When looking at inefficiencies within the food systems of the United States, there is almost no more glaring of an issue, especially in regards to sustainability, than food waste. It is estimated that somewhere between thirty-to-forty percent of all food in the country ends up going to waste somewhere within the food supply chain. The reason this is so problematic is no secret to New Mexicans, as the state’s population faces the highest rate of food insecurity in the nation.
Food waste is also a major factor when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Landfills account for more than 14 percent of human-related methane emissions, making it the third-largest source, and food waste is the largest category of material placed in municipal landfills. When organic food rots, it releases considerable amounts of methane gas, which is one of the most potent greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. Furthermore, losing around a third of the nation’s food supply is also quite an economic inefficiency, taking away from the revenue of companies on every step of the supply chain. As New Mexico tries to comprehensively address climate change while also tackling issues like food insecurity, reducing and regulating food waste is a good place to start.
The clearest path for New Mexico to begin tackling the issue of food waste is through some form of government legislation. The state has a couple of laws related to food waste that form a good start, such as liability protection for donators, but it has not taken any major steps that will lead New Mexico to make notable reductions in food waste anytime soon. New policies that are quickly gaining prominence in state governments across the country, known as organic food waste bans, offer roads to substantial progress regarding food waste but are currently lacking any sort of discourse within New Mexican politics.
Currently, five states and a variety of municipalities have rolled out forms of regulation on food waste, regarded as either organic food waste bans or organic waste recycling laws. These regulations are imposed on a variety of different levels depending on the state, with some only targeting commercial, industrial, and institutional entities, while others are imposed all the way down to individual consumers. Generally, the regulations force entities to divert their generated organic food waste to designated recycling programs, and without a designated exception, penalize disposal of organic waste to landfills. This means that the covered entities must enroll in composting programs or compost the material themselves. New Mexico can emulate these regulations in order to better deal with excessive amounts of organic food waste rotting in landfills.
The implementation of such regulation takes substantial effort from both the state and individuals involved in diverting large amounts of organic food waste from landfills. Therefore, in order to be successful, a policy must take into consideration existing programs and infrastructure in the state. Oftentimes, states do not have the initial capacity to divert waste at levels that are needed to support statewide mandates, and therefore they must invest in the necessary infrastructure. This is no different in New Mexico, where there are only a handful of programs that currently recycle organic waste, and which would not likely be able to handle such an influx that would result from any statewide mandate. Furthermore, the more encapsulating a regulation on organic food waste, the more that is needed to provide resources, education, and enforcement of such regulation. The state cannot require every individual living in New Mexico to recycle their organic food waste if adequate materials, resources, and education are not provided.
Because of the high levels of required investment, which only grow the more comprehensive the regulation is, it is likely that an organic waste ban that goes all the way down to the individual consumer would not be a smart move for New Mexico, nor would it be successful. For this reason, the state should look to implement organic waste regulation that is more similar to that of California’s or Connecticut’s Organic Waste Recycling Laws.
In California, the policy is specifically targeted at businesses in general, profit or non-profit, while Connecticut specifically targets commercial food wholesalers or distributors, industrial food manufacturers or processors, supermarkets, as well as resorts and conference centers. Both states also provide minimum requirements for the amount of waste generated to be included in the regulation, which shrink over time to start off with the largest producers of organic waste and eventually encapsulate smaller producers of waste as well. In both policies, there is also some sort of distance exemption, so that isolated entities are not forced to travel long distances to dispose of their organic waste in an inefficient manner. This framework would be well-suited for New Mexico’s socioeconomics and current infrastructure.
First of all, leaving individuals out of the policy, at least initially, and targeting only businesses dramatically shrinks the cost of the implementation of regulation, while still encapsulating the entities who contribute the largest deposits of food waste. Furthermore, setting parameters on the amount of food waste production that is needed for an entity to be covered under the regulation, with those parameters shrinking over time, allows the state to start regulating the biggest producers of food waste, and allows time for smaller businesses, who also produce less waste, to plan for the future without having to shoulder the immediate burden that larger businesses are capable of handling.
Lastly, the distance exemption is something that would be extremely beneficial for the New Mexico population, with rural communities being extremely spread out throughout the state, and a lack of facilities in less-dense areas. All in all, a policy framework that is similar to that of California or Connecticut would allow New Mexico to immediately lessen the impact of organic food waste of the state’s largest producers, with more and more entities eventually being included in the regulation to eliminate as much organic food waste going to landfills as possible but to not place any sudden burden on smaller entities who may struggle with the costs and resources needed to recycle organic food waste.
A well-thought-out and successful implementation of an organic food waste law in New Mexico could provide a number of benefits to the state. States that have implemented organic food waste bans or laws have, first of all, seen a huge growth in sectors such as Organic Recycling and Food Rescue. As entities are required to no longer place their organic waste in landfills, the market for composting and food rescue services grows as there is widespread demand to alleviate or responsibly dispose of organic food waste. This means that even with a less comprehensive ban on organic food waste, it is very likely that the infrastructure to carry out such mandates will likely grow naturally, eventually allowing for ease to make the policy more comprehensive in the future.
Furthermore, such policies create jobs in the sectors that see growth, providing an indirect economic boost. There is also evidence that such policies, even if they are modest in the beginning, raise widespread awareness about organic food waste disposal and create cultural changes that eventually lead to even further widespread reductions in organic food waste throughout the population. All these benefits, direct and indirect, would surely benefit New Mexico while also aiding in the state’s effort to lessen its contribution to climate change.
-Posted by Jared