The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 21 million tons of food waste is generated each year, a figure that represents about 14 percent of the municipal solid waste in the United States. That is more than the amount of glass, metals or plastics discarded each year, and yet, the recovery rate for food waste is a mere 2.4 percent.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts the waste figure at more than twice EPA's numbers. In fact, a USDA-conducted study estimated that more than 48 million tons of food is wasted at the retail, consumer and food service levels each year. That is more than a quarter of all the food produced in the United States. (Fruits and vegetables, milk, grain products and sweeteners account for two-thirds of the wasted food, according to the USDA study.)

The waste comes from just about everywhere - table scraps from homes, half-eaten lunches in school cafeterias, leftovers from hotel banquets and past-its-prime produce in supermarkets. Across the country, cities and counties are realizing that the food their residents are throwing away can represent a boon to local entities like composting plants and food banks. And they are taking steps to cut the waste.

Countering a bad image

It is easy to understand why the food waste recycling rate is so low. The image of food waste is one of rats and stench. But that image is largely unfounded, say the local government officials who are pursuing food waste recovery programs.

Proper collection strategies like bins with tight-fitting lids and regular pickup schedules eliminate odors at the source. Once food waste reaches a composting facility, it can actually help prevent odor problems by speeding up the composting process, says Jack Macy, the organics recycling program manager for the city and county of San Francisco. The high nitrogen levels in food help carbon-laden yard trimmings and wood chips degrade, producing rich compost quickly.

Fear of liability associated with donating edible food also may contribute to the low recovery and recycling rate. But federal legislation provides national protection for citizens, businesses and organizations that, in good faith, donate, recover and distribute excess food. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of October 1996 limits the liability of donors to instances of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. And state laws often provide additional protection to food donors beyond the federal assurances.

The Fantastic Three

As with other parts of the solid waste management system, local governments operating food waste recovery programs organize them according to the needs of the residential and commercial sectors. For residential food recovery, two approaches are most effective: encouraging backyard composting and expanding curbside recycling pickups to include food scraps. Additionally, many cities and counties are promoting backyard composting with educational materials, master composter programs and subsidizedcompost bin sales.

For example, San Francisco has actively promoted backyard composting for more than seven years. However, because of the city's high density, many residents do not actually have backyards, making composting at home difficult, if not impossible.

To expand composting opportunities for residents, the city plans to include food waste in its curbside recycling collection routes. Called "The Fantastic Three," the collection program provides each household with three 32-gallon bins - one for garbage, one for commingled recyclables and one for organics, including yard trimmings, food waste and food-soiled paper.

During a pilot program involving 2,800 households, the new system produced a 48 percent diversion rate, 15 percent of that from organics (mostly food waste). Macy expects the citywide rollout of the program, which begins in 2000, to take three years. He says the addition of residential food waste collection to the city's menu of options will add about 2 percent to the city's overall recycling rate, currently near 40 percent.

As the largest city in the nation with a comprehensive food waste recovery program, San Francisco also has worked closely with the commercial sector, which produces the vast majority of the city's food waste. (A 1996 waste composition study showed that San Francisco's commercial sector produces almost 65,000 tons of food waste per year.) Commercial sources of food waste are more diverse than those of the residential sector, as are the options for collecting and managing the material.

When produce markets, restaurants and caterers need to dispose of food that is still fit to eat (e.g., lettuce with a few brown spots), the best option is redistributing it to organizations like food banks and shelters. That approach works not only for a city's solid waste department, but for its social service agencies as well. In fact, the USDA estimates that if 5 percent of the food currently wasted every day was recovered and redistributed, it would feed 4 million people for one day. Recovering that food also would save about $50 million annually in solid waste disposal fees, the USDA says.

Macy and the San Francisco Food Bank started their program by collecting food at a large wholesale produce market where a high percentage of the edible produce was being thrown out. A grant from the San Francisco Recycling Program to the Food Bank, in combination with food bank volunteers, created the resources and labor necessary to pick up and sort the food. Now the Food Bank collects and sorts about 700 tons of produce per year, with more than 500 tons redistributed as edible food. Farmers pick up the remaining 200 tons for use as dairy and cattle feed.

Macy recalls thinking the wholesale produce market was the best place to start the city's commercial food waste recovery program because of the sheer quantity of produce moving through its warehouses each day. Now, however, with several years of experience behind him, he says that was not necessarily the best choice.

"Wholesalers operate very fast. Produce comes in by the box, by the pallet, and they don't do a lot of sorting," Macy says. "If a box isn't sold right away, wholesalers would rather throw out the whole box than selectively sort through each piece of produce by hand."

While the Food Bank's project with the wholesale produce district has been successful, Macy recommends that cities interested in starting commercial food waste programs start with retail grocers, caterers and restaurants. At the retail and food service levels, employees naturally do more hand sorting as they put produce on store shelves or prepare individual meals. Since they are already handling each individual piece of food, asking them to put aging produce or leftovers in a different container does not require significant changes in procedures or increased labor hours.

According to Macy, more than 600 companies are donating food to the San Francisco Food Bank and other food recovery organizations. San Francisco's two commercial waste haulers, Golden Gate Disposal- Recycling and Sunset Scavenger, provide organics collection services to nearly 300 commercial businesses. Altogether, about 39,000 tons are being diverted by programs targeting the commercial sector.

Macy credits the success of the city's residential and commercial food waste programs to its public-private partnerships. Nonprofit organizations and private haulers handle the collection and dispersal of the food waste, and the city provides funding for equipment, outreach and technical assistance.

Restoring farmland

San Francisco's approach is useful not only for sizeable cities with significant resources; it also can work in rural, less populated areas. In 1993, the Chittenden (Vt.) Solid Waste District (CSWD) entered into a partnership with the Intervale Foundation, a local nonprofit land conservation organization, to produce compost from food waste. The foundation was looking for ways to replenish soil in the state's Intervale region, an historic 700-acre farming district suffering from neglect and urban dumping. "Intervale had the need for compost to restore the farmland, and we had the need to get rid of [organic] materials, so it was a good mix," says Tony Barbagallo, facilities manager for the CSWD.

Each year, the Intervale Compost Project composts about 10,000 tons per year of organic material, 15 percent of it food waste delivered by private hauling companies from commercial customers in the district's 17 member towns and cities. Additionally, while many commercial composting operations must buy water to irrigate their compost piles, Intervale uses liquid dairy waste from Ben & Jerry's. The Burlington-based ice cream maker is the project's largest customer, sending 4.5 tons of liquid dairy waste to the site last year, according to Barbagallo.

Initiated as an equal partnership between the CSWD and the foundation, the project was the first operation permitted for food waste composting in Vermont. The foundation provided the site and the labor, and the CSWD provided the capital for equipment. The 10,000 tons of feedstock are composted in windrows, producing 6,000 tons of finished compost that is sold to farmers, landscapers and garden centers.

Now that the project is profitable, the CSWD has reduced its role. It still owns the equipment, is a co-holder of the state permit and controls 50 percent of the project oversight committee. But, after paying operating expenses, the foundation is free to use the remaining profits for its other work in the region, including land restoration, public education about land stewardship and bike path development. For residents, the CSWD manages an extensive backyard composting program and is planning a pilot project for curbside collection of food waste and food-contaminated paper, Barbagallo says. The pilot project will include 300 households in urban, rural and multi-family segments. The CSWD's food waste composting program has helped the district reach a recycling rate of 48 percent in 1997, easily exceeding the state's Year 2000 goal of 40 percent.

San Francisco and Chittenden County represent opposite coasts and opposite ends of the demographics spectrum. However, both have made food waste recycling a realistic and worthwhile venture. They did it by using a little imagination. "You don't need studies," Macy advises. "Just start with a pilot project and build from there."

Kivi Leroux is an environmental writer based in Washington, D.C. Her e-mail address is kivi@ecoscribe.com.