COVID-19 Has Increased Food-Related Waste

Covid-19 has not only caused major shifts in food systems, but has also increased the amount of waste associated with food, especially as more items are individually wrapped and takeout has become a popular option.

As part of our year-long series on food waste, Sarah Dalgleish reports.

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In 2005, Boulder set a goal of diverting 85 percent of the city’s waste from landfills by the year 2025. This year, Boulder hit the milestone of diverting 50 percent of its waste.

Kara Mertz, Sustainability Director for the city, says there is a long way to go for the city to reach the goal.

“Especially in times of Covid and the associated recent increase in single-use plastics and disposable packaging, it really is a challenge for us and we do have a ways to go to get there, but I don’t feel like it’s impossible for us to get there. It does mean that what we want to do is to try and create opportunities for reuse and minimizing waste before it happens and so we are refocusing some of our efforts in that realm.”

Covid-19 has not only caused major shifts in food systems, but has also increased the amount of waste associated with food, especially as more items are individually wrapped and takeout has become a popular option. Zero Waste Boulder is working towards solutions to reduce and divert the waste created by these situations.

“One of the things we’ve really been refocusing on is how do we create systems so the easiest, cheapest, most convenient option is the most environmentally sensitive option? We just started a program for restaurants so that they can get subsidized compostable and reusable takeout containers. The burden shouldn’t always be on the consumer’s shoulders to make the right choice. It really should be, ideally, that we’re setting the systems up and we as local government are working with state and federal governments and working with corporations to make it so that what ends up in the hands of our local consumers is the right, easy to manage choice,” Mertz explains.

When it comes to reducing waste, decreasing the amount of goods we consume actually has a greater impact on lowering emissions than driving less or using less energy at home. As Mertz puts it,

“When you look at the emissions associated with how much we consume—in Boulder and everywhere really—it’s kind of astounding. We did a study that found that the emissions associated with how much stuff we use and consume far outweighs the emissions associated with local use of electricity, transportation, and statistically, a 5% reduction in the amount of stuff we use as individuals equates to a 10% reduction in the amount of electricity we use.”

In this regard, the public can play a large role in helping Boulder achieve its goal. Mertz says support from the community is what has allowed the Zero Waste effort to progress this far.

“The best thing we have here, honestly, is an engaged community. The reason Boulder is able to do this is because our programs are consistently supported by our community. Before we put the universal Zero Waste ordinance into effect, we had focus groups with community members. What we heard consistently was that businesses support zero waste, their employees ask for zero waste, students ask for it at the university and at their K-12 schools and the best thing that other communities could do to replicate what we’re doing here is really to organize community members. It really does come down to everyone playing their part.”

In 2005, Boulder set a goal of diverting 85 percent of the city’s waste from landfills by the year 2025. This year, Boulder hit the milestone of diverting 50 percent of its waste. Kara Mertz is the Sustainability Director for the city. She says there is a long way to go to reach the goal.

“Especially in times of Covid and the associated recent increase in single-use plastics and disposable packaging, it really is a challenge for us and we do have a ways to go to get there, but I don’t feel like it’s impossible for us to get there. It does mean that what we want to do is to try and create opportunities for reuse and minimizing waste before it happens and so we are refocusing some of our efforts in that realm.”

Covid-19 has not only caused major shifts in food systems, but has also increased the amount of waste associated with food, especially as more items are individually wrapped and takeout has become a popular option. Zero Waste Boulder is working towards solutions to reduce and divert the waste created by these situations.

“One of the things we’ve really been refocusing on is how do we create systems so the easiest, cheapest, most convenient option is the most environmentally sensitive option? We just started a program for restaurants so that they can get subsidized compostable and reusable takeout containers. The burden shouldn’t always be on the consumer’s shoulders to make the right choice. It really should be, ideally, that we’re setting the systems up and we as local government are working with state and federal governments and working with corporations to make it so that what ends up in the hands of our local consumers is the right, easy to manage choice,” Mertz explains.

When it comes to reducing waste, decreasing the amount of goods we consume actually has a greater impact on lowering emissions than driving less or using less energy at home. As Mertz puts it,

“When you look at the emissions associated with how much we consume—in Boulder and everywhere really—it’s kind of astounding. We did a study that found that the emissions associated with how much stuff we use and consume far outweighs the emissions associated with local use of electricity, transportation, and statistically, a 5% reduction in the amount of stuff we use as individuals equates to a 10% reduction in the amount of electricity we use.”

In this regard, the public can play a large role in helping Boulder achieve its goal. Mertz says support from the community is what has allowed the Zero Waste effort to progress this far.

“The best thing we have here, honestly, is an engaged community. The reason Boulder is able to do this is because our programs are consistently supported by our community. Before we put the universal Zero Waste ordinance into effect, we had focus groups with community members. What we heard consistently was that businesses support zero waste, their employees ask for zero waste, students ask for it at the university and at their K-12 schools and the best thing that other communities could do to replicate what we’re doing here is really to organize community members. It really does come down to everyone playing their part.”


KGNU is taking a deep dive into food waste throughout 2020 thanks to a grant from Boulder County and Elevations Credit Union