Picture this: About 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. It’s not just wasted food, but also wasted energy, water and land. And it equals $165 billion each year, the Natural Resources Defense Council says.
The uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills, where it’s the largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste.
College students are responsible for about 22 million pounds of the waste, according to the Food Recovery Network, a student-operated movement to fight hunger in the U.S.
Many colleges make efforts to reduce waste by eliminating trays (forcing students to take only what they can carry) and composting food so it can be used as a nutrient-rich natural fertilizer. But even the best-laid plans can run into trouble when people don’t follow the rules of recycling by keeping plastic and non-compostable items out of the trash.
At Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, food waste ready for composting ended up in a landfill, as it contained too much plastic. Like many other institutions, Ursinus Dining Services provided small plastic condiment containers of butter, cream cheese and fruit spreads.
Small changes, such as removing these plastics, can really make a difference, says Kate Keppen, director of sustainability. “There’s been a renewed commitment to recycling and food waste. Those two things have been really investigated not just by me and my office but also by the students.”
The college recycles cardboard, plastics, glass and fryer oil that can be turned into biodiesel fuel. Students also package leftover lunches and dinners from the Wismer kitchen and, driving the Wismer on Wheels truck, deliver meals twice-per-week to a local food shelter.
Meeting the challenge
For the last three years, Ursinus has participated in the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Food Recovery Challenge”—earning Sustainability Honors this year by achieving the highest percent increase in food waste diversion over the previous year. More than 800 governments, organizations and businesses participated in the program.
The Food Recovery Challenge suggests diverting food waste from landfills by:
- donating nutritious, leftover food to feed hungry people in the community
- saving money by purchasing less and lowering waste disposal fees
- establishing donation programs and getting potential tax benefits
- gaining visibility by having your name listed on the EPA’s website
- getting free technical assistance in the form of webinars and an online database to help plan, implement and track activities