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How Denver is tackling food waste to fight hunger, climate change

With more people staying at home, food waste has grown across the country. Even before the pandemic nearly $281 billion worth of food was thrown away. Special Correspondent Allison Aubrey reports on the aggressive effort by Denver, Colorado, to tackle food waste, which it bets will also help feed more people while lowering greenhouse gases. It’s part of a five-part series, Waste Not, Want Not.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    With more people staying at home during the pandemic, residential food waste has spiked in some parts of the country. Even before the crisis, 40% of food never made it to people's plates and once it did, $281 billion dollars of it a year was thrown away.

    Tonight we take a look at one city's effort to aggressively tackle food waste. An effort they're betting will help them feed more residents in need and lower greenhouse gases. Special correspondent Allison Aubrey has the story. It's part of a five-part NewsHour series "Waste Not, Want Not," which was reported on before the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • Megan Lane:

    All right so we're going to be talkin' trash today!

  • Allison Aubrey:

    It's the city of Denver's "Waste Extravaganza" bus tour and Megan Lane, an administrator in the city's recycling program, is showing a busload of neighborhood leaders where their trash ends up. First stop, one of Denver's biggest landfills.

  • Megan Lane:

    When we dig through trash, what we find is 25% of the material is recyclable and 50% of the material is compostable, which is a whole heck of a lot of material. So easily right, we should be diverting 75%.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Lane explains that a good chunk of our trash is made up of food waste that could be composted. Denver offers curbside compost pick up for its food waste to try to keep it out of its landfills, but participation in the program is low with less than 13% of eligible homes signed up.

  • Charlotte Pitt:

    The opportunity for having an impact on the environment is huge.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    The city is hoping that more people realize that a good percentage of their trash can be composted so they sign up for Denver's curbside compost pick-up.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Charlotte Pitt, directs the city's composting program.

  • Charlotte Pitts:

    Composting it's basically taking your food scraps and turning them into a valuable soil amendment. When you put organic material into a landfill, it produces methane, because it doesn't have the light and the water and the oxygen that it needs to decompose properly, so keeping it out of the landfill is huge.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    It's huge because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. It's 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Composting food waste uses water and oxygen and only emits small amounts of carbon dioxide, so its impact on greenhouse gases is much lower. Nationwide, American's generate around 40 million tons of food waste each year but only 6% of that ends up being composted.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    This Denver family has been composting ever since Denver's compost pick program started back in 2006.

  • Cheryl Fleetwood:

    After we started composting everything that could be composted, we saw about a 50% reduction in the amount of trash that we had. So then I ordered a smaller trash bin and you know of course a bigger composting bin.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    In Denver, chefs are joining the battle against food waste with an initiative called the "Chef's Challenge". The city appoints a handful of chefs to try out composting and reduce food waste in their own kitchens. Jason Burgett is chef-owner of a restaurant called, The Wooden Spoon.

  • Jason Burgett:

    It was like eye-opening, 63% of our food waste was compostable. This small little place produces so much compost.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    It's all part of an effort to green up an already pretty eco-conscious city. Lots of people here in Denver ride bikes and support renewable energy. Now there's an effort to show them that reducing food waste and composting are two of the top ways to really make a difference.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    The effort is getting a jump start from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national nonprofit that focuses on environmental issues. They're infusing local organizations that focus on food waste with funds to bolster their efforts. In Denver, the NRDC went as far as funding and staffing a new city government position called the Food Waste and Recovery Program Administrator. Leslie Baesens is filling that role.

  • Leslie Baesens:

    We're focusing on cities because cities are more nimble. At the federal level, the US does have an overall goal of reducing food waste, but I do think that at the local level is where the change is really happening.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    A study the NRDC presented Denver back in two thousand seventeen, shows how cities that aggressively attack food waste can dramatically shrink unmet food needs or what's called, food gaps for residents who struggle to put food on the table. By increasing the recovery of the edible food that is normally tossed, the report shows Denver potentially capturing an additional 7 million meals and cutting its food gap in half!

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Arlan Preblud started We Don't Waste, one of Colorado's largest food recovery organizations. He says having a national organization like the NRDC, has not only brought more resources to the issue of food waste, it raises the level of awareness in the community about its connection to both hunger and greenhouse gases.

  • Arlan Preblud:

    It has provided us with a platform to enhance what we do for the community and through their efforts, they're asking organizations like We don't Waste and others to reach further into the community and develop programs that bring food deeper into the communities so those folks that are less fortunate are overcoming food insecurity.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Preblud says demand for their services has nearly tripled.

  • Leslie Baesens:

    So when a city takes on food waste there's a whole chain reaction that happens. Environmentally if you waste less food you have a benefit in terms of greenhouse gas emission, which benefits cities who often have these greenhouse gas reduction goals. Then you also will feed more people and I think in a lot of cities that are struggling with food insecurity being able to rescue more food is a huge bonus.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    But increasing composting could be difficult. Part of the reason: it costs $10 a month for compost pick-up, but trash pick-up is lumped into city taxes and perceived to be free by most residents.

  • Charlotte Pitt:

    We're looking to change that model in the future. Right now we do have to charge a fee, but that's not our ultimate goal, because we really want to incentivize people to participate.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    And there are other economics at play, too. Colorado has low tipping fees to dump trash because there's plenty of space for landfills. Whereas, in Seattle, Washington composting is mandated and costs less than trash pick-up- partly because land and landfills are scarcer — and tipping fees to dump trash are much higher. About 70 dollars a ton compared to less than 20 dollars a ton in Denver.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Despite this challenge, Pitt says she remains optimistic.

  • Charlotte Pitt:

    Whenever you work on behavior change, it just takes some time, but the fact that over 21,000 people who have taken the time to call us, decide that they're going to pay for the service, we think that's pretty good progress.

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