“Food recycling” refers to inedible food disposal methods like animal feeding, anaerobic digestion, and composting.
Even when source reduction and donation are a success, there will be some food waste left over. Food recycling options include animal feeding, industrial uses, and composting. Any of these strategies requires that a facility implement a system to collect food waste separate from landfill-bound materials. Some find this effectively “cleans” the waste stream by removing decomposing food from garbage cans and dumpsters at a facility.
Proceed with caution: On-site food waste pre-processing technologies
While on-site pre-processing technologies like pulpers, grinders, and aerobic biodigesters can be used with the goal of reducing transport costs and diverting food waste from landfill or incineration, the fate of their outputs varies. These technologies require energy and water, and they typically rely on disposal though local sewer systems, potentially adding to their climate footprints. There is almost no peer-reviewed, independent life cycle research on their environmental impacts. Before selecting any of these technologies to recycle food waste, Practice Greenhealth encourages health care decision-makers to research their options thoroughly. Learn more from the EPA’s 2021 report.
Assemble the team
Collaboration with environmental services is especially important for collecting data on food recycled. You may want to consult with loading dock managers to ensure organic waste is collected in a safe and sanitary way to minimize any pest or odor issues.
In addition to your core team, you will want to develop connections with external partners such as waste management business partners and community leaders from food, farm, and gardening groups.
ReFED has a solution provider directory that allows you to find organizations and businesses in your area that can support your food waste recycling goals. You can filter by “recycling” in your state.
Review your baseline or audit
Review what you learned from your baseline or audit. Spoilage, plate waste, and prep waste/ trimmings are the main food waste causes to consider for recycling.
Choose your strategies
There are numerous strategies for recycling your food. Our guidance prioritizes each strategy’s impact using the EPA food recovery hierarchy. Unpackaged food that cannot be donated may be accepted by animal feeding operations, anaerobic digestion facilities, or composting facilities.
Feeding animals is the third tier of the EPA food recovery hierarchy. This strategy often costs less than hauling to landfill, can save farmers money on feed, and saves the resources that went into making the food.
Regulations vary by state. Contact your local solid waste agency, public health agency, or county agricultural extension office for more information on feeding animals in your community. With proper and safe handling, anyone can donate food scraps to animals.
In 2021, HealthPartners diverted 95 tons of food waste from two hospitals to livestock feed as part of their comprehensive food waste program.
Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus, the largest campus in the health system, has tracked cost avoidance associated with their food-to-hogs program. It is less expensive to send food waste to hogs than to dispose of it as municipal solid waste. In 2021, the Rochester campus avoided approximately $50,000 in municipal solid waste disposal costs after accounting for the cost of the food-to-hog program.
This EPA’s resource outlines the legal basics for how to donate food scraps to animals and shares success stories from organizations keeping food scraps out of the landfill through animal feeding.
This toolkit takes you through four steps in setting up a food waste diversion program at your facility, including understanding local regulations, evaluating options, and training staff. Four steps to create a diversion program from Hotel Kitchen
The primary forms of industrial use are anaerobic digestion and fat and cooking oil recycling. Through anaerobic digestion, microorganisms break down food waste and produce biogas and a soil amendment.
Contact your waste hauler and/or a wastewater treatment plant in your community to inquire about anaerobic digestion.
Fats and cooking oils can be used by the rendering or biodiesel industries. Check for manufacturers in your community that collect and convert these into biodiesel fuel.
Some parts of the country have depackaging facilities that can separate packaged food from packaging to send the food waste to an anaerobic digester.
For more information about industrial uses such as rendering, biodiesel, and anaerobic digestion, visit the EPA’s industrial uses for wasted food.
This ReFED resource details food recycling solutions, with quantitative estimates of the effectiveness of each in diverting food waste, as well as cost and benefit expectations to multiple stakeholders.
This toolkit takes you through four steps in setting up a food waste diversion program at your facility, including understanding local regulations, evaluating options, and training staff. Four steps to create a diversion program from Hotel Kitchen.
The last tier of the EPA food recovery hierarchy before the landfill is composting. Composting turns food scraps into a valuable soil amendment.
Facilities can compost on-site, on a farm, or at a composting facility. Check for options in your community. When choosing a composting facility, consider the frequency of pickups they offer as well as whether they take post-consumer food items, weigh the compost they pick up and share the data, and wash collection bins.
Train your staff on composting protocols and practices so they understand what is accepted by the composting facility or farm. Your compost hauler may have training resources and support you can utilize. You may also want to educate your staff on the value of composting to build support for the new practices. Take a field trip to your composting facility, or share web content to supplement your training and education.
Please don’t pulp
Pulpers, or large food disposals, grind food and use the sewer system to dispose of food sludge. Some portion of the chunkier food is separated and should be added to your compost stream. Pulpers require significant amounts of energy and water to operate. They add sludge to municipal water systems that require more energy, water, and chemicals to operate, and the end sludge output is most often landfilled. Pulpers often require permits and are strongly discouraged as a method for food disposal for kitchens committed to sustainable practices.
In 2021, HealthPartners composted 55 tons of food waste from four facilities as part of their comprehensive food waste program.
This guidance provides an overview of composting and its benefits and offers resources for finding a composting facility in your community. For more information about composting, visit the EPA's reducing the impact of wasted food by feeding the soil and composting.
This toolkit takes you through four steps in setting up a composting program at your facility, including understanding local regulations, evaluating options, and training staff. Four steps to create a diversion program from Hotel Kitchen.
Amanda Holloway from Mayo Clinic discusses their waste reduction efforts from root to stem cooking to creating dog biscuits from inedible food.
Identify your performance measures
Collect these data points to measure your impact.
- Pounds of food waste sent to animal feeding
- Pounds of food waste sent for industrial uses
- Pounds of food waste sent to compost
- Cost savings by month/quarter/year from reduced waste hauling
- Calculate greenhouse gas reductions using our Environmental Excellence Awards (report compost and animal feeding by pounds) or ReFED’s impact calculator
Implement and track your chosen strategy
Once you implement your chosen food recycling strategies, you will continue measuring on a regular schedule to track reductions.
Review reports from your food recycling and waste management partners along with your own data to assess your impact, and use the data to develop a performance report.
Reusable food service ware outperforms disposable
Reusable food service ware requires far fewer material resources, uses less energy, and generates much lower levels of air and water pollutants and less solid waste in its production, use, and disposal than similar disposable products.
Review your results and establish policies and protocols
Tracking your gains through food recycling will prove their effectiveness, and the data can be used to support integrating food recycling strategies into standard operating procedures, policies, and protocols.