The Future of Food Waste: Organic Waste Bans by Michaela Reinhart

The world grows enough food for the 7.674 billion people in it. We simply lack the distribution system to get it to those who need it most, and nearly 40% of it goes wasted.[1]


This waste leaves people hungry and also contributes to increasing greenhouse gases, which can lead to health problems and changing weather patterns for humans down the road. Wasted food accounts for 8% of greenhouse gases and leaves a carbon footprint larger than the aviation industry.[2] How can this be? When we waste food, we also waste all the energy required to grow, harvest, and package it.[3] Further, if food goes to the landfill and rots, it produces methane, which increases greenhouse gas emissions.[4] Methane is a greenhouse gas even more harmful than carbon dioxide.[5] However, cutting down on food waste could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11%.[6] To indicate how large of a problem it is, if we could prevent food waste in the US alone, we could prevent the equivalent of 37 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions.[7]


The food industry has potential to help the environment. A quick online search shows that there is plenty that consumers themselves can do to address the issue. Websites remind consumers to make a detailed list before grocery runs, buy only what they need, and cook meals based on what will go bad next, not what they feel like eating.[8]


On the local level, cafeterias could sell half or quarter portions so that people who would not finish the normal portion would not have to waste it, local restaurants could participate in food recovery programs in which they send unused food to food pantries at the end of the day, and grocery stores could create and execute plans to reduce food waste.[9]

Most legislation that can help with food waste is state-based.[10] This includes tax incentives, date labelling, and organic waste bans.[11] Organic waste bans bar organizations that generate large quantities of food waste from sending it to landfills.[12] In total, as of 2018, 91 pieces of food waste-related laws were proposed in 30 states, 22 of which were passed into law.[13]


Organic waste bans should be the focus of legislative solutions to food waste in coming years. It holds the most promise as an across-the-board policy solution because it addresses a problem that exists everywhere but is flexible and can be tweaked according to what works best for individual states. There are several examples of organic waste bans that have been successful

For example, Austin, Texas and Vermont both implemented universal recycling laws, which ban a large swath of materials from the landfill, including lead batteries, mandated recyclables decided upon by the state, and food waste, among other things. Connecticut, New York City, California and Rhode Island passed organics or food waste recycling mandates.[14] Massachusetts passed yet another variation with an organics disposal ban, and San Francisco created composting rules.[15] These bans and recycling rules vary in scope and method of implementation, but were all effective in reducing food waste to some degree.

In most organic waste laws currently in effect, there is a threshold that businesses have to meet in order for the ban to apply to them, and sometimes there is also a distance and price threshold – so if diverting organic waste from landfills is too costly or too far, institutions can ask for a waiver.

Rhode Island’s food waste ban went into effect in January 2016 and required businesses that produce more than two tons of organic waste per week to divert it from a landfill.[16] Any institution that meets this threshold is required to separate their organics at the source and arrange for them to be anaerobically digested, composted, or recovered via another approved method such as agriculture use.[17] This legislation also includes a fair price provision to ensure that businesses are protected from cost increases due to hauling, and a waiver can be requested by the institution if hauling is too costly.[18]

Massachusetts’ solid waste disposal ban applies to an even lower threshold than Rhode Island’s ban, applying to institutions that dispose of one ton or more of food waste per week.[19]

As the distance and price waivers embedded into some of these laws indicate, in order for food waste to truly be decreased at this level, businesses and institutions will need help to abide by these rules. Bans and standards are important, but the infrastructure to abide by the food waste bans is equally as key. This could include recycling and food waste pick-up parallel to normal trash disposal, as well as communication hotlines (via phone or email) and on-site staff for technical assistance in implementing organic waste bans.[20] Funding for such expansion will be necessary, and Massachusetts provides a good example. The state has made $3 million in low interest loans for private development and $1 million in grants available for the expansion of public development of anaerobic digester capacity.[21]

Therefore, future organic waste ban legislation at the state level should be accompanied by legislation that shifts the waste distribution infrastructure accordingly to assist with the ban. This could come in the form of allocating a part of the state’s waste budget to hauling specifically for organic scraps.

Action in the food waste landscape is also occurring at a federal level. The EPA has set a goal to cut food waste by 50% by 2030 and is doing its part by fulfilling the role to collect much needed data about food waste and distribution systems.[22] Other federal legislation that has been enacted surrounding food waste includes the Food Recovery Act of 2017. This is also called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Recovery Act, which frees food providers of criminal and civil liability from the age, packaging or condition of donated food.[23] This was to encourage participation in food recovery programs to reduce food waste.

No matter what level of government is involved, the earth and future generations will be better off the less organic waste is allowed to make its way to a landfill. This can occur largely via policy, with organic waste bans accompanied by appropriate infrastructure shifts. Organic waste bans are an effective strategy to pursue, but it is important to keep in mind that reaching the lofty goal to reduce food waste and its impact on the earth comes in many forms – from making lists before going to the grocery store to pushing for state-level organic waste bans.



[1] “Food Waste FAQs.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2020.,worth%20of%20food%20in%202010.

[2] Sarah Kaplan, “A third of all food in the US gets wasted. Fixing that could help fight climate change,” The Washington Post, Feb. 25, 2021,

[3] “Fight climate change by preventing food waste,” World Wildlife Fund, 2021,

[4] “Fight climate change by preventing food waste,” WWF, 2021.

[5] “Fight climate change by preventing food waste,” WWF, 2021.

[6] “Fight climate change by preventing food waste,” WWF, 2021.

[7] “Fight climate change by preventing food waste,” WWF, 2021.

[8] Sarah Kaplan, “A third of all food,” The Washington Post, 2021.

[9] Sarah Kaplan, “A third of all food,” The Washington Post, 2021.

[10] “Fighting Food Waste,” National Conference of State Legislatures, 2021,

[11] “Fighting Food Waste,” NCSL, 2021.

[12] “Fighting Food Waste,” NCSL, 2021.

[13] Arlene Karidis, “How Policy Could Impact Food Waste (Part One),” Waste 360, October 9, 2021,

[14] “Food Scrap Recovery Policies,” Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2021,

[15] “Food Scrap Recovery Policies,” ILSC, 2021.

[16] “Rhode Island – Food Waste Recycling Requirements,” Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2021,

[17] “Rhode Island,” ILSR, 2021.

[18] “Rhode Island,” ILSR, 2021.

[19] “Massachusetts – Commercial Organics Disposal Ban,” Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2021,

[20] Katie Sandson, Emily Leib, and Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. “Bans and Beyond: Designing and Implementing Organic Waste Bans and Mandatory Organics Recycling Laws,” Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, July 2019,

[21] “Massachusetts,” ILSR, 2021.

[22] Arelen Karidis, “How Policy Could Impact Food Waste,” Waste 360, 2021.

[23] “Fighting Food Waste,” NCSL, 2021.

4 thoughts on “The Future of Food Waste: Organic Waste Bans by Michaela Reinhart

  1. This post is so important, especially at Duke, because we can so easily see how much food is wasted in the dining halls after we eat. I wonder though how COVID has changed things. I know for me personally, since I had so many food points when I lived on campus I saw no need to save leftovers from my meals because buying a fresh meal later wasn’t a bother. Now that I am living off campus I can see how much less food I am wasting simply because it is a lot more out of the way to get more food from the grocery store. I wonder how on campus Duke life could change to counteract this issue. Also, with organic waste bans does the food go to be composted instead of going to landfills? Does this still count as food waste if it is not being eaten?

  2. Nice blog post Michaela! I definitely think that food waste is an issue that must be addressed. It is disappointing to see the amount of food that various grocery stores and restaurants throw away at the end of the business day, and I think that an organic waste ban would help counter this issue. I think that the organic waste ban would also help reduce the amount of waste from food packaging materials, such as single-use plastics, that ends up in landfills. This organic waste ban could be helpful for reducing both organic and inorganic waste! Additionally, I think your discussion of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Recovery Act to reduce food waste is another helpful way to prevent food from being wasted. It would be interesting to learn more about how the issue of food waste is addressed in Durham and North Carolina.

  3. Great blog post, Michaela! Like Elizabeth, when reading your blog my mind went directly to eating at West Union. The amount of food waste at Duke is really hard to watch, and only got worse when multiple of the restaurants removed the small size option last year (really tough since some students don’t have mini fridges to keep leftovers and must throw them away). I am especially interested in the impact of expiration dates on this food waste. My dad works in the food industry and never abides by expiration dates because he says they are a marketing tactic and mere suggestions — he opts for the smell method instead. This article I found affirms that statement and says that more than 80% of Americans misinterpret date labels and throw food away prematurely There are so many dimensions to the topic of food waste, but it is definitely something I can do better with on a daily basis so thank you highlighting this topic!

  4. I found this really interesting, Michaela. Food waste is an especially difficult issue to address because it would require action and changes from people in their everyday lives rather than just creating a policy and having some far away agency carry it out. It makes people think directly about their own actions and the contribution they make to the environment. I know that most people, myself included, buy more than they need from the grocery store and then end up throwing so much of it away, and this is a hard practice to change when we don’t even notice we’re doing it. I like your policy recommendations, and they made me think about how there was a time when recycling was not a common practice in homes, and now we do it as second nature. Hopefully this could be the case with composting if pickup services were more widely available. We could all have a food scrap bin in our homes and take them out in the same way we do with our other waste.

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