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Denver finds cutting down on food waste can reduce emissions

There's a simple way for us to help battle climate change, and it starts with clearing the table.

DENVER — There's a simple way for us to take a significant bite out of climate change: examining food waste.

The city of Denver said if we think twice about the food we throw away, the ripple effect is big. 

They know people in Denver are wasting food because they've been looking. The first week on the job with Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment, Lesly Baesens found herself digging through restaurant trash. 

"I thought OK, we're getting right to the meat of the issue. No pun intended!" she said. 

The department looked through the trash of more than 30 restaurants, finding pizza, brussels sprouts, bread and veggies.

But restaurants aren't the biggest offenders. A study by the Natural Resource Defense Council focused on homes and found meat, entire meal packages and a whole turkey in the trash.

"It can be illuminating to see what people are throwing away," Baesens said. "A little over 40% of food is wasted by residents."

Restaurants come in second place, making up 25% of the food waste. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a goal in 2015 to cut down food waste by more than half by 2030. This goal is based off of food waste levels in 2008, and the reason is because of what throwing away food really means.

Baesens said when you throw out edible food, you are also throwing away the energy that went into growing, harvesting, storing, transporting and cooking the food -- not to mention the money that goes into those processes.

An EPA study from last year looked at the energy impact across the country. 

"Estimated, it's equivalent in the U.S. to 42 coal-fired power plants every year," Baesens said. "Which I think puts the number into perspective. In that report, it said it was enough water and energy to supply more than 50 million homes." 

Beyond that, there's also the methane released when food ends up in the landfill.

University of Colorado Boulder assistant professor Zia Mehrabi said Colorado mirrors global concerns over drought and water shortages. As the climate changes, he said, that is threatening food production. 

"Deriving climate change impacts our production system our supply systems, it disrupts them," Mehrabi said. "We have less produce we are producing, and we're also producing less nutritious food."

What makes Professor Mehrabi smile is that the solution for this issue is tangible. 

"It's in front of us now, something we can all do at home," he said. 

Whether that's being creative with leftovers, sharing food with neighbors, not cooking too much or buying too much -- little things can all make a difference. 

Nonprofits like the Denver Food Rescue work with grocery stores and restaurants to collect food for donations. 

"Food that is not expired food, but food that's closer to its use by date," group member Jamie Anderson said. 

It's food that's still good to eat and helps around 2,000 people a week. 

Around a fourth of the food is delivered on e-bikes. Anderson said all of that combined leaves an environmental impact equivalent to taking 30 cars off the road for a year and saving more than 13 million gallons of water.

In another environmental effort, the city of Denver offers composting. There's a $10 monthly fee right now, but next year it becomes free. 

For apartment building residents with private waste management or those in areas where the city's service is not available, private composting companies offer another option. 

Baesens said that can cost around $30 a month, depending on the company.

The city is focusing on managing food waste after working on Denver's food vision and hearing from community members who said they want to cut down on their waste. 

This involves working with restaurants on composting and ways to cut down waste, working with families on prioritizing eating foods and labeling them before they go bad and offering all of these tips in multiple languages. 

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