By John Laidler
A national effort to help curb the amount of food that ends up as waste at landfills and incinerators has enlisted two new participants in this region.
University of Massachusetts Lowell and Signature Breads, a Chelsea wholesale bakery, have joined the Food Recovery Challenge, an initiative of the Environmental Protection Agency that encourages businesses, organizations, and institutions to reduce food waste to help preserve the environment, cut costs, and combat hunger.
“Our corporate culture has always been to do the right thing — we want to be good citizens,” said Tim Konicek, director of quality and research and development for Signature Breads. “But if it helps our bottom line, that’s a plus as well.”
Geared toward large-scale food operators such as colleges, supermarkets, and health care facilities, the three-year-old program asks participants to increase food donations and recycling, as well as find ways to reduce waste. Each member charts its food waste with the goal of cutting the volume by 5 percent a year.
The EPA announced 10 new members of the challenge overall from New England, seven from Massachusetts. Nationally, there are now more than 800 participants, 41 from Massachusetts. Other area participants are Salem State University and Tufts University’s Medford campus, both of which joined last year.
Christine Beling, a project engineer in the EPA’s New England office, said that when institutions waste less food, it can save them money, help relieve hunger in their communities, and help the environment by reducing the organic trash sent to landfills and incinerators.
“If you look at what the average American throws out, 20 percent is organic waste,” she said. “In 2011, we recovered or recycled 4 percent of that waste. That is just a huge opportunity for recovering the resource.”
According to the EPA, Americans generated 36 million tons of food waste in all in 2011. That waste creates unsanitary conditions at trash disposal sites, and contributes to the amount of methane produced in landfills, environmental officials say. Throwing away food scraps and other organic materials means a missed opportunity to lower trash disposal costs while helping the environment through composting. Officials note that composting produces a natural soil amendment that reduces the resources needed for food production.
Beling said that a key way for an institution to reduce waste is to make sure surplus foods are donated to food banks and pantries.
They can also recycle it. Currently, that usually means sending the waste to a composting facility, but new methods are emerging.
Stop & Shop is developing a plant to convert food waste — through a process known as anaerobic digestion — into fertilizer material and an odorless gas that will power its regional warehouse, processing, and distribution center in Freetown.
Beling said institutions can also produce less waste by such steps as “purchasing smarter” and finding uses for leftover items — adding pasta to soup, for example.
For Massachusetts food handlers, joining the challenge gives them a head start in preparing for a new law that, starting Oct. 1, requires institutions that serve large quantities of food to engage in waste-reduction efforts.
UMass Lowell, which serves approximately 32,000 meals weekly at its campus dining facilities, joined the EPA program as part of an overall campus sustainability initiative, university spokeswoman Christine Gillette said by e-mail.
The university “sees this effort as the right thing to do in terms of sustainability and support for the community and the EPA’s program,” she said. “Through this, the campus is already acting to meet the state regulation that takes effect this fall.”
UMass Lowell has been working for about a year on programs to reduce food waste, Gillette said, “and through the EPA program, we are taking a more comprehensive approach that includes working with the Food Recovery Network chapter, composting, and campus-wide food drives.”
The recovery network is a national student organization that promotes food donations by college and university campuses. A chapter at UMass Lowell was launched earlier this year by Anna Henson, a student majoring in marketing and entrepreneurship.
Gillette said UMass Lowell donates both surplus foods and those contributed through food drives. It recently donated about 600 pounds of food collected through a drive to a local charity. Since February, the Food Recovery Network chapter has collected nearly 3,000 pounds for donation.
The university composts food in partnership with a local farm — about 184,000 pounds of it since last September. “That food waste goes to the farm and in return, UMass Lowell receives composted soil that is used in the university’s community gardens, landscaping, and in planting new trees on campus,” Gillette said.
Signature Breads is a $40 million a year operation that sells artisan-style breads and rolls to schools, colleges, restaurants, and caterers. In addition to its flagship plant in Chelsea — the one participating in the challenge — it has a facility in Arizona, Konicek said.
The employee-owned firm had already begun tracking its overall waste volume through a separate EPA program, and decided to join the challenge earlier this year. Konicek said the motivation is both to help the environment and cut costs.
Signature Breads donated about 10½ tons of surplus breads and rolls last year to the Boston Food Bank, according to Konicek. He said constraints including the size of the packaging that the food bank can handle prevent the company from donating more.
Although most of the rest of its unused food is provided to composters, Konicek said a goal the firm is pursuing through the challenge is to seek ways to expand the food it donates by finding other outlets.