compost pile, 1974, municipal archiveWhen we launched the Zero Waste Strategy in 2007, food waste was one of the two largest components of the waste stream that Seattle sent to the landfill (along with construction debris). That’s why we focused on food waste collection and prevention as a key strategy. New numbers show that we are making big progress, now recovering or composting close to 50% of food waste, 72,800 tons out of 150,500 generated.

SPU numbers indicate that about 50% of commercial food waste is now recovered or composted (44,500 tone); about 60% of single family residential (26,800 tons); and about 9% of multifamily residential (1,500 tons). In addition, the City has invested $394,000 with food banks and feeding programs and recovered approximately 1,900 tons of waste food that otherwise would have been disposed of.

The City will continue to use education and encouragement to raise the percentage composted in single-family and commercial buildings, and we expect that as universal food waste composting is implemented in multi-family buildings, that percentage will begin to rise as well.

Packaging is another component of the waste stream that has a direct relationship to food. In 2008 the Council created a new set of requirements for food and beverage packaging at restaurants and food service businesses, banning polystyrene foam packaging and in 2010 requiring all food and beverage related packaging to be either recyclable or compostable. In most cases, this has resulted in beverage cups being recyclable and food packaging compostable.

Two major pilot projects have identified additional components that could be added to the strategy for reducing food waste. In the first, SPU contracted with an organization called Lean Path to reduce food waste at three institutional kitchens. The kitchens in the study were able to reduce their waste by 18 to 30%, offering a model for other institutional users to follow.

In the second study, SPU recruited a cohort of residential consumers to have them separate and weigh their food waste to determine what portion was actually usable food. The results indicated that approximately one third of food waste disposed by this set of residential consumers was actually edible. The largest portion of that (about 45%) was produce or leftovers being disposed of as spoiled (the remainder was non-edible scraps such as peels, bones, etc.). The estimated 300 pounds of usable food disposed of annually extrapolated from the study is consistent with other studies, and suggests that education on food management may be a good strategy for reducing edible food waste.

As with so many other public policies, implementation of the Zero Waste strategy cannot rely on a single action, but is dependent on developing an array of programs and policies that will make it easy to develop the habit of waste reduction. We have made great progress on food waste in the last few years, but there are still many possible actions that will reduce waste generation and keep up our progress in cutting the length of the garbage train to the landfill.