Baltimore City's food waste reduction progress met with challenges

BALTIMORE (May 1, 2020)—Baltimore City generates more than 430,000 tons of municipal trash annually, most of which is incinerated. But the city hopes to change this by dramatically reducing its food waste by 2040.

The goal is to reduce commercial food waste by 50% and residential food waste by 80%. When asked if this was feasible, Anne Draddy, the sustainability coordinator in the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, said "I think it might have to be."

The city's Quarantine Road Sanitary Landfill has an end of life of 2026, and the Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator—where much of the city's residential waste ends up—could close as a result of the 2019 Baltimore Clean Air Act. A federal judge recently dismissed the legislation that placed strict emissions limits on the city's two trash incinerators, Wheelabrator and Curtis Bay Energy's medical waste incinerator. But on April 22, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the city will appeal the decision.

Moreover, even though Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the country, about 21% of Baltimoreans were food insecure in 2017, according to Feeding America.

These issues are forcing the city to rethink how it deals with its food waste.

"We're being squeezed a little bit," Draddy said. "So what we're really trying right now is to stay out in front of it—getting food waste out of the waste stream and educating people and making people aware of that."

The city is working with residents and organizations to encourage food waste prevention.

In February of 2020, Ava Richardson started working with universities, hospitals and other large institutions that generate large amounts of food waste in the city. Richardson is the technical advisor for the Baltimore Food Matters program, a program that emerged from a partnership between the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Office of Sustainability with funding support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Richardson said she is working with these organizations to divert food that can be eaten rather than thrown away and to help the organizations think more critically about their trash.

But it's not just a commercial problem. Americans throw away about 4.5 pounds of waste everyday, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and Baltimore's residents generate the most food waste in the city.

"[Prevention] really starts at the consumer level," Richardson said. "That starts when you're in the grocery store, not buying more than you need. For a lot of businesses, it starts when it comes to the back-of-the-house food preparation. And [in] our own kind of creativity, in terms of how we use more of that plant or that vegetable or whatever that food product is," she said.

While some habits are hard to break, a new study might encourage behavioral change when it comes to food waste. The study found that Americans spend more in thrown-out food than on other regular costs.

In addition to food waste prevention, the city is finding ways to rescue food from the waste stream to give to people in need.

The Maryland Food Bank's (MFB) Middle Mile Program finds businesses in Baltimore to donate food rather than throw it away. The city is working with the food bank to connect volunteers to donors through an app called MealConnect.

"We started to recover food in February of 2019," said Rick Condon, senior vice president of operations at the MFB. "We captured 55 pounds in February of 2019. Not a lot of weight. But that grew. In February of 2020, we recovered 1,870 pounds."

In the year since the start of the program, the food bank recovered two tons of edible meals from 14 different venues in Baltimore, from small bakeries to large caterers, Condon said. The program, for the first time, gives the food bank the opportunity to collect small food portions that had previously been thrown out.

While it's a small dent in reducing the city's waste, getting food into the hands of people who need it most continues to be a goal of Condon's. But when food isn't safe for consumption, it's important it doesn't end up landfilled so it "doesn't just wind up in the air or in the ground," he said.

That is why composting is another essential component in the city's efforts to reduce its food waste.

The Department of Public Works conducted a waste audit in 2019 and determined that about 25% of Baltimore's trash was food, Draddy said. When food is landfilled it generates methane when it decomposes. This greenhouse gas contributes to the global climate crisis by warming the earth's atmosphere.

The city started free residential compost drop-off programs in July and November 2019 at the Jones Falls Expressway and Waverly Farmers Markets. Residents can also pay for their compost to be picked up for about $30 a month.

The city weighs the waste dropped off so they can learn how many pounds are being diverted from landfills. So far, with more than 4000 residential drop-offs last year, the city has diverted more than 30,000 pounds of food waste to compost.

The city is also launching a network of community composting sites "so people in the surrounding neighborhood will be able to go to that farm in their neighborhood and drop off food scraps right there," Draddy said. The sites aim to provide access to residents in more parts of the city and will act as an educational space for people to participate in the processing of their organic materials.

But there are challenges to the city's plan to reduce its food waste. One of the biggest issues is the data itself.

The Maryland Department of Environment submits a solid waste tonnage report as well as a recycling report to the governor and General Assembly each year. But it is unclear how much waste is actually generated by any particular institution or what the composition of that waste is because businesses in Maryland are not required by law to report the waste they generate.

"When it comes to local waste data, it's not always tracked, and sometimes it can be challenging to get local governments or even state governments on board with doing that," said Baltimore Food Matter's Ava Richardson.

While businesses are not required to report their waste metrics, it is still the city's job to collect all waste data from residents and institutions in Baltimore City, but it is difficult to get that information "since it's not mandatory right now. It's hard to get people to comply," Draddy said.

Two bills in the state legislature might change this as they look to require more waste tracking, which Richardson and Draddy said will help the city better understand how to tackle its food waste. House Bill 589 would require food to be separated from other solid waste to divert it from "refuse disposal systems" like incinerators and landfills. House Bill 988 would require businesses to submit a regular recycling report and would establish a penalty for certain violations.

Better tracking laws might help the city, but convincing Baltimoreans to make food waste reduction a priority is also a challenging task as the city confronts other pressing issues.

"I would say none of these issues happen in a vacuum and they're all interconnected," said Richardson. "I think it's not 'if it's possible' but it's 'when.' When will the city make that investment in intentionally focusing on driving this forward and expediting it, considering the larger kind of environmental concerns both local and global too?"

For Baltimore to meet its aggressive food waste-reduction goals, the government, local businesses and residents will have to work together to make the changes reality, Draddy said. "Everybody has an impact on this. Everybody. Behavior change on any level for any individual or any institution makes a difference."

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