The food waste problem
Forty percent of the food in the United States is never eaten, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Furthermore, growing and transporting food requires a substantial amount of resources, and simply throwing organic waste into a hole in the ground instead of feeding it to the hungry, turning it into compost or using it to provide energy via anaerobic digestion is a poor use of those resources. As a nation, we can do better.

There’s a famous Onion article (satirical newspaper) titled “‘How Bad for the Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?’ 30 Million People Wonder.” The point is that many of our actions on an individual scale won’t have a material impact, but in the aggregate, it matters.

Conference waste collaboration and goals
The Sustainable Brands Conference is one of the premier conferences for “green business” professionals around the world, and this was its first time in Detroit. The conference brought in close to 2,000 professionals from the nonprofit, private and public sectors. Of course, a convention of this size produced a lot of waste, and Sustainable Brands and the Erb Institute collaborated to divert a significant part of that waste from the landfill. Historically, the environmental impacts of North American conventions are substantial, and Sustainable Brands and the Erb Institute hoped to change that. Caroline Larose and I collaborated with Lindsay Arell, who led the sustainability program for Sustainable Brands at the Cobo Center in Detroit through her company Honeycomb Strategies. The Cobo Center management was enthusiastic about these initiatives—and even Claude Molinari, Cobo Center‘s general manager, helped sort trash.

To facilitate the landfill diversion rate, we recruited almost 40 volunteers from the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and other schools who helped with waste sorting. Much of this involved making sure that conference attendees disposed of their trash in the compost, recycling or landfill bins and that attendees were educated on what goes where in case no volunteers are present in the future. The long-term goal is to begin to establish new habits among conference attendees, so that it becomes a social norm to dispose of waste properly.

Due to the volunteers’ work and COBO’s cooperation behind the scenes, we anticipate that several tons of food waste were diverted from the landfill to become valuable compost, highlighting how a small group of dedicated people can have a big impact. Many, if not most, other conference venues do not put such effort into reducing the environmental impact of their events, so both organic waste and products that could be recycled continue to contribute to our landfill problems.

Unfortunately, the lack of infrastructure for compost and recycling presents challenges for these venues. In fact, much of the U.S. doesn’t have access to composting, so even though many convention centers would be interested in reducing food waste by converting it into compost, they can’t.

I am thankful to have contributed to the partnership between Sustainable Brands and the Erb Institute, and we look forward to establishing a baseline for landfill diversion for SB Conferences in Detroit that we can improve on in future years.

Mark Green is a dual MS in Sustainable Systems/MBA student at the Erb Institute who is especially interested in waste management, the circular economy and industrial ecology. His career interests lie in working to reduce our global waste footprint, and his internship this summer involves working at the Environmental Defense Fund to try to reduce food waste at the farm level. This is the first of two blogs Mark has written about his extracurricular experiences while at Erb.