Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Good Conversation with the EPA - Food Waste

I just returned from an Unsaleables Conference where I had the opportunity to have a private breakfast with Jean Schwab, program manager and senior analyst in the Municipal & Industrial Solid Waste Division at EPA Headquarters. Always leery of government agencies, I found our breakfast conversation quite pleasant, finding we have many ideas in common.

Unsaleables: these are product returns of any nature usually from the retailer to manufacturer. It could be expired or damaged product, discontinued merchandise or a general recall. If the product cannot be refurbished and resold it is generally donated or destroyed with the destroyed product ending up in landfills. The company I work for is not involved in food but just think about all the food products lining your grocery shelves, all with expiration dates.

Now expiration dates are mostly suggestions. The general public doesn't realize that these products are good beyond the expiration date on the can. The dates are "best by" or "sell by" which will allow an adequate pantry life on top of the shelf life offered to the grocery. I am careful with milk or eggs; however, if canned food is not damaged or looks "bad" when opened, it is most often just fine, even a couple years after expiration.

I brought up the subject of homeowner associations setting stringent guidelines that are in direct opposition to our green and sustainability efforts, for example, clothes lines or front yard gardens. She completely agrees with me and said the EPA is, in fact, trying to meet with the main society of homeowner associations to try and ease some of the regulations. As she mentioned, they don't want their suburban neighbors to look like hillbillies; so they have become super restrictive.

She recommends at least allowing removable clothes lines, the umbrella type or ones where the line can be retracted after use. The strips of grass between driveways could become a little herb garden perhaps scattered with peppers, pretty flowers and other non vining vegetables. She has terraced part of her front yard planting pretty yews on top and cascading down with a variety of vegetables and flowers for the exact same reason.

We spoke about the composting and the benefits it provides even if your composting consists of burying your vegetable peels under a plant one day at a time. Horse manure is a wonderful compost, mixing it with vegetation, straw and fall leaves. Over time it creates a great soil, in fact we added about 6-8 inches of soil to our rocky ground over the course of a year. The resulting soil was beautiful and the garden thrives.

Another opportunity is to plant an extra row of produce for donation to the local food bank that offers free or reduced produce to families that have been victims of our current economic conditions.

Some other suggestions from Greenscapes site:

Reuse it

Take apart nonreturnable wood pallets to reuse the wood (e.g., edging around plant beds) or chip it for use on site for mulch.

Chip woody waste and tree clippings into mulch for use on-site.

Donate healthy plants to local nonprofit organizations when reconfiguring or removing trees and shrubs from your landscape.

Reuse or increase the use and efficiency of existing sites before cutting into new sites.

Reuse soils within the work site; create mounds or berms to serve as wind breaks or to add visual interest.

In direct opposition to our county laws, the EPA recommends- "Use gray water, reclaimed water, or collected rainwater for irrigation and equipment wash downs." I understand the phosphates can cause problems when empties into our septic and out to the leach field. Jean does not have authority in this area but I mentioned the problem to her. How much water is wasted every day.

I also had the opportunity to speak with the representative of Parallel Products a leader in renewable energy creating fuel and industrial grade ethanol created without using corn. "Our unique application of fermentation and distillation technologies creates a complete resource recovery and recycling opportunity for our customers. Each year, via fermentation, of sugar laden liquids and distillation of alcohol from beverage and industrial waste streams, Parallel Products produces over five (5) million gallons of waste-derived ethanol" link

All in all major corporations are recognizing the problems associated with returned products. They are stressing collaboration between the retailer and manufacturer to identify opportunities that will reduce the need for costly returns and reducing landfill wastes.

Jean Schwab, Greenscapes link


TLW said...

Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I realized awhile back that expiration dates are often more of a suggestion than something written in stone. From years of riding horses, I know what great compost can come from the manure pile. Visit any barn after they've mucked stalls (stalls bedded with straw) and the steam rising from the pile is a pretty good indication of how great the compost is. Great post!

Lace up and Walk said...

Good information. It's a shame how we let so much go to waste. We each need to do our part. A while back we finally were able to replace our old sofa. After enduring a house full of boys and dogs the old one was in such sad shape no one would have wanted it. I couldn't bear to set it out for the trash so we dismantled it. I recovered the cushions and used them on my porch sofa and the wood we used as stakes in the garden. I even used the springs for a strange but interesting piece of garden art. By the time we were finished we only had a small handful of stuff that went in the trash can.

Kathy Felsted Usher said...

Great ideas! I like your blog- I'm going to try making vinegar!