Costs of Food Waste Pile Up

Jake Miller, 8, empties food waste at Portland International Airport in Oregon. The waste is given to the city to use as compost.
Jake Miller, 8, empties food waste at Portland International Airport in Oregon. The waste is given to the city to use as compost. (By Greg Wahl-stephens -- Associated Press)
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By Christopher Leonard
Associated Press
Friday, November 28, 2008

Experts in the food industry are thinking a lot about trash these days.

Food waste has been a chronic problem for restaurants and grocery stores -- with millions of tons lost along the way as crops are hauled hundreds of miles, stored for weeks in refrigerators and prepared on hectic restaurant assembly lines. But the historically high price of commodities is making it an even bigger drag on the bottom line.

Restaurants, colleges, hospitals and other institutions are compensating for the rising costs of waste in novel ways. Some are tracking their trash with software systems, making food in smaller batches or trying to compost and cut down on trash-hauling costs.

"We have all come to work with this big elephant in the middle of the kitchen, and the elephant is this 'It's okay to waste' belief system," said Andrew Shackman, president of LeanPath, a company that helps restaurants cut back food waste.

The interest level in cutting food waste "has just skyrocketed in the last six to nine months," he said.

Roughly 30 percent of food in the United States goes to waste, costing some $48 billion annually, according to a Stockholm International Water Institute study. A 2004 University of Arizona study estimated that 40 to 50 percent of food in the United States is wasted.

Wholesale food costs have risen more than 8 percent this year, the biggest jump in decades, according the National Restaurant Association.

Freshman students at Virginia Tech were surprised this year when they entered two of the campus's biggest dining halls to find there were no cafeteria trays.

"You have to go back and get your silverware and your drink, but it's not that different," said Caitlin Mewborn, a freshman. "It's not a big hassle. You take less food, and you don't eat more than you should."

Getting rid of trays has cut food waste by 38 percent at the cafeterias, said Denny Cochrane, manager of Virginia Tech's sustainability program. Before the program began, students often grabbed whatever looked good at the buffet, only to find at the table that their eyes were bigger than their stomachs, he said.

That same phenomenon often happens at Oregon's Portland International Airport. Busy travelers often discard half-eaten meals into trash cans, adding dozens of tons of waste that the airport must pay the city to haul away.

Now the airport is ramping up a three-year-old program to install food-only trash cans. The food waste is collected in biodegradable bags and given to the city to use as compost, said Stan Jones, aviation environmental compliance manager at the airport.

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