Recovery, Recycling, and Waste

The recovery, recycling, and waste sector is the network of municipalities, companies, and nonprofits that handle remainder, discarded, expired, and unused food from numerous end points along the supply chain -- from  farms, restaurants, and households.

Equity Snapshot

Food recovery, recycling, and waste is a sector that warrants immediate attention and action. The sector illustrates how water, labor, energy, and money are needlessly squandered across the food system. The scale of the problem is immense. In California alone, 6 million tons of food scraps or food waste are produced each year — this represents 18 percent of all materials that go to landfills.[51] In the U.S., more than $200 billion is spent annually on food waste; 52 million tons of food that is not eaten are sent to landfills, and 10 million tons of food go unharvested each year. It is estimated that 40 percent of all food produced is thrown away.[52] At the same time that food waste is increasing, so is the scale of hunger in the nation, as 40 million people experience food insecurity.[53]

The equity implications of food waste are substantial and dire. Impacts in this sector are similar to those identified in the food retailing sector — namely, current jobs in waste disposal offer low wages and unsafe working conditions and are largely occupied by people of color and immigrants. Food waste is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, largely through methane as food decomposes in landfills, and waste consumes excessive amounts of water. The environmental threat posed by food waste falls most heavily on marginalized communities. Landfills and other waste facilities are more likely to be located in and adjacent to communities of color and low-income areas. They are often poorly maintained, placing neighbors’ health and safety in jeopardy.

Key factors that have shaped inequities in the recovery, recycling, and waste sector include the following.

  • Understanding among the public about how food is grown and prepared for consumption is insufficient, leading to waste along all parts of the supply chain. Of the 40 percent of food wasted in the U.S., the majority of that waste is generated at the farm. At the time of harvest, edible crops are left on the fields for many reasons related to their perceived market value, such as blemishes and deformities. It is not profitable to continue moving these imperfect crops along the supply chain. Furthermore, some farm machinery cannot process crops beyond a narrow range of suitability, such as specific shapes and weights. It is not profitable to use field laborers to gather crops more indiscriminately. In households, individuals may lack the knowledge or interest to cook with as much of the food as possible, such as carrot leaves or broccoli stems. All these public perceptions and market signals perpetuate a narrower scope of foods that are edible, leading to waste generation from declining value and interest.
  • The policy environment surrounding food recovery, recycling, and waste is confusing and outdated, leading to hesitation among big actors to donate surplus foods. Retailers and businesses that generate surplus and excess foods may have strong legal fears concerning food donations with good faith and good intent. There is a need to build common understanding over the liability and incentives surrounding food donations so that local and regional food recovery networks can be established. Otherwise, these foods that are still edible go to landfills, while community residents go hungry. This situation leads to opportunities for job creation, as people and structures to receive and distribute surplus foods are needed. Work in this area can greatly assist homeless shelters, food pantries, and food banks, as well as create operations to use surplus food as livestock feed, fuel, or compost.
  • The waste management system is inadequate, decentralized, and largely invisible to the public, limiting the accountability of waste generators to reform their practices and handle waste responsibly. The waste management of food is outdated and irresponsible to society and the environment. In the U.S., while one out of every seven people is uncertain when his or her next meal is coming, more than 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted annually.[54] Typically ending in landfills, food waste generates a large amount of methane that contributes to our greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, waste management is not an issue limited to the actions and practices of government. The private sector has ample opportunity to innovate how goods are produced, how waste management technology can advance, and how surplus foods can be reused or upcycled. These opportunities can offer investments and contracts with small businesses that are minority owned and owned by women.


Model Policies

  • Streamline systems and policies for donation recovery, which would make food and meals available to those experiencing hunger who cannot afford food at market value. These systems can create new jobs to retrieve, transport, and distribute recovered food. Additionally, new systems and policies would reduce foods deposited at landfills that generate methane emissions. In 1996, the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was passed to encourage food donations from companies and organizations. The act limits the civil and criminal liability of donating and distributing surplus foods to those in need, in good faith and good intent, through nonprofit organizations. No cases have been reported of people trying to skirt these protections, which should assuage any fears by restaurants, grocery stores, caterers, farmers’ markets, and other purveyors who are concerned over the legality of leftover or unsold food donations.
  • Create opportunities for secondary resellers to add value to surplus food and generate economic activity in local communities. Retail stores and outlets can sell discounted groceries and prepared foods sourced from food manufacturers and distributors with overstock and surplus. These foods are still edible and have the potential for secondary resale. In Dorchester, Massachusetts, the Daily Table is a nonprofit retail store that offers ready-to-eat meals and a selection of produce, bread, dairy, and other grocery items at discounted rates. The foods are donated from local growers, supermarkets, manufacturers, and other suppliers. These rates offer a “food with dignity” intention, where community residents are still participating in food purchasing, but with greater availability of affordable foods. These operations can focus in neighborhoods where food insecurity is high and where full-service retailers are scarce.
  • Expand the capacity and ability for processing food waste, upcycling, and composting to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of decomposing foods. Of all the strategies to address food waste, ReFED identified centralized composting as creating the greatest number of jobs — 9,000 jobs. The State of California has a mandate for commercial food recycling, which provides the opportunity to build and expand composting facilities around the state. Centralized composting — composting at the scale of municipalities and regions — has the potential to divert more than five million tons of food waste per year across the nation. At the neighborhood level, composting can be co-located with other beneficial services, such as community gardens, community-supported agriculture, and farm stands. In New York City, the Lower Eastside Ecology Center has created such a site at the Union Square Greenmarket, offering healthy food, educational outlets, and job creation in the community.

Equity In Action

  • City of Los Angeles Food Waste Grant Challenge: The City of Los Angeles created a Food Waste Grant Challenge to promote efforts to reduce, recover, and recycle food waste. Over one-third of Los Angeles’s waste stream is made up of organic materials, mostly food. The challenge increases awareness and promotes strategies to help residents prevent food waste and recover surplus food. In the first grant cycle in 2017, 10 projects were selected to receive some of $100,000. The seven winning projects, Free the Food Grantees, included programs aimed at middle school and high school students, programs with multi-generational participants, and several community gardens.
  • Food Shift: Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the organization works with government agencies, businesses, and community residents to decrease food waste, develop jobs, feed the hungry, and foster sustainable communities. Food Shift works to enhance current methods of food recovery and, ultimately, build a food recovery service sector. In 2016, it launched the Food Shift Kitchen at the Alameda Point Collaborative, a housing community for individuals previously without homes. In the kitchen, residents are trained and employed to cook with rescued surplus food for use in catering.

Resources & Tools

  • ReFED: ReFED is a national organization that brings together stakeholders from nonprofits, philanthropy, government, and business to focus on reduction of food waste. The organization is especially strong in data analysis, producing an innovative report, Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste, which highlights strategies to reduce food waste nationwide by 20 percent.
  • Food Recovery Network: The Food Recovery Network is a student movement in U.S. colleges and universities, seeking to combat hunger by reducing food waste on college campuses. The network now has 230 chapters and has recovered 2.7 million pounds of food, equivalent to 2.4 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions prevented.
  • Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic: The Food Law and Policy Clinic offers Harvard law students hands-on experience with legal and policy tools to address the health, environmental, and economic impacts of the food system. The clinic has become a strong legal resource for food law as it pertains to food waste and food recovery, spearheaded by Emily Broad Leib. Members have published thorough legal reports on topics such as tax incentives for food donation, date labeling requirements for food packaging, and state policy indexes.