s still a lot of education needed. Recent tweets from Mayor Lempert were instructive: “Food waste in landfills =3rd largest source of methane. Princeton’s curbside organics program reverses that trend by turning waste in2 compost, but program only works if food waste is free of trash. How is Princeton doing? @BloombergCities #mayorschallenge team out testing 2day!

“Surprise from last week’s food waste audit: passersby are throwing soda cans & dog poop bags into compost bins on pickup day, making the food waste unsuitable for composting. #MayorsChallenge team testing fixes. Pls share ur ideas w/us!”

As the mayor’s tweets suggest, members of the Mayors Challenge team have literally been opening trash bags and sorting out the contents. Wasserman notes that “recent local trash audits are confirming the national trends that Princeton’s residential trash is made up of nearly 25 percent food waste. On an annual basis this amounts to about 1,400 tons or over $10 million of wasted food . . . The Bloomberg Project aims to change all that by giving residents a local solution to their food waste and a chance to start putting some of that wasted money (approximately $1,500 per household) back into their own pockets.”

The idea, says Lempert, “is to develop a model that other communities throughout the country can adopt, so collectively we can make a significant dent in greenhouse gas emissions emanating from landfills, one of the largest contributors to climate change. We’re lucky to have amazing partners helping us from Princeton University, local advisors, and our surrounding farming community.”

Treating the earth as our garbage pail is no longer feasible or morally justifiable as we look to the welfare of future generations. Now is the time that practical and innovative solutions to the waste that we produce are needed. We have gone way beyond the capacity that those pigs in Secaucus were serving as the solution for mounds of food waste. Buy less — waste less.

For more information on the Curbside Organic Program or the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge Grant, you can contact: accessprinceton@princetonnj.gov. Information on the Princeton Curbside Organics is available at princetonnj.gov. And you can follow the Princeton Food Waste Project on Facebook or call 609-924-4141

Judith K. Robinson is the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge coordinator. After an early career as an actor/director she became an organic food producer and involved in the environmental issues. She also co-founded and managed the Princeton Farmers Market for five years. Her website is ourworldourchoices.com.