What a Waste! Minimizing What You Send to the Landfill

The ClimateHound Team
Mar 15, 2024
6 min read

The next time you’re scraping a plate into the garbage, think about this fact: one ton of food waste sent to a landfill can produce half a ton of greenhouse gases. And we’re not just talking about our old enemy CO2. The organic matter that you throw out, from spent grains and infused botanicals to cold greasy French fries and damp coffee grounds, transforms into a gaseous cocktail that’s about half methane gas. And methane packs an even bigger punch when it comes to the climate than carbon dioxide. Its global warming potential (GWP) is about 25 times worse than CO2 over a hundred-year timeframe. 

Don’t let your leftovers give the planet heartburn. One of the most important steps that food and beverage businesses can take to minimize their impact is to craft a responsible organic waste management program. Organic waste doesn’t mean high-end biodynamic produce from your local farmer that’s rotting in your walk-in. “Organic,” in this context, means anything that derives from a carbon-based life form, both plants and animals, and that’s biodegradable. 

You might think, “Right, right, gotta start composting!” and then get daunted at the thought of managing a whole ‘nother process as you’re trying to run your business. In fact, though, there are several other strategies higher up on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy. Think of it as a reversed food pyramid. Ideally, you’re managing your waste so well through the strategies in the larger sections toward the top that by the time you get to the very bottom – composting and sending trash to the landfill – you’ve got very little left.

The EPA's Food Recover Hierarchy showing most preferred to least preferred diversion methods.

Let’s talk through what each slice of the hierarchy might mean for the food and beverage industry:

Source Reduction

Have you ever planned a Monday special that uses up ingredients that didn’t move over the weekend? Congratulations – you’ve already started your source reduction strategy! Every time you find a way to use less-than-pretty produce in a stock or manage your inventory so well that you’re ordering only the beverage production supplies you can use in a timely fashion, you’re helping to lessen your waste AND benefit your business’s bottom line. 

Consider the following example from the University of Texas at Austin dining halls: an audit of plate waste led to strategies like adjusted portion sizes and free samples (so students didn’t end up taking a lot of something they didn’t like). The result? A total reduction in plate waste of nearly 48 percent. 

Feed Hungry People

Estimates suggest that more than 10 percent of American households struggled to put enough food on the table during 2019 – and the double whammy of the pandemic and subsequent inflation has likely only made the problem worse. The food and beverage industry is ideally positioned to take the lead in directing excess to those in need. 

Worried about your liability if something you donate makes a recipient sick? Most U.S. businesses, organizations, and individuals are protected by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. Do your own research and check with an attorney to be extra-sure you’re covered – and let your accountant know about it, too, since there may be tax benefits associated with food donations

Feed Animals

If you’ve ever read Charlotte’s Web, you’ll remember how much Wilbur loved his slops. Make livestock AND farmers happy by offering your spent grains, kitchen scraps, etc. as feed. There may be costs associated with pickup and transportation, but the price could turn out to be lower than trash collection, if you’re in an area that charges by volume/weight. Sometimes, in large enough quantities, you can even be paid for the spent grains. You may want to check with your local agricultural extension or public health agency about what’s okay to send to farms, but many pickup services have already done the research for you. 

If you have a beverage business or restaurant with ties to your local agricultural network, ask around – there may be a farmer you already know who could use your scraps, and you can create a perfect farm-to-table-to-farm circle. 

Industrial Uses

“Wait, we STILL haven’t gotten to composting?,” you may be asking. Nope! Next time you drain your fryer, you can see if a local biofuels company wants to convert it to a form of diesel that has a significantly lower carbon footprint than petroleum products. Are you a beverage producer with a lot of spent grain or fruit? If you haven’t already found a farmer who will feed it to their livestock, look into options for anaerobic digestion. Some wastewater treatment plants have the capacity to capture the biogas generated through this process and use it to power their operations. At the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (it’s no coincidence that some of the most exciting efforts are taking place in higher education), the institution was able to use a dry fermentation anaerobic digester to turn agricultural and yard waste as well as food scraps into enough power to support 10 percent of the campus’s operations.


Here’s composting! It’s important, too, but it’s almost at the bottom of the hierarchy for several reasons. Ideally, you’ve already reduced your waste and tapped its value through the upper tiers of the hierarchy, meaning that you need to access fewer ingredients and resources and that you have helped to provide food for humans and animals that would otherwise need to come from other sources. You may even have turned your waste into revenue by selling it, and that will cut down on what you need to compost, too. 

Keep in mind that composting isn’t carbon neutral: as your eggshells and coffee grounds break down, they do generate greenhouse gases. Composters can take steps to address those emissions, though, and compost itself can serve as a form of GHG sequestration, unlike the uncontrolled methane and CO2 in landfills. And compost can be used to enrich the soil without the use of chemical fertilizers and make agriculture more productive and less resource-intensive. Composting can also benefit your own business by reducing trash disposal costs.

And at the very bottom of the hierarchy?

No surprise – it’s the landfill. If you’ve followed the strategies above that are the best fit for your food or beverage business, though, you’ve minimized what you’ve sent here – and you’ve maximized your efforts to be a good citizen of the planet!

Become a net-zero contributor today, don't wait until 2050.