Jennifer Savage was trying to prepare something for dinner. He found a container of peppers in the back of the refrigerator. Stuffed peppers are very old. She groaned, then did what millions of Americans do every day, without thinking: She threw rotten food in the trash.
His daughter Riley, who lived nearby, burst into tears.
Riley, then a fourth-year student, had learned about people at school who didn’t have enough food. He also learned about the impact of food waste on the planet: When food rots in landfills, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas far more powerful than carbon dioxide. Seeing her mom throw one of her favorite meals in the trash brought these messages home.
The family decided to do better. Riley started asking for smaller portions knowing she could always come back for more. His father started collecting leftovers for lunch. Miss Savage searched for recipes that everyone would swallow.
“I might have been a little more wasteful if no one was watching me,” said Ms. Savage. “But he’s watching and asking questions that I can’t deny are really important.”
Promising to throw less food in the trash, the Savage family began composting more meticulously. Credit… Caroline Tompkins for The New York Times
In a country of seemingly endless supermarket aisles, the phrase “don’t waste food” may sound more like old-fashioned advice than a New Year’s resolution. But for some people, especially those who are concerned about the environment, this is a cause that deserves our attention. In the United States, food waste is responsible for twice as many greenhouse gas emissions as commercial aviation.
With a warming planet in mind, a small but growing number of states and cities have passed regulations aimed at keeping food out of landfills. Most require residents or businesses to compost, which releases far less methane than food thrown in landfills. California recently went even further and passed a law that required some businesses to donate edibles that they would otherwise throw in the trash.
In the Columbus, Ohio area where the Savage family lives, nearly a million pounds of food is thrown away every day, making it the single largest item to end up in the landfill. (The same is true nationwide.) Households account for 39 percent of food waste in the United States, more than restaurants, grocery stores, or farms. Change, then, means struggling with the established habits of hundreds of millions of individuals, community by community, house by house.
This is no easy feat. Despite decades of abuse, Americans still suck at recycling. And the reasons people waste food are far more complex than why they throw their water bottles in the wrong bin: They forget the spinach in the fridge and buy more; they buy avocados that go bad without being eaten; they cook a huge holiday dinner to show their love to their friends and family and then they can’t finish it all. As Dana Gunders, executive director of the nonprofit ReFED, points out, a third of the food in this country is not sold or eaten – testament to a culture that takes abundance for granted.
“No one wakes up wanting to waste food,” said Mrs. Gunders. “We just don’t think about it. We’re really used to it in our culture and we’re pretty numb.”
Like most of the country, it’s perfectly legal to throw away food in Ohio. So in an attempt to extend the life of the landfill, the Central Ohio Solid Waste Administration, or SWACO, had to try a different tactic: persuasion. While it is not the only institution in the country to encourage people to waste less food, it is one of the few institutions to measure the effectiveness of a public awareness campaign. An early study looks promising, such as the fact that in 2021 51 percent of waste in the region is diverted from landfill through recycling and composting. It’s a record for the agency and far better than the 32 percent national referral rate.
Keeping food out of the storage area
Before Kyle O’Keefe joined SWACO in 2015 as director of innovation and programs, he didn’t have an “office overlooking the landfill” on his to-do list. But when the agency knocked on the door, it was hard for Mr O’Keefe, an ardent environmentalist, to turn down the chance to slow the flow of garbage into one of the largest public dumps in the country.
Back then, SWACO paid little attention to food waste. But Mr. O’Keefe looked at the amount of food discarded and realized that it could not be ignored. He also knew that just creating a composting system wouldn’t work; People had to understand why it is important to buy and waste less food.
“You have to get the support of ordinary people, your families, your local residents,” said Mr O’Keefe. “You have to get them to pull from the bottom up.”
To that end, one of the agency’s first steps was to launch a public awareness campaign and then measure its impact in a city.
A few months after launching its campaign, SWACO commissioned researchers from Ohio State University to send out surveys to residents of Upper Arlington, a wealthy Columbus suburb, asking how much food they wasted last week. However, self-reported surveys are not always reliable, so the agency also hired a local consulting firm, GT Environmental, to keep track of concrete data. Very messy data.
On a cool morning in early 2021, Dan Graeter, senior manager of GT Environmental, drove to 200 homes around Upper Arlington. At each stop, he dipped into the 96-gallon bins that residents dragged for trash day and collected each and every waste by hand.
“It’s like jumping into the water,” said Mr. Graeter. “You take a deep breath and then you put your whole body in there.”
Some of the cars were packed with neatly tied bags. Others were littered with loose rubble that Mr. Graeter himself had to throw in garbage bags – diapers, cat litter, handfuls of maggots. Mr. Graeter threw the waste into the back of a box truck and brought the load to a transfer station, where Tyvek-clad workers dumped each household’s rubbish onto folding tables and recorded the weight of nine different categories of items, such as produce and scraps. non-food waste.
When SWACO learned how much food Upper Arlington residents were throwing away, they began covering the city of 36,000 with targeted social media posts, email newsletters, and postcards. The production and shipping of never-eaten food accounts for a significant portion of the carbon footprint of food waste, so the message should go beyond composting and also encourage people to buy less in the first place. But to get the message across to the households served by the agency, the hook could not be as abstract as preventing climate change.
“The way to really get people’s attention in the Midwest and Ohio is through wallet issues,” said Ty Marsh, who served as the agency’s executive director until last April. “We have to convince people that it’s good for them.” That’s why the campaign highlighted the heavy costs: the $1,500 the average family in central Ohio spends each year on food they don’t eat, while 22 million gallons of gas are used annually to transport discarded food.
SWACO also shared tips: Shop with a list, create meal plans, freeze leftovers. Some residents even received free Bluapple pods that help keep produce fresh longer, and containers and boxes that make fertilizing easier.
Three months later, the researchers once again surveyed the residents, and Mr. Graeter once again plowed into the trash cans. Participants reported wasting 23 percent less food than they had at baseline. Although there weren’t enough residents to allow their litter to be inspected for a statistically significant example, Mr. Graeter’s dump of dirty data strengthened the campaign’s effectiveness: The volume of food wastage was reduced by 21 percent.
The study’s lead author is Brian Roe, professor of agriculture, environmental, and development economics and president of the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative. He described the results of the peer-reviewed study as an “encouraging first step” – but avoided drawing too many conclusions. “We know this campaign is working and it’s working for this community,” he said, noting that the town’s residents tend to be wealthy and highly educated, “but we don’t know exactly how this will translate to other communities.”
The few existing studies of public awareness campaigns elsewhere show that they can make a difference: food waste has decreased by 30 percent in Toronto and by 18 percent in Britain.
But it is difficult to persuade adults to do different things. Thus, while SWACO spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on its public awareness campaign, it also takes private initiatives to reach another population that has yet to solidify their habits.
The enormous power of children
Lunchtime at Riley’s school, Horizon Elementary, is what you’d expect from 6- and 7-year-old students gathered in a cafeteria – squeaks, stories, sandwiches – with one big difference. Instead of the usual trash cans lining the room, six of them stand in the center as an inevitable focal point.
One Thursday, Tobias, a freshman with blond hair, glasses, and a jet-plane embroidered T-shirt, approached the six-compartment command station. He took a hot dog bun from his tray and looked at the aide standing above him.
“Where do you think this is going?” asked. Tobias temporarily kept the donuts on the box labeled “LANDFILL.” The assistant nodded slightly. Moved to the next one, “RECYCLED”. Futile. Finally, Tobias waved the bun over the last option: “COMPOST.”
“Yes!” said the assistant enthusiastically. “Food can go to manure, remember?” Tobias just smiled and let go of his bun.
Tray tray, process repeated. Tiny hands tucked scraps of milk cartons and juice boxes into the compost bin, then tossed the empty containers into the recycling bin. Students discussed placing carrot and chicken nuggets (compost), yogurt lids (dumpster), and napkins (the challenge: compost). They put the unopened cheese sticks and applesauce on a “sharing table” for others to pick up.
While the youngest students may not understand why they segregate their waste, most will when they graduate. Much of this was thanks to special education teacher Ekta Chabria, one of the first proponents of Horizon’s composting program. His efforts accelerated in 2018 when SWACO awarded a $25,000 fertilization grant to the Hilliard City Schools district. The following school year, Hilliard’s 14 elementary schools reduced garbage collection by 30 percent and recycling collection by 50 percent, saving the district $22,000. They also removed 100 tons of food, which is at least five school buses’ worth of waste.
However, the program’s greatest potential may lie in what students carry forward. Cameryn Gale, for example, is a Horizon graduate who lobbied her middle school for compost (and her mom to eat leftovers more often).
Or take Nima Raychaudhuri. When his mother, Manisha Mahawar, was asked if Nima had influenced her, she laughed.
“What, you mean I can’t take more than a five-minute shower?” said. “Or how did I forget a reusable bag at Kroger and have to carry things around by hand?” Nima, Hilliard’s ninth grader, also encouraged her mother to compost her leftovers.
Changing the behavior of millions of households can be a colossal task. But changing the behavior of a household can be done with just one Nima. Or Cameryn. Or Riley.
Riley will graduate from Horizon later this year. She said that as a sixth grader, she would continue to eat her leftovers and compost her leftovers. Because according to him, reducing food waste is “just what we need to do”.
“You take eggshells and stuff and throw them away,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be anything major.”
The Headway initiative is funded by grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a financial sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is the funder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus, or editing process of stories and do not review stories before they are published. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.