Photo illustration by Ali Levens. Photos by Lucian Himes
Interactives by Zack Born
Editor’s Note: This reporting includes information about Pepperdine’s organic waste collection program. At the time of print publication, this information was not available and had not been shared with the Graphic. It is included in the digital version of this story.
Reducing food waste is the No. 1 individual solution to decrease carbon dioxide emissions, according to Drawdown.
In 2010, the United States wasted 133 billion pounds of food — over 4,000 pounds per person — according to the USDA. L.A. County is no exception, as it produces over 8 million pounds of food waste daily, according to L.A. County Sanitation Districts.
The United States — and Pepperdine — can create a closed-loop system to slow the acceleration of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, said Brittany Allison, assistant professor of Food Science at California State University, Northridge and former Pepperdine visiting professor of Biochemistry. A closed-loop system recycles organic matter and its nutrients back into the soil through gardening and composting.
“Focusing in on composting is a reminder the natural order of things is not disposal,” said Mallory Finley, senior Economics major, Sustainability minor and the Chris and Amy Doran Climate Fellow. “There is nothing new on this planet. [Waste] is not going anywhere; it’s staying here with us.”
Since waste is inevitable, humans can either deal with it via an open- or closed-loop system.
Behind the Story
- Why did you decide to report on this?
- In Prof. Chris Doran’s Food and Sustainability class in the spring semester , my awareness about food waste increased. Food waste does not seem to be a topic that is widely discussed at Pepperdine, so I wanted to shed light on the cause and effects of food waste, its connections to climate change and provide tangible solutions for this preventable issue.
- What did the reporting process look like?
- I did hours of background research on governmental websites to gain unbiased information and context to the food waste issue, specifically in L.A. County. Then, I emailed interview requests to qualified sources to speak on this issue. Some sources declined to comment, which is why there are some important voices missing. After speaking with them, I carefully transcribed and organized the quotes and information into sections. Finally, the story went through many hours of rigorous editing before being published.
- How did you choose what aspects to focus on?
- I wanted to focus on the science of organic food waste decomposition because it has a direct impact on accelerating climate change. The idea of food waste can seem monumental, so breaking it down into types of food cycles, ethics and solutions can provide the reader with a good understanding of what food waste is and what they can do to combat it.
The Open-Loop Cycle
The food supply chain has emitted a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, totaling over 13 billion metric tons of heat-trapping gasses that have entered the atmosphere, according to a 2018 study conducted by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek.
“We’ve kind of been taught and inundated with this idea of waste being inevitable,” Finley said. “That’s a new idea, right. We weren’t always wasteful. We had to be convinced that it was worth it to throw things away, and companies had to work really hard to make it cheaper to incentivize people to literally throw something away when they were done with it.”
The greenhouse gas emissions do not stop once food hits the plate.
When sent to decompose in a landfill, food waste scraps emit methane — a greenhouse gas 23 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, according to LACSD.
Greenhouse gasses trap heat from the sun on the surface of the planet, which is known as the greenhouse effect, Allison said.
As layers upon layers of waste sit on top of each other in a landfill, Allison said the decomposition of the waste creates methane because the deep parts of the waste piles do not have adequate oxygen supply.
“If we can avoid methane, that’s beneficial for everybody,” Allison said.
Another waste system, however, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Closed-Loop Cycle
Instead of sending food to a landfill, Allison said consumers can set their organic waste aside to create compost — a nutrient-rich substance that can be added to soil to increase its health.
“There’s tons of nutrients locked up in things like food and yard waste,” Allison said. “It’s better to see those going back into the soil than just getting trapped in a garbage heap somewhere.”
Composting benefits the environment in many ways, according to the EPA. It reduces methane emissions, sequesters carbon, increases water retention, assists in higher crop yields and helps rehabilitate habitats and hazardous waste areas.
As organic materials break down into compost, carbon dioxide is released, Allison said. Then, plants — which photosynthesize by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen — create a “net-zero” of emissions because the carbon dioxide the plants remove from the atmosphere returns through composting. This gas exchange differs from burning fossil fuels, which takes underground carbon, releases it into the atmosphere and creates a “net-positive” of carbon emissions.
To divert organic waste from landfills and curb greenhouse gas emissions, California passed Senate Bill 1383. This bill requires jurisdictions and cities to send its organic waste to composting facilities at the beginning of 2022, according to LACSD.
“I think that is significant to highlight the fact that this is being done to mitigate climate change,” said Chris Doran, professor of Religion and Sustainability and founder of the Sustainability major and minor.
The goal of this bill is to reduce organic waste disposal by 75%, compared to the 2014 baseline, by 2025, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Works. CalRecycle regulations set for organic waste reduction went into effect Jan. 1.
It is unclear which company will haul the University’s organic waste because the LACDPW did not respond for comment.
The Graphic seeks to conduct real-time interviews (either in-person, on the phone or on Zoom) for all stories. Real-time interviews allow reporters to seek clarity and context to better understand a subject. In some cases, the Graphic will use email responses for data, abroad travel, breaking news with a small comment needed, medical leave, leaves of absence or on a case-by-case basis. The Graphic will reach out to a source multiple times to schedule an interview, but they may not respond or decline to comment.
Doran said the bill’s implementation could provide a bridge between educational and operational opportunities within Pepperdine.
The University announced in an Oct. 21 email that it will begin to collect organic waste starting Oct. 31. These collection sites will be at the following locations: Waves Cafe, Drescher Cafe, all student residences with in-suite kitchen units and faculty/staff condos.
Prior to this announcement, Pepperdine’s food waste compliance plan and food waste education plans were unclear because Ricky Eldridge, the director for the Center for Sustainability, declined an in-person interview. Chief Operating Officer Phil Phillips, Bon Appétit — Pepperdine’s new dining service — and Eldridge did not comment on Graphic requests for food waste data.
The EPA compiled guidelines to aid in food loss prevention for universities. It is unclear what guidelines Waves Café follows, as Bon Appétit did not respond to the Graphic’s request for this information.
There are ways Pepperdine can commit to creating an on-campus closed-loop system, like installing more community gardens, expanding the existing garden, applying organic waste to soil on hillsides and creating more educational opportunities for students, Doran said.
“We’re just not teaching people about food waste,” Doran said. “We’re not teaching them about how that impacts climate, as a methane emitter [and] food waste that’s not composted. I think all those things are incredibly missed opportunities that would make us better citizens, and other colleges around in L.A. County are doing that, we just aren’t.”
Finley, whose project involves the rehabilitation of Pepperdine’s community garden, said she wants students to use the community garden as an educational tool to learn where food comes from and the impact the current food system has on the planet.
“When you are empowered to know how to produce those things, you don’t have to rely as much on the corrupt systems that are providing them for you now,” Finley said.
The community garden is not only for Sustainability students, Finley said, as gardening can be any individual’s step into the right direction toward caring more for the environment.
Finley said people from the United States may have the perception that gardening skills are “lesser-than” because people should be doing “higher-level things” as a developed country.
“It’s created this insane disconnect from our planet and physical personhood,” Finley said. “I think having that education can be extremely grounding in recognizing our connectedness to the Earth and our fundamental dependence on it. I think that’s something that, regardless of how developed you are as a country or community or whatever, you need to be able to maintain that connection.”
Topanga nonprofit Full Circle Compost seeks to educate people across the Santa Monica Mountains to return to their earthly connections through a free composting system, said Cecilie Stuart, Full Circle Compost founder and executive director.
“We really started with Full Circle Compost as a climate solution that we were advocating and helping people with a practical solution,” Stuart said.
Stuart said her team developed a curriculum and infrastructure for gardening and composting in elementary schools across the Santa Monica Mountains.
Full Circle Compost also offers adult climate education classes and provides free composting access for Topanga residents via drop-off sites. Between residential and school bins, Stuart estimates that her team has composted 50,000 pounds of organic waste.
“What we felt was that people really wanted to do it, but they had failed or the system didn’t work,” Stuart said.
Because humans are the only animal that generates waste, Stuart said people need to learn how to take accountability for their waste and manage it in a responsible manner.
“You see your food going in, you see the volunteerism and the community spirit that arises from composting, from really working with the microbiology,” Stuart said. “And then you see the result. You see the soil, and you use it on site. That’s a real closed-loop system.”
The Ethics of Food
There are many ethical concerns people should consider when contemplating their relationship with food, Doran said.
Doran said a great deal of resources go into producing food, which is why people should be mindful of their food waste.
“If we’re being very food wasteful, […] then it seems to me that we’re being incredibly dishonorable to the land, to water, to resources, to animals, to not honor the farm work that’s being done,” Doran said.
Finley said it is important to understand the labor and difficulty food production workers endure because it “gives a sense of solidarity” for those who face unfair work environments and exploitation.
People may be geographically so far away from their food they may not realize what went into the production of their food, Doran said.
“The larger that geographical distance is, is likely the larger that moral distance is that we’re not thinking about,” Doran said.
After bridging the geographical and moral distances of their food, Doran said people must then consider the impact food sourcing has on the planet. This distance can be measured in “climate miles,” or how much gasses are emitted to bring the food from other locations to Malibu.
Finley said local farmers markets are a more ethical way to purchase food, and she said it is “important to do inconvenient things” if it means benefitting the planet.
“There are so many people who are exploited because of how we get our food, and so I should be willing to go the extra mile,” Finley said.
Bon Appétit launched its Farm to Fork program in 1999, which requires its cafés to purchase 20% of its ingredients from small farms within 150 miles of the kitchen it is serving, according to Bon Appétit’s website.
Bon Appétit declined to comment on information requests about the specific farms Pepperdine’s cafeterias source from. Its website states every café has a board listing its suppliers in the Farm to Fork program, but there is no visible board in Waves Café.
Other Ways To Avoid Food Waste
Composting is not the only method of food waste diversion.
SB 1383 also requires jurisdictions across California to “redirect” 20% of consumable food to people who are in need, rather than throw it away, according to LACSD.
The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy describes and ranks six strategies for institutions to reduce their food waste, organized based on its societal, economical and environmental benefits.
The Bon Appétit’s website states it follows the EPA’s food recovery hierarchy.
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Contact Ali Levens via Instagram (@journ.ali.sm) or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Current Graphic position: Special Edition Editor
Number of semesters with the Graphic: 7
Minor: Sustainability, Multimedia Design