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Challenges in the Evolving Organic-Waste Landscape

It will take a culture change for consumers to join the food-waste recycling movement; but the good news is, it’s underway at the production and manufacturing level.

Challenges in the Evolving Organic-Waste Landscape

It will take a culture change for consumers to join the food-waste recycling movement; but the good news is, it’s underway at the production and manufacturing level.

Published 08-23-23

Submitted by Vanguard Renewables

Buckets of food waste

Originally published by Sustainable Brands


From dining tables to landfills and incinerators

We are no longer facing the question of whether there is climate change; ask any farmer — it’s changed. We are now facing a climate crisis; and the real question is, what are the immediate and practical solutions available to slow the pace of change? With many different strategies being debated, one consensus pathway that has widespread support is attacking methane emissions — the most corrosive greenhouse gas (GHG). Remarkably, recycling food waste is one of the most practical solutions available today to mitigate methane emissions.

The people of the United States send nearly 50 million tons of food waste to our landfills and incinerators each year. That’s equivalent to throwing out 100 billion pints of ice cream and makes food waste the single largest source of methane emissions in the US.

The EPA reported that in 2018, food waste was the most prominent waste stream in US landfills and incinerators — comprising about 24 percent of the 292.4 million tons of waste generated that year. That’s a lot of waste that could be recycled into valuable renewable energy or compost.

Waste is only waste if you waste it. And most who live in the US never see where their waste goes — we put it in the trash and send it to the curb without a second thought. Yet, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, food loss and waste account for 8-10 percent of global GHGs; if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest carbon emitter after the US and China.

To catalyze change, we need to enhance the public’s understanding of the detrimental effects of food waste on the global climate crisis. We can’t see the emissions coming from the decaying food waste in our landfills or the pollution being caused by incineration. There are solutions to our food waste problem; but we have to act.

Understanding how people think about food waste

Have you ever wondered why in the US, we buy and prepare so much food and then simply throw it out? Do we do it because our food is stamped with “sell by” or “use by”? Do we not eat leftovers because we are ‘one and done’? Or do we do it because we can?

According to ReFED, as much as 35 percent of food available in the US goes uneaten; of that, 7 percent — or 4 million tons annually — is due to consumer confusion over “best before” labels.

It’s not just the average person throwing out food; food and beverage manufacturers around the country generate unavoidable waste in the process of producing food and beverages. Most of these commercial facilities are committed to waste reduction throughout their production process; but some process waste, off-spec batches or contaminated waste is inevitable.

According to the EPA, food waste from the industrial sector was around 103 million tons — which represented organic waste from recalls, contaminated batches and overproduction, to name a few reasons. To put that last number into perspective, 103 million tons of food waste is the equivalent of the weight of 450,000 Statues of Liberty.

The state of food-waste bans in the US

Organics recycling is quickly becoming a topic of discussion in the gilded halls of state houses and city halls across the country with some states and cities already enacting organics-recycling legislation.

California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington have enacted organic-waste bans. The focus of these states' bans has been on commercial organic-waste producers. Additionally, Austin County in Texas, Boulder County in Colorado, Honolulu in Hawaii, and Western Lake Superior and Hennepin Counties in Minnesota have all enacted commercial organic-waste bans. Washington, DC has followed suit with an organic-waste ban law taking effect on January 1, 2024.

Food and beverage manufacturers, retailers and food users that are not first movers in the organics recycling and decarbonization arenas are now faced with legislative changes that will impact how they must address unavoidable waste. It’s not a matter of if — it’s a matter of when.

The majority of the laws passed in the other states are geared toward food manufacturers and institutions that produce at least 1,000 tons of organic waste a week. States that have organic-waste bans for manufacturers are counting on those industries to look for solutions to repurpose that organic waste instead of sending it to the local landfill or incinerator. Companies are considering this question from more than an economic standpoint and are quickly realizing that this diversion of waste can become a value proposition to communicate to customers that they care about the environment.

In the International Food Information Council’s 2022 Food & Health Survey, 39 percent of all respondents said concerns about sustainability influence their food and beverage purchases — an increase from the 27 percent seen in 2019. 73 percent of Gen Z respondents believe that they are more concerned about the environmental sustainability of their food choices than older generations, followed by 71 percent of millennials.

As food producers consider solutions to their organic-waste problem, many start by donating any edible food to food pantries or to farms for animal feed. If it’s inedible, companies such as Vanguard Renewables work to help food and beverage manufacturers find a circular solution to the manufacturing-waste challenge by taking their inedible organic waste and combining it with manure from US dairy farms to create renewable energy via anaerobic digestion. What could be better than telling your consumer that you are a “Farm Powered” business?

Commercial food recycling first movers

Berkshire Brewing Company in South Deerfield, MA is going all in on recycling its organic waste. The brewery sends its spent grains and other organic waste to a local family dairy farm, where it’s combined with cow manure to make renewable energy. Head Brewer Noah Bogoff said: “Our family brewery is committed to sustainability, and recycling our waste to create renewable energy is one way that we reach that goal. It’s also a great way for us to help our local dairy farmers in the process.”

Companies including Berkshire Brewing, Unilever, Cabot Creamery and Dairy Farmers of America have been working with Vanguard Renewables to recycle their organic waste. Doing so, not because they have to — there are other options — but because they understand that their inedible waste can be harnessed to create renewable energy that powers businesses, communities, homes and even colleges. Their choice to partner with Vanguard to recycle their organic waste is not only working to lessen their GHGs but helping to sustain US dairy farms.

Closing thoughts

Most organic-waste bans originated at the local level, with cities such as Boston paving the way for Massachusetts. With landfills reaching capacity so quickly and incinerators being notorious polluters, we can hope that other state and municipal leaders will challenge themselves and their colleagues to find solutions to removing food waste from their garbage streams and showing state leaders that this can be done effectively.

Landfills are closing across the country; and incinerators are unpopular with communities due to the pollution they cause. In order to reach President Biden’s aggressive emission-reduction goals by 2030, municipalities, counties and states will be introducing or expanding legislation to divert large-scale organic waste from landfills and incinerators.

There are many potential solutions to this challenge and lots of great minds working on this problem. In the case of Vanguard Renewables’ Farm Powered® program, food waste is transported to a dairy farm, combined with farm waste and recycled into renewable energy. The byproducts from the anaerobic-digestion process include liquid fertilizer — which is nearly odorless, low-carbon and nutrient-dense — leading to improved crop yields and drastically reducing the farmer's expense for chemical fertilizers. The solids that come from the process are converted into bedding for the herd, which leads to healthier and happier cows since it is rich with their own biometric makeup.

It will take a culture change for consumers to join the food-waste recycling movement; but the good news is, it’s underway. The more we bring the issue to the forefront, the further along we will be.

Because we can’t wait any longer — landfills are nearly full and incinerators are polluting our neighborhoods. We can and will do better.

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Vanguard Renewables

Vanguard Renewables

Vanguard Renewables, based in Weston, Massachusetts, is a national leader in developing food and dairy waste-to-renewable energy projects. The Company owns and operates on-farm anaerobic digester facilities in the northeast and currently operates manure-only digesters in the south and west for Dominion Energy. The Company plans to expand to more than 150 anaerobic digestion facilities by 2026. Vanguard Renewables is committed to advancing decarbonization by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from farms and food waste and supporting regenerative agriculture on partner farms through anaerobic digestion. Vanguard Renewables is a portfolio company of BlackRock Real Assets. To learn more about the Company, its energy partners, and the Farm Powered Strategic Alliance, visit

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