We Break it Down for You: Composting and Food Waste Reduction Strategies

Written by Darren Don
 · June 14, 2024

How have you been doing with reducing your food waste since our last discussion (see parts I and II)? As a reminder, food waste is defined as food that is ready and edible for consumption but gets discarded before that happens. We all waste more food than we think. In the United States, we waste about a third of the food that we produce. Unfortunately, most of this food waste will end up in the landfill. Rotting food releases methane, accounting for 8% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, which is almost equivalent to global road transport emissions. To combat climate change, particularly focusing on short-lived pollutants like methane, California passed Senate Bill (SB) 1383. It is the state’s most significant waste reduction mandate in the last 30 years. The goal was to reduce the amount of organic material going into the landfill by 50% by 2022 and then by 75% by 2025. We did not meet the 2022 goal and as we draw closer to 2025 we are not close to achieving the 75% reduction (one estimate is 11% as of 2021). In order to meet these goals, significant changes need to occur. Let’s look at what we all can do to help accelerate these changes. 

Looming issues
Food waste occurs along the entire supply chain from the farm to the distribution process to the final product that ends up on our tables. We will focus on issues at the community/consumer end. We will discuss the benefits of food waste educational campaigns, what we need to get up to speed to process our food waste, the confusion over what is compostable, and the need to know our particular refuse company’s policies. Let’s get started!

  • Something to chew on
    – Let’s start at the source of the waste. The US has not made progress towards halving its food waste by 2030 (United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Target 12.3). Educating consumers about the food waste problem is key. A national education program can be beneficial as evidenced by the United Kingdom’s “Love Food Hate Waste” which has helped reduce their food waste by 27% over a 5 year period. Here in the US, the National Resources Defense Council and the Ad Council have jointly launched a food waste reduction campaign called Savethefood.com.
  • Catching up
    – Although SB 1383 was passed in 2016, it did not go into effect until 2022. This has put some jurisdictions behind others in getting their waste sorting programs up to speed. Where will this diverted food waste go? By 2025 we will need to process about 18 million tons of food waste — but the anticipated 2025 capacity of processes such as composting and anaerobic digestion is only about 10 million tons. We will need to add more of these facilities to meet the need.
  • What exactly is compostable?
    – As we divert more of our food waste stream to composting, contamination — that is, when non-biodegradable materials such as plastics end up in food waste — is a significant concern. Confusion about sorting is rampant due to unclear wording and each jurisdiction having its own requirements. Customers need to check their refuse company’s website about what is acceptable.
    – Biodegradable and compostable can be confusing terms and people can assume these materials can readily go in their green composting bin. For example, bioplastic utensils may say “compostable” on them but most composting facilities are not able to process them. Very few industrial composters can produce the high temperatures that are needed to break down these products. Moreover, these materials may not fully compost and can leave bits of non-compostable material which contaminates the compost. CalRecycle notes that produce boxes coated with wax are compostable. However, many paper to-go containers are lined with some type of plastic or bioplastic material to prevent leakage and composting facilities are unable to accept these. If you are unsure, you can look up the product on BPI’s search engine or look for the BPI mark:

      – The BPI Certification process is rigorous and ensures that items can be cycled back into the soil safely at a commercial composting facility. This is done through testing to ASTM standards.

  • Paper, plastic, or both?
    – But remember that recyclers may not have a commercial composter, and even if they do, they still may not accept certain products. A sampling of various cities’ recycling websites reveals different policies/wording. One example is the city of Covina, whose refuse collection is run by Athens Services. It states very specifically under acceptable organics waste, “Food-soiled paper must be: 100% plant-fiber based with no coating, liner, filler, or laminate made from petroleum plastic, wax, or bio-plastic (including PLA & PHA). Paper must be soiled ONLY with food or drink liquids.” Less clear is San Mateo County’s Recology website which states that accepted composting materials include “paper take-out boxes and containers.” They do not mention the liner which can cause confusion for the customer. While this may seem like a small matter, contaminated compost is a serious issue. Jurisdictions need to have a destination for their compost. Ideally this “black gold” would go to nearby farmland. However, there is a history of mistrust among farmers who have received contaminated compost in the past.- Legislators are well aware of these issues and are working on providing better educational materials. In the meantime, we can all do our part to consult our recycler’s website and call them if the information is not clear.

What can we all do to be part of the solution?

  • Of course, every food waste discussion starts with reduction. Analyze your food shopping habits. Consider meal-prepping strategies.
  • Look for ways to limit your usage of disposable containers. Bring your own container to take home leftovers when you go out to eat. When you get takeout, ask the restaurant if they can serve the food to you in a bowl from which you can then box up in your own container.
  • Know what can go into your green compost bin. If you cannot be certain that your item is compostable, then it is best to put it in your landfill bin. Let’s make sure that our farms can truly receive black gold.
  • Try home composting! By adding compost to your soil, it will retain moisture better and allow you to use less water. You can lower your carbon footprint by avoiding having to send your food waste to an industrial composter (it takes energy to haul it to a facility, turn it into compost, and then transport the finished product to its end destination).
    You can do pile composting by using a dry, shady spot in your backyard or do bin composting. There are manufactured compost bins or you can make your own (a wine crate or even an old wooden drawer will work).
    – The key to successful composting is balancing the 4 main elements (carbon, nitrogen, air, and water) that allow the microorganisms that break down organic material to thrive.
    – Vermicomposting, or worm composting, is a great option if you have limited outdoor space. The worm bin can be placed in the garage or even under the sink.

Hungry for more?

Check out Actera’s Healthy Plate, Healthy Planet Program. It focuses on adopting a more plant-forward lifestyle and reducing the amount of wasted food. Consider signing up to be an ambassador for the program or joining one of the challenges.

Together, we can make a difference in reducing food waste, combating climate change, and building a more sustainable future for generations to come. Let’s take action today!


Darren Don
Darren Don
Energy and Climate Research Manager

Sign Up for our Newsletters

Keep in touch with Acterra! Make sure you find out about our latest events and announcements.