Food Waste Is a Climate Change Solution Some Washington Republicans and Democrats Can Agree on


Reducing food waste while helping food-insecure Washingtonians is a climate change solution that many of the state's Democrats and Republicans can agree on, as illustrated by HB 1799, a bill that passed in the Legislature with bipartisan support last week.

"Supporting this bill means that we are supporting composting, we are supporting the ability to donate excess food," said state Sen. Shelly Short, a Republican representing much of Washington's northeast corner, in a Senate floor debate on March 3. "I think we all support that."

If signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee, HB 1799 will take several measures to increase food donation and composting in Washington, helping the state achieve its 2019 goal of halving the annual generation of food waste by 2030, compared to 2015 levels.

When food is wasted, so is money: Nearly $130 billion worth of meals went unsold or uneaten in the U.S. in 2019, according to the 2021 Use Food Well Washington Plan, which a 2019 law instructed the state Department of Ecology to create. HB 1799 is based on several of the recommendations made in that plan.

Food waste is increasingly being recognized as a climate change issue — food systems account for over a third of the world's planet-warming emissions, according to a United Nations report. When food and other organic materials decompose in landfills, they generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Washington would avoid an estimated $150 million each year in climate change impacts if all 30 recommendations in the Use Food Well Washington Plan were implemented, the plan said.

HB 1799 adds to 2019 food waste reduction goals, setting a 2030 target to reduce the amount of organic materials disposed of in landfills by 75%. Organic materials refer not only to food waste, but include manure, yard waste, food-processing waste, garden waste and wood waste. The bill also establishes a goal to recover at least 20% of discarded edible food waste for human consumption by 2025, putting the state on track for its 2019 goal of cutting edible food waste in half by 2030.

HB 1799 would make Washington the first state to require compostable foodware to be color-marked, in order to educate consumers and reduce plastic contamination in compost, according to a March 4 news release from Seattle-based nonprofit Zero Waste Washington. The bill also removes liability barriers for companies and organizations to donate excess food, requires many local governments and businesses to plan for source-separated collection of organic materials and creates a state Center for Sustainable Food Management. It opens up state grant funding for farms to spread more compost on their fields and use anaerobic digesters, which break down organic materials such as manure and produce a renewable energy source called biogas along with nutrient-dense fertilizer.

"Washington is taking a big step forward in improving our management of organic materials," said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, a Democrat representing part of Seattle and Vashon Island, in a news release on March 4. He is the bill's prime sponsor.

Support from both parties, but some concerns

The bipartisan support garnered by the bill encouraged some proponents of HB 1799. Climate change solutions are often hotly debated and support is split along party lines, and to hear some Republican legislators speak glowingly about the bill was "amazing," said Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington. Her hypothesis is that the bipartisan support stems from the ability of increased composting to create jobs and support local businesses.

"I know that sometimes these things feel forced, but the fact of the matter is that the private sector is moving into this space," said state Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican serving the state's 18th Legislative District, in a Senate floor debate on March 3. "I think this is a perfect opportunity for public-private partnership to help achieve favorable ends for our concerns about climate, providing jobs and making sure we are feeding those who need to be fed."

Part of the reason this climate-related bill was able to pass was because it didn't face the same opposition from the oil and gas industry as some clean energy bills did, said Deepa Sivarajan, Washington clean buildings policy manager for Northwest-based nonprofit Climate Solutions. Sivarajan believes that messaging from the oil and gas industry put bills that could have otherwise earned bipartisan support in a negative light, presenting them as mandates that would limit Washington's economy and energy choices.

"This (food waste) bill was perceived not as putting restrictions up as much as creating opportunity," Sivarajan said. HB 1799 works well in tandem with HB 1663, a bill that also passed in the Legislature and aims to reduce the amount of methane coming from landfills, she said.

There was some public concern outlined in a Senate report on HB 1799 that ramping up compost production and use runs the risk of introducing chemicals or pests onto farms. Apple maggots were of particular concern to state Sen. Mark Schoesler, a Republican and fifth-generation farmer who represents all or part of six counties in eastern Washington and who voted in opposition to the bill. These pests, which can destroy ripening fruit, have been found in Washington organic waste before.

"It scares the tree fruit industry to death," Schoesler said in a Senate floor debate on March 3.

But state Sen. Mona Das, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said there is research showing that industrial compost facilities heat compost to high enough temperatures where apple maggots are killed. Responding to concerns about chemicals known as PFAS making their way into compost, Trim with Zero Waste Washington said the state has banned PFAS in some types of food packaging. Many manufacturers have been working to get the chemicals out of their compostable products altogether, Trim said.

Proponents of HB 1799 aim to continue pushing implementation of the recommendations put forth in the Department of Ecology's Use Food Well Washington Plan.

"It's like putting the puzzle together," said Aaron Czyzewski, director of advocacy and public policy for Food Lifeline, a nonprofit that supports Washington food banks. "Right away, we saw a few pieces that were obvious and able to go first."