WEST DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The brown-spotted bananas, misshapen green peppers and wilted lettuce you passed over at your local Hy-Vee grocery store may well be part of the dark, rich compost you buy at the store's garden center this spring.
The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/1RzqO1w ) reports that turning food waste into usable goods is becoming more the rule than the exception at a growing number of Iowa grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals and public institutions.
Those companies collect unsold produce, table scraps and food waste otherwise bound for the landfill and turn it over to companies that recycle the slop into compost.
West Des Moines-based Hy-Vee Inc. takes the process one step further by selling the end product at many of its stores.
"Our food waste includes outdated food; salads that didn't sell. Also there are peelings from cutting fruit, cutting vegetables," Hy-Vee Chief Executive Randy Edeker said. "Do you grind them up and send them down the sewer or do you collect them and recycle them? So we're collecting to reuse and recycle."
The movement to reduce and recycle food waste is gaining traction nationally — fueled in part to increased public awareness, better disposal options and corporate responsibility.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack last September announced an initiative to reduce the nation's food waste by 50 percent in the next 15 years. The USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency are enlisting farmers, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, local governments and others in the effort.
It's a daunting task considering more than 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Edeker challenged all 240 company stores to eliminate food waste by the end of last year. The stores, which for years have recycled cardboard, plastics, wood pallets and kitchen grease, are now recycling unsold produce, meat and produce trimmings, floral clippings and other items.
Hy-Vee stores divert more than 2 million pounds of food waste from landfills each month — equivalent to two Boeing 747 jets, the company said.
"There are things you do because you think customers are going to care about them and things you do because it's the right thing to do," Edeker said. "We are by no means doing a great job yet . but we're on a really good path."
About 33 million tons of food waste ends up in landfills each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The average American throws away about 20 pounds of food each month worth between $28 and $43, according to a NRDC report. If 15 percent less food was wasted, 25 million people could be fed, the report said.
Solid waste streaming into Iowa landfills — including food — has increased 62 percent by weight over the last five years, said Dan Nickey, associate director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa, a nonprofit organization that helps businesses reduce landfill waste and air emissions.
That's a problem because rotting food produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is harmful to the environment.
"We are actively trying to address the problem," said Nickey. "We have been reaching out to grocers like Hy-Vee to encourage them to divert organic matter from landfills."
Unity Point Health, Gateway Market and Hy-Vee's Iowa stores all contract with Blairsburg, Ia.-based GreenRU, which collects food waste and converts it into compost used on farms, in landscaping and other places. Companies pay for GreenRU's hauling services, which takes inedible food that cannot be donated or eaten, said Chaz Olson, operations manager.
Hy-Vee store employees put food waste and floral department trimmings into 5-gallon buckets, which are emptied into a large Dumpster outside the store. GreenRU trucks empty the Dumpsters up to twice a week.
At the company's plant the waste is mixed with recycled wood and "cooked" for several months before being bagged and sold to farmers and home and garden centers.
Hy-Vee sells the compost and uses it to fertilize 69 community gardens often located adjacent to its stores.
"Any company wants to be the one leading the way and doing the right thing," Edeker said. "Hopefully somebody's going to notice and think you do good things for the community. We hope it makes people love us more. But it's also the right thing to do."
Commercial composting is cost-prohibitive for a lot of smaller companies or those that don't produce large amounts of food waste, Olson said.
"Everybody wants to be green until they find out how much it costs," he said. For larger companies the cost to have GreenRU collect the food waste is comparable to depositing it in a landfill, he said.
Smaller grocers like Boone-based Fareway Stores Inc. don't generate enough food waste to justify composting, although individual stores can work with local farmers or composters, company President Fred Greiner said. Any food that is not expired or damaged is donated to local food banks, he said.
Hy-Vee and other grocers such as Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and Target are reducing landfill trips by donating unsold items to local food banks. In fiscal year 2015, Des Moines area Hy-Vee stores donated more than $3.5 million in food to local food banks and shelters, the company said.
UnityPoint Health, which operates Iowa Methodist Medical Center, Iowa Lutheran and Methodist West hospitals in the metro, tries to minimize food waste by managing food storage and monitoring overproduction in its kitchens. The health care company also does some composting.
"Decreasing food waste means not producing that much waste," said Clif White, environmental coordinator. That means trying to train cafeteria customers to dispose of food waste properly. It's a consistent challenge.
"People just don't pay attention to where they throw their items although we have signs up," he said.
Another solution is making food as it is ordered as opposed to filling up cases with items that cooks think customers will want, said Cheryl Lounsberry, integrated services director. "But in the cafeteria people with only a half hour for lunch are in a hurry," she said.
The hospitals, which serves patients with a variety of dietary needs, saw a decrease in food waste when patients started ordering food room-service style. "That way they are getting what they want" and more likely eating the food, she said.
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com