Challenges and Options for Food Waste Reduction

by Bonny Bentzin, Director – University Sustainability Practices, Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University

(This article appears in the April, 2010 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

In today’s sustainability conscious world, there has been much discussion about food waste reduction options.  At Arizona State University (ASU), in conjunction with our Carbon Neutrality goal, we have established a goal for Zero Waste (solid waste and water waste).  Our food waste reduction strategy includes harvesting food from our landscaping, diverting food waste through appropriate donations, implementing trayless dining programs, monitoring consumption patterns and tracking orders, and the exploration of composting programs. Some of these options are proving more complex than others.

Harvesting oranges from ASU's Tempe Campus Arboretum

“Harvesting oranges from ASU’s Tempe Campus Arboretum”. Photo: Vince Palermo, Global Institute of Sustainability, ASU

At ASU, our innovative Grounds Services team developed the Campus Harvest program and the Adopt a Date Palm program for our Tempe and Polytechnic Campuses. These programs simultaneously reduce waste, solve a critical staffing situation, and provide a food source for our dining facilities.  As a certified arboretum, we have over 20 varieties of citrus, stone fruit, nuts, herbs and of course our date palm collection — all yielding food that until recently has largely been wasted due to a lack of available staff at harvest time.  The programs coordinate student, faculty and staff to help harvest this fruit from the campus landscaping.  The on-campus health inspector is involved to ensure all health requirements are followed; early coordination with our dining services contractor ARAMARK has resulted in much of this food being diverted into dining halls in addition to off-campus food banks.  We are even looking into the possibility of using these programs to establish a revenue source for these products. Another benefit of Campus Harvest is the educational opportunity for students to get involved in growing/picking food that they can later taste in the dining hall, thereby strengthening the connection between farm and table.

Composting has proven to be more complex.  Kudos to our Grounds Services for establishing a landscaping waste composting program for the Tempe Campus (two more campuses are on their way).  That program diverts an average of 12 tons of waste monthly to a local farmer, where we tip the waste for free; it’s then composted and subsequently purchased by the campus to replace the synthetic fertilizer that was previously used.

Composting food waste, on the other hand, is more challenging due to state legislation and limited to zero access to commercial composting facilities in Arizona.   Despite reduction efforts, food waste continues to be a significant percentage of the waste stream from our dining facilities, and we spend a great deal of time fielding interest from faculty, staff and students in seeing a food composting program added to ASU’s zero solid waste strategy. But a sound solution for composting food waste in Arizona is more complicated than it would at first seem.

For a commercial food waste composting program to succeed, two key elements are usually needed – high tipping waste fees and/or state policies that not only support, but encourage, food waste diversion.  In the State of Arizona commercial food waste is categorized as municipal solid waste and thus can only be composted in a fully contained facility (such as a small composting containment system or a landfill).  Due to relatively cheap land, waste tipping fees are among the nation’s lowest – anywhere between $25-$60/ton, reducing the cost effectiveness of any commercial composting effort that meets state requirements.  Furthermore, small distributed on-campus composting systems have been deemed inefficient, given the aforementioned staffing issues, land/space challenges on our largest campus and our sheer scale (68,000 students and growing).

Given the environmental goals of ASU and ARAMARK and the student drive/interest, both organizations have been working together on small pilots and larger solutions for composting organic waste. Efforts to date include packaging coffee grounds for customers to use in personal gardens and a small composting pilot with a local farm in the Spring of 2009. Furthermore, “Weigh the Waste” is an annual campaign to educate students on responsible portion sizes to reduce excess post-consumer food waste, one of the largest portions of the waste stream. The residential dining halls are “all you care to eat” facilities, where students are encouraged to go back for multiple servings rather than filling plates with more than they can eat.  Going forward ASU is exploring the possibility of a larger pilot with a local certified landfill that would designate a special composting area within their facility and partnering with ARAMARK to bring this to fruition. With this new hope, we are now turning our sights to figuring out how to best store and transport food waste in our arid climate. New options bring more challenges and, of course, new opportunities.

Bonny Bentzin, Director – University Sustainability Practices, LEED-AP
Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University

As the Director of University Sustainability Practices, Bonny works with departments and individuals across the university to guide the integration of sustainability practices and achieve ASU’s four sustainability goals for its “small city” of more than 81,000 people.  She has been working on ASU’s university-wide sustainability vision since 2004 as the Assistant Director of the Office for Sustainability Initiatives in the Office of the President.  This office was responsible for the early design of President Michael Crow’s sustainability vision.

The Global Institute of Sustainability is the hub of ASU’s sustainability initiatives. The Institute advances research, education, and business practices for an urbanizing world. Its School of Sustainability, the first of its kind in the U.S., offers transdisciplinary degree programs that advance practical solutions to environmental, economic, and social challenges. ASU recognizes that promoting sustainability begins internally with its own business practices and university policy. ASU’s sustainability initiatives, spearheaded by the Global Institute of Sustainability, are advanced by the efforts of people and departments from across the University; leading sustainable practices are addressed and implemented in the areas of energy, water, buildings and grounds, carbon neutrality, food services, transportation, waste and recycling, and purchasing and policies.