By Susan Shain - The New York Times
Headway is an initiative from The New York Times exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress. We look for promising solutions, notable experiments and lessons from what’s been tried.
Jennifer Savage was scrambling to pull something together for dinner. Deep in the back of her fridge, she found a container of stuffed peppers. Very old stuffed peppers. She groaned, then did what millions of Americans do every day, without a second thought: She scraped the rotten food into the garbage.
Sitting nearby, her daughter, Riley, burst into tears.
Riley, then a fourth grader, had learned at school about people who don’t have enough food to eat. She’d also learned about the impact of food waste on the planet: When food rots in landfills, it generates methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Seeing her mother toss one of her favorite meals in the trash brought these messages home.
The family resolved to do better. Riley began asking for smaller portions, knowing she could always go back for more. Her father started packing leftovers for lunch. Ms. Savage searched for recipes everybody would devour.
“If no one was watching me, I might be a little more wasteful,” Ms. Savage said. “But she’s watching and she’s asking questions that I can’t deny are really important.”
In a land of seemingly endless supermarket aisles, “don’t waste food” may sound more like an old-fashioned admonition than a New Year’s resolution. But to some people, especially those concerned about the environment, it’s a cause that deserves our attention. In the United States, food waste is responsible for twice as many greenhouse gas emissions as commercial aviation, leading some experts to believe that reducing food waste is one of our best shots at combating climate change.
With a warming planet in mind, a small but growing number of states and cities have enacted regulations aimed at keeping food out of landfills. Most require residents or businesses to compost, which releases much less methane than food dumped in landfills. California recently went even further, passing a law mandating that some businesses donate edible food they otherwise would have tossed out.
In the Columbus, Ohio, area where the Savage family lives, nearly a million pounds of food is thrown out every day, making it the single biggest item entering 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 tackling the hard-wired habits of hundreds of millions of individuals, community by community, home by home.
This is no easy feat. Despite decades of haranguing, Americans are still terrible at recycling. And the reasons people waste food are much more complex than the reasons they throw water bottles in the wrong bin: They forget the spinach in the fridge and get more; they buy avocados that go bad before they get eaten; they cook a huge holiday spread to show love to friends and family and then can’t finish it all. As Dana Gunders, executive director of the nonprofit ReFED, points out, one-third of the food in this country goes unsold or uneaten — evidence of a culture that takes abundance for granted.
“Nobody wakes up wanting to waste food,” Ms. Gunders said. “It’s just that we’re not thinking about it. We’ve become really accustomed to it in our culture, and quite numb.”
As in most of the country, throwing food into the garbage in Ohio is perfectly legal. So, in an attempt to extend its landfill’s life span, the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, or SWACO, has had to try a different tactic: persuasion. While it is not the only agency in the country nudging people to waste less food, it is one of the few that has measured the effectiveness of its public awareness campaign. An early study shows promise, as does the fact that, in 2021, 51 percent of the region’s waste was diverted from the landfill through recycling and composting. It is a record for the agency and much better than the national diversion rate of 32 percent.
Before Kyle O’Keefe joined SWACO as director of innovation and programs in 2015, he hadn’t had “office overlooking a landfill” on his bucket list. But when the agency came knocking, the chance to slow the flow of trash into one of the largest public landfills in the country was hard for Mr. O’Keefe, an ardent environmentalist, to turn down.
At the time, SWACO wasn’t paying much attention to food waste. But Mr. O’Keefe looked at the amount of food being dumped and knew it couldn’t be ignored. He also knew that just creating a composting system wouldn’t do the trick; people had to understand why buying and wasting less food was important.
“You’ve got to have the support of everyday folks, of your families, your residents,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “You’ve got to have them pulling from the bottom up.”
To that end, one of the agency’s first steps was rolling out a public awareness campaign and then measuring its impact in one city.
Several months after introducing its campaign, SWACO enlisted researchers from the Ohio State University to send surveys to residents of Upper Arlington, a wealthy Columbus suburb, asking how much food they had wasted in the past week. However, self-reported surveys aren’t always reliable, so the agency also hired GT Environmental, a local consulting company, to follow up with hard data. Very messy data.
On a cool morning in early 2021, Dan Graeter, a senior manager with GT Environmental, drove to 200 houses around Upper Arlington. At each stop, he plunged into the 96-gallon garbage cans residents had dragged out for trash day, manually retrieving every bit of waste.
“It’s like jumping in the water,” Mr. Graeter said. “You take a deep breath and then you stick your whole body in there.”
Some of the carts were filled with neatly tied bags. Others were strewn with loose debris — diapers, cat litter, fistfuls of maggots — that Mr. Graeter had to scoop into trash bags himself. 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 trash onto folding tables and recorded the weight of items in nine different categories, like produce, leftovers and nonfood waste.
Once SWACO knew how much food Upper Arlington’s residents threw out, it began blanketing the city of 36,000 with targeted social media posts, email newsletters and postcards. The production and transportation of food that never gets eaten is a major piece of food waste’s carbon footprint, so the messaging had to go beyond composting, and also urged people to buy less in the first place. But to get the message across to the households the agency served, the hook couldn’t be as abstract as avoiding climate change.
“The way to really get people’s attention in the Midwest and Ohio is through pocketbook issues,” said Ty Marsh, who served as the agency’s executive director until last April. “We’ve got to convince people that this is good for them.” So the campaign emphasized hard costs: the $1,500 the average family in central Ohio spends each year on food they don’t eat, the 22 million gallons of gas used annually to transport food that’s thrown away.
SWACO also shared tips: Shop with a list, create meal plans, freeze leftovers. Some residents even received offers of free Bluapple pods, which help produce stay fresh for longer, and liners and bins to make composting easier.
Three months later, researchers once again surveyed residents, and Mr. Graeter once again dove into trash cans. Respondents reported wasting 23 percent less food than they had initially. Although there weren’t enough residents who let their trash be audited for a statistically significant sample, Mr. Graeter’s dirty data dump reinforced the campaign’s effectiveness: Food waste volume had declined by 21 percent.
Brian Roe, the study’s lead author, is a professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics and head of the Ohio State Food Waste Collaborative. He called the results of the study, which is undergoing peer review, an “encouraging first step” — though avoided drawing too many conclusions. “We know this campaign works, and works for this community,” he said, noting that the town’s residents tended to be affluent and highly educated, “but we don’t necessarily know how that’s going to translate to other communities.”
The few available studies of public awareness campaigns elsewhere suggest they can make a difference: In Toronto, food waste was reduced by 30 percent, and in Britain, by 18 percent.
But persuading adults to do things differently is hard. So, as SWACO spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on its public awareness campaign, it has also been making specific attempts to reach another population, one that has yet to cement its habits.
Lunchtime at Riley’s school, Horizon Elementary, is what you might expect from a swarm of 6- and 7-year-olds corralled in a cafeteria — squeals, stories, sandwiches — with one big difference. Instead of nondescript trash cans lining the room, six sit in the center, an unavoidable focal point.
One Thursday, Tobias, a first grader with blond hair, glasses and a T-shirt emblazoned with jet planes, approached the six-bin command station. He removed a hot dog bun from his tray and eyed the aide standing above him.
“Where do you think that goes?” she asked. Tobias held the bun tentatively over the can labeled “LANDFILL.” The aide gave a slight shake of her head. He moved to the next one, “RECYCLING.” No dice. Finally, Tobias waved the bun over the last option: “COMPOST.”
“Yes!” the aide said enthusiastically. “It’s food, so it can go in the compost, remember?” Tobias just smiled and relinquished his bun.
Tray by tray, the process was repeated. Tiny hands squeezed the dregs of milk cartons and juice boxes into the compost bin, then tossed the empty containers into the recycling bin. The students deliberated over the placement of carrots and chicken nuggets (compost), yogurt lids (landfill) and napkins (a tricky one: compost). They put unopened cheese sticks and applesauce onto a “share table” for others to take.
Though the youngest students may not have understood why they were separating their waste, most would by the time they reached graduation. Much of that is thanks to Ekta Chabria, a special-education teacher who was one of the early proponents of Horizon’s composting program. Her efforts received a boost in 2018 when SWACO gave the Hilliard City Schools district a $25,000 composting grant. The following school year, Hilliard’s 14 elementary schools cut their trash pickups by 30 percent and recycling pickups by 50 percent, saving the district $22,000. They also diverted 100 tons of food, at least five school buses’ worth of waste, from the landfill.
The program’s greatest potential, however, may be in what students carry forward. Cameryn Gale, for instance, is a Horizon graduate who lobbied her middle school to compost (and her mom to eat leftovers more often).
Or take Nima Raychaudhuri. When her mother, Manisha Mahawar, was asked whether Nima influenced her, she laughed.
“What, you mean how I can’t take longer than a five-minute shower?” she said. “Or how I forgot a reusable bag at Kroger and had to carry things out in my hands?” Nima, a Hilliard ninth grader, also prodded her mother to compost their food scraps.
Changing the behavior of millions of households may be a herculean task. But changing the behavior of one household can be done with just a single Nima. Or Cameryn. Or Riley.
Later this year, Riley will graduate from Horizon. As a sixth grader, she said she’ll continue eating her leftovers and composting her scraps. Because to her, reducing food waste is “just what we’re supposed to do.”
“You take eggshells and whatever and throw them in a bin,” she said. “It shouldn’t have to be a big deal.”