Bills aim to reduce food waste through labeling and composting
Rotting food is the top item filling landfills, expert says
Supporters of two bills to reduce food waste say they’ll help fight climate change, because rotting food produces methane, which is worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
In the race to reduce the greenhouse gases that worsen climate change, policymakers tend to focus on vehicle and industry emissions.
But New Jersey’s residents, businesses, and institutions toss 3.3 billion pounds of food into the trash each year, and that rotting food produces a major amount of methane — the greenhouse gas equivalent of 1.4 million cars, according to the food waste-fighting national nonprofit ReFED.
That’s why legislators pushing two bills to reduce food waste have framed them as an urgent environmental issue — a strategy that seems to be working, because the Senate’s environment committee advanced them last week. The bills would establish standards for food labeling and facilitate composting of food waste at schools.
“Our country wastes 40% of the food that’s on its plate, which is a tragedy both for the food-insecure but also a tragedy for the environment, because as food waste ultimately gets into leaky landfills, it produces methane gas, which has 30 to 80 times the impact of CO2,” said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the committee’s chair and a prime sponsor of the food-labeling bill. “So we really want to stop wasting food and do a good thing for our citizens.”
Smith’s bill, which Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) co-sponsored, would establish clearer labeling for the food industry, which now voluntarily sets “use by,” “sell by,” and “freeze by” dates. Such labels confuse consumers about whether food is safe to eat — and consequently, increase food waste, advocates said.
The legislation would define standards for a “quality date,” after which food might not be fresh but is still safe to eat, and an “elevated-risk date,” which pinpoints when spoilage will make food risky to eat. It also would require milk products to use quality dates instead of sell-by dates, allow food to be donated or sold after its quality date, allow the Department of Health to designate foods that deserve elevated-risk labels, and require a public education campaign on the new labeling.
Dana Gunders, ReFED’s executive director, testified in support of the bill. Food waste is the number one item entering landfills today, she told the panel.
“It takes a huge amount of resources and a big climate footprint to grow, harvest, store, transport, cool, cook all of the food that comes to our tables,” Gunders said. “When we are throwing that out, it’s really for naught, and it’s leading to an overproduction of food to begin with.”
She told lawmakers New Jersey’s discarded food costs $10 billion a year. With 9.2 million residents in New Jersey, that breaks down to about $1,080 per person.
New Jersey would be the first state to require clearer food labeling intended to reduce food waste, Gunders said. Similar federal legislation has been introduced but is stalled, she added.
Several lobbyists from the food industry spoke out against the bill, saying the current labeling system is sufficient. Smith countered that food waste and label confusion haven’t abated since 2018, when state lawmakers considered a similar bill but caved to industry concerns.
“I don’t think we should be afraid of moving the ball forward because it might be a little onerous,” Smith said.
The committee’s Democratic majority agreed to advance the labeling bill, with its two Republican members dissenting.
Composting in schools
The second bill won the committee’s unanimous support.
That bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), would allow schools to receive and compost food from other schools, without needing to get a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Two experts from the Rutgers Cooperative Extension testified in support of that bill, telling legislators that schools are responsible for tons of food waste.
Composting unwanted food is more environmentally friendly than putting it in a landfill, although the Environmental Protection Agency first recommends reducing the production of food, feeding hungry people, feeding animals, and industrial uses (such as recycling cooking oils for biofuels), said Sara Elnakib of the extension’s food waste team.
Elnakib shared the details of a food waste study Rutgers did in 15 Paterson schools in 2017. In 30 visits to those schools, advocates found that students chucked 2,473 pounds of unwanted food. Applying those findings to the whole school district over a school year, that adds up to more than 623,000 pounds of food waste in a single district in a single year, Elnakib said.
New Jersey has nearly 600 school districts.
“They’re not going to be the size of Paterson, but it’s still a huge problem, and working in institutions can help,” she said. “Working on that big scale can really help reduce and mitigate this.”
After educating students and staff about reducing food waste, the Rutgers researchers determined about 350 fewer pounds of food ended up in school trash cans. Elnakib and Amy Rowe of Rutgers urged legislators to consider proposals that could reduce food insecurity while also reducing waste, like creating a “shared table” in school cafeterias where unwanted food would be given to whoever wanted it instead of getting trashed.
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