COVID-19 is Disrupting Food Waste Programs: What Does this Mean for Methane Emissions?
In recent weeks, several articles have described the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the food system. Farmers are unable to sell produce to their primary customers because those buyers (e.g., restaurants and schools) are closed. Consumers are struggling to adapt their food consumption behavior to meet the new realities of food availability and are trying to reduce the number of trips they make to the grocery store.
These disruptions are resulting in an increase in food waste across the globe, which is exacerbated by reductions in waste services. For example, some cities are suspending food waste collection programs to protect waste handlers from COVID-19. This leads to large quantities of food scraps being disposed of in the general municipal solid waste stream. Farmers who are unable to sell their produce are plowing huge amounts of fruit, vegetables, and dairy products into the ground to dispose of them. Many cities have taken actions to divert organic waste from landfills and dumps, but these diversion programs are not always classified as essential services during the current crisis.
All of the above have a significant impact on local greenhouse gas emissions. When food waste decomposes in anaerobic conditions (e.g., in dumps or landfills), it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The solid waste sector is already the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions, so what will the ramifications of these changes be?
For years Abt Associates has been helping cities reduce the impact of solid waste on climate change and air quality. We support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its role as a lead partner in the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Waste Initiative, which focuses on helping cities around the globe reduce methane emissions from the waste sector through actions like diverting and treating organic waste in composting and biogas projects.
As part of our efforts, Abt developed the Solid Waste Emissions Estimation Tool (SWEET). SWEET helps cities quantify benefits of organic waste diversion programs that reduce emissions. Using this tool, cities can estimate the net greenhouse gas emissions impacts of COVID-19-related disruptions on their waste management and disposal practices. Additionally, SWEET can estimate the benefits of methane mitigation efforts, such as capturing and using gas from landfills.
Watch this tutorial to learn how the SWEET tool can help your community quantify the impact of COVID-19 and the efficacy of potential solutions.