One of the easier ways to live responsibly involves curbing food waste. It’s already something we probably learned from our parents or grandparents, just because they lived a more frugal life than today’s Americans. In this country, food waste is responsible for more than twice as many greenhouse gas emissions as commercial aviation. It could be considered low-hanging fruit in efforts to slow the speed of climate change. With that in mind, some cities and states have enacted regulations to mandate composting, and some have municipal, industrial-type composting systems that can even handle meat products. All residents have to do is sort. This, of course, can be expensive and, in some places, perceived as unwelcome government interference. The area around Columbus, Ohio, is trying a different approach.
In the region covered by the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO), nearly a million pounds of food is thrown into a landfill every day. Households in the United States account for 39% of the country’s food waste, more than restaurants, grocery stores, or farms. It’s not that we plan on wasting food, it just happens. Things migrate to the back of the refrigerator, and out of our consciousness, until we find a moldy mess. In an effort to extend the lifespan of its landfill, SWACO has embarked on a program of persuasion, and is one of the few agencies to have measured the effectiveness of its campaign. In 2021, 51% of the region's waste was diverted from the landfill, mainly by recycling and composting, a record for the agency. They blanketed the area with social media posts, email messages, and postcards. Rather than hammer on climate change, they got people’s attention through pocketbook issues. They detailed hard costs, like the $1500 annually the average family in central Ohio spends on food that is thrown away, and the 22 million gallons of gas used yearly to haul it away. They also provided tips: shop with a list, create meal plans, label and freeze leftovers.
Schools joined the effort, knowing the power of children to influence habits at home. Waste bins are placed in the center of the cafeteria, labeled “Landfill,” “Recycle,” and “Compost.” There is a “share table” to place unopened items that can be taken by others. In the town of Hilliard, the elementary schools cut their trash pickups by 30% and their recycling pickups by 50%, saving the district $22,000. They also diverted 100 tons of food from the landfill.
Successes like these give us all hope and inspiration. Through individual and group efforts, we can indeed make a difference.