Congress can make progress on fighting emissions with Zero Food Waste Act

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Every year, nearly half of all food produced in the U.S. ends up lost or wasted, even as millions of Americans go hungry. Just imagine the vast amounts of land, water, energy and human labor squandered, all to grow, process, transport, and dispose of food no one eats. And from a climate perspective, America’s food waste has a massive carbon footprint. It’s not just a matter of emissions generated by the agricultural system that produces the food, it’s also emissions generated by the landfills and incinerators where that food ends up.

Now imagine a more resilient, circular system that ensures food ends up on plates instead of garbage cans, or compost piles instead of trash heaps, while also helping to reverse nature loss, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create more jobs. No single policy or program will make this vision a reality, but Congress has an opportunity to take a big step in the right direction by passing the Zero Food Waste Act.

The Zero Food Waste Act, introduced last week by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Reps. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), would establish an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program to finance efforts by state, local and Native nations to better measure and understand their food waste, plan for more a circular economy, and invest in the infrastructure, policies, and programs needed to reduce waste and keep food out of landfills.

The program would offer three types of grants. Planning grants could help determine what kind of food waste mitigation strategies would be most impactful for individual communities or locations. Reduction grants could finance a wide array of state and local efforts, including the prevention of food waste, reusing waste as feedstock for compost and other non-food products, redirecting surplus food to those who need it most, “upcycling” waste into new food using ingredients that would otherwise end up in landfills, and implementing restrictions on food waste going to landfill or incineration. And measurement grants could enable states and communities to better calculate their quantities of food waste, digging into its main sources and where it’s winding up — because measuring and monitoring is critical to the success of any food waste reduction effort.

The program would prioritize low-income communities and communities of color, which we know are hardest hit by food insecurity and disproportionately located near landfills and incinerators. What’s more, many of these same communities bear the brunt of extreme weather events and other climate impacts — and we know that by reducing our food waste we are also reducing the emissions that are driving climate disruption.

In terms of sheer weight, food waste is the largest single unit of refuse in our landfills, where it sits, rots, and releases methane gas — a type of greenhouse gas even more harmful than carbon dioxide. 

In 2015, the U.S. set a national goal of cutting food loss and waste in half by 2030. Six years later, the trendlines are not moving in the right direction. Landfills are now one of the leading sources of methane emissions in the nation. All told, America’s food waste generates more greenhouse gas emissions than the nation’s entire aviation industry. 

That is why it’s so important for us to make food waste reduction a central pillar of our national climate strategy. If we succeed in reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030, we will prevent 75 million metric tons of GHG per year, roughly equivalent to 16 million cars driven per year.

Some state governments, local communities, and Native nations have taken initiative already. For example, the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment, comprised of government agencies across California, Washington, and Oregon, is already working with companies and various stakeholders in civil society to reduce food waste in their region by at least 50 percent by 2030 and to show measured year-over-year results. California also directs $4 million from its cap-and-trade program to food waste prevention projects, with funds from 2018 alone resulting in 103 million pounds of food kept out of landfills, 345 local jobs, and 86 million meals recovered.

But if the U.S. wants to proceed with the speed and scope needed to meaningfully cut food waste and achieve our environmental and social goals, we’re going to need federal support. Because turning a profit in waste management and related industries will remain difficult without incentives to recycle or reuse resources. 

To that end, World Wildlife Fund urges Congress to pass the Zero Food Waste Act. The bill represents a common-sense investment in the future of our country and our planet that has local government, civil society, and private sector support. When we squander food at any level, we undermine public health, economic prosperity, and the natural systems upon which thousands of years of human progress have been built. This is an issue we can make rapid progress on through investment. We can and must do better.

Pete Pearson is global food loss and waste lead at World Wildlife Fund.

Tags Chellie Pingree Climate change Cory Booker Food waste Julia Brownley landfills methane emissions

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