Food waste and trash are getting so bad, cities are turning to garbage disposals

Cities turning to in-sink disposals to deal with garbage problem

Food waste is a major and growing problem in the U.S.

Americans waste up to 50 percent more food than U.S. consumers did in the 1970s, according to National Institutes of Health. And the government last year declared its first ever, national food waste reduction goals.

Now food waste — and trash in general — are getting to be such big problems that pockets of many U.S. cities are having a difficult time managing rubbish on trash days. (Just try to walk along narrow sidewalks in a New York City neighborhood on trash day. Add frozen mounds of snow to the mix, and forget it.) The garbage, in turn, takes more money and energy to transport to landfill space that's also limited.

This all partly explains why some U.S. cities have been trying out in-sink, electric garbage disposals as a way to reduce trash and transform food scraps into renewable sources of energy.

In the high-density Point Breeze neighborhood of south Philadelphia, for example, streets are tight. "There's very little place to store trash," said Carlton Williams, a Philadelphia city official. He made the comments in a video for the city.

After a two-year-plus pilot program between Philadelphia and InSinkErator, a business unit of Emerson, the city now requires in-sink food waste disposers in new residential construction. The regulation went into effect earlier this year. It was signed into law in late 2015.

"It's counterintuitive that using a disposer somehow is good for the environment," Michael Keleman, an environmental engineer for Emerson, tells CNBC. And yes, using garbage disposers require water and electricity.

Garbage piles up on William Street in New York City.
Henny Ray Abrams | AP

At the time of Philadelphia's pilot program launch with Emerson, then Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said he never thought he'd be holding a news conference on garbage disposers.

But food waste and the environment are changing, as waste volumes only rise.

"Diversion of organics from landfills can reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Keleman.

The idea behind the Philadelphia initiative is to divert as much organic food waste into reusable energy.

In-sink disposers convert food scraps into fine particles. The slurry passes through plumbing and a process called anaerobic digestion that transforms the waste. One of the end products is biogas, which can be used to generate electricity and heat.

Emerson is working on similar garbage disposer initiatives in Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee and Takoma, Washington. Across the five cities including Philadelphia, there was roughly a 30 percent reduction in food waste in participating households.

The biogas generated in those five cities is being used to offset electricity demand at local waste water treatment plants.

But wait.

Nearly every consumer has a tale of a clogged disposer or plumbing gone bad. But Keleman of Emerson argues proper use can prevent a lot of problems. And diverting food waste means less trash.

Participants during Philadelphia's pilot phase said while using the garbage disposer, they put out roughly one less trash bag per week. And less food waste also means fewer rodents and critters.

With widespread use of food disposers, the city could potentially reduce food waste by around 19,000 tons annually, and save about $1.1 million in waste disposal and other costs.

A compactor packs down trash to be covered with fresh dirt at the Defiance County Landfill in Defiance, Ohio, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015.
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Food loss and waste is single largest component of disposed U.S. municipal solid waste.

The at-home InSinkErator ranges from roughly $100 to $300. As food waste and trash become larger problems, it's no surprise Emerson, other companies and researchers are working on proprietary commercial-sized solutions for churning food waste into renewable energy.

The irony in growing food waste is that people don't want to waste food.

But modern consumers to a certain extent suffer from an overabundance of food choices. There's a desire for produce perfection, which along with confusing expiration and use-by dates can prompt tossing out food prematurely.

A worker plows a field in Firebaugh, California.
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U.S. food loss and waste accounts for about 31 percent of the overall food supply available to retailers and consumers, with far-reaching effects on food security and climate change, according to the USDA.

That's why scientists and researchers are seeking waste reduction, including technology-based solutions to transform food and agricultural waste into converted energy. The goal is feeding people, not landfills.