April Forum Recap: Sustainable Food Systems

May 24, 2017

by Sunitha Sarveswaran   Most people look at strawberry tops or carrot peels and throw them away, without realizing the myriad of other uses these scraps could provide. According to the EPA, the most preferred use for food and organics is human consumption. The least preferred uses are landfill and incineration. The GreenHomeNYC April Forum on Sustainable Food Systems featured a panel of five experts who spoke about the different strategies communities, businesses, and building owners can employ in order to limit or eliminate their organic waste footprint.   Communities can make a difference According to the New York City Department of Sanitation, more than a third of all waste generated by New York City residents is organic waste. Michael Hurwitz, the Director of the GreenMarket Program and GrowNYC, spoke about how consumers can make a large impact on the organic waste footprint of New York City. Greenmarket was founded in 1976 with two main goals: to keep local farms viable and to ensure New Yorkers have unlimited access to fresh, local produce. Hurwitz discussed how one third of all food grown goes unharvested due to the cosmetic preferences of vendors. GreenMarket takes this unwanted produce and sells it at their local markets. Greenmarket’s passion is educating consumers on how to prepare food so that every part is used and scraps are not wasted. Greenmarket provides recipes, canning presentations and workshops to help consumers minimize their food waste and stretch their dollar. Greenmarket also has been at the forefront of New York City’s composting overhaul. In New York, 1.1 million tons of organic matter is thrown away annually. In 2005, the Fort Greene Greenmarket began collecting food scraps, which were then processed by a few local community gardens. By 2010, the Fort Greene Compost Project was receiving more scraps than it could process. In order to keep up with demand, Greenmarket received a grant from City Council in 2011 to help launch the Greenmarket Composting Initiative and resulted in the creation of seven Greenmarket drop-off locations.   In 2012, the Department of Sanitation started funding the Food Scraps Initiative and began retrofitting trucks to be able to collect organic waste from residents. Since then, New York has diverted 8.5 million pounds of food scraps. In 2015, the Department of Sanitation started the curb-side program and by end of 2018, all of New York will be served by either curbside or drop-off stations for organic waste. Due to their efforts and enthusiasm, local communities and residents were able to change how food waste is dealt with in New York City.   Businesses thinking outside the trash can Maya Shenkman, Director of Hotel Services at Great Forest, spoke about the efforts that businesses can make to reduce their organic waste. Great Forest helps businesses increase sustainability and reduce costs by providing sustainability assessments, waste and recycling consulting, and energy solutions, such as Energy Star® and LEED® consulting.   Shenkman spoke about the efforts that many hotel restaurants are making to reduce their waste. Many adopt policies of food donation for leftovers from events. Hotel restaurants also track purchases, which is useful to ensure surplus food is not being wasted. They can also create menus that are designed to reduce waste and utilize as much of the produce as possible. By taking these innovative steps, hotels can not only reduce their waste footprint but also streamline their businesses and cut costs. In addition, businesses that adopt waste diversion practices draw consumers interested in green tourism, which is a marketable feature. Shenkman highlighted education and awareness as the key factors to ensuring businesses adopt green practices. By educating staff and building managers about the importance of organic waste diversion, employees are empowered and take a keen interest in reducing their waste footprint.   Thomas McQuillan, Director of Food Service Sales and Sustainability at Baldor Specialty Foods also focused on the innovative ways businesses can cut their organic waste output. Baldor took a stance and pledged to reduce organic waste in their facility to zero by the end of 2016. To achieve this awesome feat, Baldor created the SparCs campaign (that’s scraps spelled backwards) to combat the negative connotations that are associated with food scraps.   The SparCs program is a three tiered approach. In keeping with the EPA’s food recovery hierarchy, Baldor’s first goal is to ensure 100% of edible food product from its facility is used for human consumption. Baldor partners with organizations like City Harvest and donates surplus food from their warehouse to help feed millions of New Yorkers. Every month, Baldor donates 90,000 pounds of fresh produce. Even carrot peels, strawberry tops and odd-looking produce are repurposed through partnerships with companies like Haven’s Kitchen, a Manhattan based café and cooking school. Haven’s Kitchen has developed a food line from SparCs by creating soups, sauces and cookies. Baldor is also working on creating a dried vegetable blend from SparCs that is similar to bouillon. The lucky attendees at the GreenHomeNYC forum were able to try out this new blend that will be available to consumers in June!   For any food that is not fit for human consumption, Baldor partners with local pig farmers to create nutrient-rich animal feed for their pigs. A large chunk of Baldor’s food waste is also processed into chicken feed. Any leftover food waste is captured in their on-site “waste to water” system. Using unique and comprehensive diversion methods, Baldor achieved its zero landfill goals in 2016 and continues to push the conversation about the many uses for organic waste.   Designing buildings for a waste-free city Presenters Clare Miflin, an Associate Principal at Kiss + Cathcart, and Christina Grace, a Principal at the Foodprint Group, spoke about best practices in building design to ensure organic waste is being properly diverted. Miflin and Grace both serve on the Advisory Committee for AIA’s Design Guidelines for Zero Waste.  This guideline will help NYC achieve the goals of the OneNYC plan, which strives to send zero waste to landfills by 2030. Currently, only 26% of recyclables are diverted in commercial buildings and only 16% is diverted in residential buildings. Miflin and Grace outlined some of the challenges faced by existing buildings to provide waste diversification for their residents. They also identified best practices to ensure maximum diversification to meet OneNYC goals.   Design changes like locating organics, metal, plastic, glass and paper recycling, and trash in one location will cause behavioral changes among tenants, increasing waste diversion. As a best practice for adding organics to existing trash rooms, they recommended installing equipment to reduce the volume of organics through pretreatment or dehydration, particularly where space is an issue. In addition, providing drop-off locations for donations is another practice that can reduce the waste footprint of the building. Best practices for collecting donations include providing dedicated refrigerated storage and access to food operation for pick up after hours.   One of the key points of their presentation was the importance of signage at waste collection areas and recycling stations. Installing clear labels and guidelines on what organic matter can be composted aids successful waste diversification and clears up confusion. Finally, they recommended that restaurants and hotels provide reusable dishware or, at minimum, compostable containers to encourage reduction of plastic use.   In addition to design changes, Miflin and Grace spoke about best practices for waste flow and storage. They recommended that buildings develop plans to transport waste directly from the source and reduce the amount of handling to prevent contamination. Buildings should also make sure to create obstacle-free paths to ensure proper transportation of recyclables. In commercial spaces, food waste processing systems like anaerobic digesters or dehydrators can be used to reduce the volume of organic waste that needs to be stored.   Finally, one of the highlights was the use of measurement and controls in buildings to track the amount of waste being diverted on a regular basis. This can be achieved through weighing daily recyclables and refuse or setting up recycling stations with scales. Measuring the waste that residents are diverting is a quantifiable method to show the impact of their daily choices, which can in turn cause positive behavioral changes. Designing buildings with easy, concise, and informative stations for diverse waste collection will encourage residents to examine their waste stream and make conscious decisions to reduce their contribution to landfills.