Should Food Waste Be Illegal?
Consider the following two food facts:
- At least one-third of the food we produce in the U.S. is never eaten and largely ends up in landfills, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions like methane.
- Many Americans go hungry because they don't have enough money, and it's getting worse.
If it strikes you that something is out of whack here, you're not alone. Slowly but surely, public awareness about the amount of food waste is growing. The result is an increasing number of state laws and municipal ordinances making it illegal to waste food.
These laws, intending to fight climate change, mostly focus on food producers, retailers, and institutions of a certain size, prohibiting them from sending uneaten food to landfills. Typically, these measures encourage those entities to provide food to food banks or to convert it to compost, animal feed, or biogas.
Recent Food Waste Law History
In 2011, Connecticut passed the first such law, prohibiting the landfilling of food waste by entities that are located within 20 miles of a food recycling facility and generate at least two tons per week. Vermont followed with a similar law in 2012, and in 2014, Massachusetts enacted a tougher law, banning the landfilling of food waste by all entities that produce at least one ton per week. In November 2022, Massachusetts lowered the threshold to half a ton of food waste per week.
Today, at least eight states have laws restricting landfilling of food waste. In addition, several other states encourage the reduction of food waste through tax incentives for contributors to food banks.
Cities and counties are acting as well. On Jan. 1, a new waste-reduction law in Washington, D.C., requires food stores of at least 10,000 square feet and colleges and universities with at least 2,000 students to separate out food waste and process it or send it to a composting facility or biogas operation.
What About Household Food Waste?
Is the day coming when we will be prohibited from putting food scraps into our garbage?
It will depend on where you live — but it's already here. In 2020, Vermont became the first state to ban food scraps from trash. Then, last year, California passed the most ambitious food-waste law in the nation, including a ban on food scraps in the trash.
While Vermont officials promise they won't dig through trash cans looking for lawbreakers, California promises to be more hardcore, with fines starting in 2024. First offenses could result in a fine of $50 to $100, with third and subsequent offenses costing up to $500.
The first government body to fine people for food waste, however, belongs to Seattle, which started fining residents in 2015. The penalty for residences is $1 per violation and up to $50 for apartments and condos.
In Vermont, where a whopping 72% of households already composted food scraps or fed it to pets or livestock, a food waste ban was not a hard sell. In other states, it could be — especially if it includes fines. But households produce 39% of the nation's food waste — a bigger share than farms, food services, food manufacturing, or food retail.
City Programs Encouraging Limiting Food Waste
While California and Seattle are using fines, some local governments are trying to get residents to do their part through encouragement. Hundreds of cities, including Bowling Green, Kentucky, have opened food-waste drop-off sites in recent years.
As of 2021, Minneapolis' curbside food-waste collection program enjoyed a 51% participation rate and 5,838 tons of diverted food waste.
In the Columbus, Ohio, area, the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO) reported in 2021 that 51% of the region's waste was diverted from landfills after it launched a public awareness campaign.
Federal Action Limiting Food Waste
In 2016, France became the first nation to enact a food diversion law. That law requires large grocery stores to contribute excess food to food-assistance organizations. Violations could result in fines of 3,750 euros for each infraction.
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shares a “food recovery hierarchy" to food waste reduction, the federal government is highly unlikely to ever enact such a measure, leaving regulation of food waste in the hands of state and local authorities for the foreseeable future.
However, Congress has enacted laws that encourage food donations by reducing liability risks. A 1996 law set a legal floor of "gross negligence" or intentional misconduct for stores or organizations that contribute food that causes harm. In December 2022, Congress passed a bill to expand liability protection and make it easier for businesses to make donations directly to those in need rather than through a nonprofit organization. It also provides liability protection when food is given at a deeply reduced cost.
What You Can Do
Since stiffer state and local laws governing organic waste could be on the horizon, it might be a good time to give some thought to your own practices.
Here are a few suggestions on how to reduce your own food waste, regardless of where you live and what the laws are:
- Pay greater attention to meal planning and buy only what you need.
- Become a backyard composter if you can. If you can't, look for composting options in your community.
- Become acquainted with your freezer. Many foods and meals can easily be frozen instead of thrown out.
- Think of ways to repurpose your food scraps.
The phrase, "Waste not, want not," first appeared in 1576, when author Richard Edwardes used it in his book, "The Paradise of Dainty Devices." It's meaning: The less we waste, the more resources we save and the less we'll want for anything later.
It's a phrase that rings as true today as it did then.
- Restaurant Sued for Serving Uneaten Dine-In Food to Delivery Customers (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- What Your Food Must Legally Tell You (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- Food Companies Face Heightened Scrutiny Over Labels (FindLaw's Courtside)
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