At a panel dedicated to discussing food waste and ways to mitigate it, Purdue Student Government and city officials said food waste is preventable, and measures to solve the issue have already been taken.
The panel was held Wednesday night in the Wilmeth Active Learning Center Wednesday night. It was hosted by PSG, the city of West Lafayette and the West Lafayette Go Greener Commission, and was moderated by Lindsey Payne, director of service learning and an assistant professor of practice in Environmental and Ecological Engineering.
The event was paid for and sponsored by Purdue Center for the Environment, a research center located in Discover Park.
Food waste is preventable
Payne emphasized, along with Abigail Engelberth, an associate professor in Agricultural and Biological Engineering and in Environmental and Ecological Engineering, that while food loss and food waste are two separate issues, food waste is preventable.
“There’s 38.4 millions tons of food waste annually and commercial resources are some of the biggest factors,” Engelberth said. “Industrial food waste, it’s a small portion, but it’s really point-sourced and it’s homogeneous.”
Engelberth’s presentation focused on how industrial processing has the most potential to decrease its food waste even though it only makes up 5% of all food waste. The homogeneity of the waste allows it to be more easily collected because it’s more predictable.
“It doesn’t need as much of a complex collection system compared to residential food waste," Engelberth said. "Industries can (move similar waste) from place to place to place. It’s also always going to be the same type of things to come in — there's not going to be chicken when you’re ready for cauliflower.”
There is also a lot of potential revenue in the food that’s been wasted, she said, and depending on the specific waste “it can be upgraded to something much more valuable.”
The anaerobic digester
David Henderson, the utility director of the West Lafayette, highlighted how the city has implemented an anaerobic digester to combat food waste.
The digester underwent a major renovation in 2008, and after a failed compost project at Purdue due to odor issues, a partnership was formed between West Lafayette and the university to have all food waste be sent to the anaerobic digester.
“There are food waste deliveries five days a week,” Henderson said. “But the dining courts have significantly reduced waste because there isn’t food waste if you don’t have people using the facilities or using takeaway containers.
“There are still some things put in place last year when campus reopened that still apply, but no matter how you’re receiving your meals, if the food waste can go into the wastewater plants, it’s the best place.”
After going through the anaerobic digester and becoming stable, the waste “goes to a holding lagoon and then goes to a farm and is returning nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients to the land,” he said.
“We’re trying to create a circular economy,” Henderson said. “This is a partnership and it charges nothing to the university.”
'Where there's food, there's waste'
The last panelist to speak was Madison Hodges, a senior in Agricultural Engineering and a member of the Go Greener Commission and the Purdue Student Sustainability Council. She highlighted how the use of takeaway containers drove food waste “conversion rates way down.”
“As we’re transitioning to post-COVID, or the new normal, it’s important that we use the infrastructure that is already in place,” Hodges said. “Where there’s students, there’s food and where there’s food, there’s waste.”
She said seven sororities, fraternities and co-operative houses send their waste to the anaerobic digester, diverting “12,000 pounds of food in the 2019-2020 school year.”
“There’s a massive opportunity for growth (there),” Hodges said. “We have 64 houses on campus that could be involved.
“A waste collection system is set up. Some of them only collect in the kitchen and some of them scrape off. We also provide signage, educational materials and present at the house to inform them of the proper procedures such as not contaminating food waste that goes into the processor.”
There is also a community drop-off, and the Go Greener Commission is working to identify future locations to be installed in the next few months.
Though some sororities, fraternities and co-operative houses have a drop-off system, Purdue Residences don't. Hodges said that the main reason for that was the logistics as “it’s more work for the janitorial staff and the waste management team.”
“We do have ‘PSSC Erase the Waste’ education at the dining halls,” she said. “There used to be food scrapes at the dining courts and they would weigh (the food that was scraped) and shame everybody to create awareness and only take what you’re actually going to consume.
“Recently they had a project with perks for plates with no food left on it. Typically the conveyor belts are really full, but if students ate all of their food they got to put their plate at the top level of the conveyor belt on the green trays.”
Hodges that while there is a lot of work to still be done, students can still make a difference in how food waste is handled at Purdue and in the Greater Lafayette area.
“We as students can advocate,” she said, “and we should work with Purdue staff and faculty as opposed to working against the machine. You just have to get the ball rolling and do a little of the heavy lifting.”
Prematurely discarding food
Jen-Yi Huang, an associate professor of food science, spoke about how food labels can be misleading due to the lack of regulation, causing consumer confusion and leading to an estimated 33% to 50% of food produced for humans being wasted or lost.
“Edible food discarded prematurely and unnecessarily is food waste,” Huang said. “The average American wastes 20 pounds of food a month. I wish I could lose 20 pounds a month, but I can’t do that.”
Huang went through typical labels that individuals would see in a grocery store, and their true meanings in terms of how they affect the food that is purchased. Only one percent of consumers knows that date labels are regulated only for specific foods, he said.
“‘Expires on’ or ‘Use by’ means that food may not be safe to consume past the date listed, so you can think of that as a safety indicator,” he said. “‘Best by’ or ‘Best if used by’ is the manufacturer's recommendation for consuming food at peak quality. It won’t kill you but you don’t really have to throw it away.
“‘Sell by’ is for grocery store inventory management. They just want to make sure how many days the product has been out, then they’ll rotate it.”
Grocery stores themselves will guess when it comes to products with a longer shelf life, Huang said.
“Even processed food can be one year after the date and it can be fine,” he said. “Now this doesn’t mean go get old eggs and eat dinner. They have to be stored properly and cooked properly. And make sure there’s nothing unusual about them before eating."
He directed consumers to download the Foodkeeper app published by foodsafety.gov, where users can check specific foods and see if they’re still viable to be consumed.
“The takeaway may not be scientific, but trust your senses with the food you eat,” Huang said. “Trust your senses, not your gut."