We’re excited to see the foodservice industry paying much closer attention to food waste than at any time in the last 10 years. In broad terms, food waste management techniques either prevent food waste in the first place or, once it has been created, divert it from a landfill to some other end-of-life use. Prevention is at the top of the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy because it has the best environmental and financial outcomes.
The growing interest in food waste across the foodservice industry has kept us very busy at LeanPath working on prevention, and we’re also seeing extensive diversion efforts. Operators are using food dehydrators, aerobic digesters, composting and offsite anaerobic digesters to ensure food waste doesn’t get buried in the ground and produce methane gas.
Unfortunately, some operators view diversion as a “complete” solution to food waste when, in reality, diversion efforts fall in the lower half of the EPA Hierarchy. If an operator implements diversion and nothing else, they miss out on the greatest financial and environmental benefits of food waste management, which come from prevention. This isn’t just a minor miss; it’s a major one.
There is also a hidden danger with diversion programs that goes beyond omitting prevention. In a March 2014 article from The Guardian, the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Dana Gunders states, “Sometimes, there’s a risk with composting. There’s a feel-good aspect to recycling and composting that can override our impulse to prevent food waste in the first place.” In other words, diversion may actually work against prevention if a front-line employee thinks waste is going to a “good place” rather than a “bad place.” Diverting food waste can create the illusion that waste is “OK”, as long as it does not go to the landfill.
Does this mean that foodservice operations should not pursue diversion? Absolutely not. These programs are beneficial and play an important role in reducing the amount of food waste sent to landfill. When they become dangerous, however, is when they are the only food waste reduction effort in place and the only message shared with employees. Remember, prevention lives at the top of the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy and forms the essential foundation of any food waste reduction effort.