Repurposing wasted food

“We had an opportunity to think big and create a replicable model,” says Jennifer Milholen, President of Styrophobia, the nonprofit leading a pioneering new food composting project on Oʻahu. 

Soil compost Photo: USDA NRCS (CC BY 2.0)

Food and other dining waste is a major concern across the globe. It increases demand on scarce resources, drives up food costs and creates numerous issues in its disposal. IUCN is working with local businesses and organisations in Hawaiʻi to reduce food and dining waste from the IUCN Congress and to find new ways to minimise the problems with its disposal, and even create local benefits.

IUCN hopes the IUCN Congress will be the first contributor to an innovative pilot project set to open on Oʻahu to channel compostable food from catering enterprises into soil-enriching compost for farms on the island.

The idea is simple: collect all kitchen scraps and food waste generated at the Hawaiʻi Convention Center (HCC) during the IUCN Congress, replace biodegradable service ware and utensils with compostable versions and turn all of it into compost to fortify soil on local farms.

“Local farmers are a great fit because what better way to create a closed-loop cycle than to serve local food, create local compost, and bolster local soils to make more local food,” says Jennifer Milholen of Styrophobia, the nonprofit organisation leading the project.

Read about local food at the IUCN Congress

Hawai‘i pays some of the highest food prices in the United States, but like many other places, it throws away much of what it buys. Hawaiʻi trashes 237,000 metric tonnes of food per year at a cost of over US$ 1 billion. While much of that food could be turned into compost, it is too often mixed with single-use plastic containers, plates and cutlery making it expensive, if not impossible, to compost.

Turning the idea into reality has been complex. Friends With Farms, an Oʻahu farmer cooperative, was willing to expand existing composting operations, but farms cannot legally compost food waste if it is generated off site, unless they have a permit granted by the Hawaiʻi Department of Health. Because the Styrophobia demonstration model is new for Hawai‘i, Milholen had to identirfy which steps were needed for the permitting process in this case. The department is currently processing the permits.

“We want to be able to fully document the pilot so we can create a template for others,” explains Milholen.

HCC already diverts food waste from its kitchens and guests to become animal feed, and it is strengthening systems for the pilot project, from collection and storage to redistribution.

“We are thrilled to work on this initiative,” says Jennifer Nakayama, Director of Operations at HCC. “We always strive to improve our commitment to sustainable practices, and will use this opportunity to learn how we may be able to implement similar programmes in the future.”

IUCN Congress participants are key to the success of the pilot scheme. They will have to separate the food material from any non-compostable waste. To make this easy, IUCN is working with HCC to make the dining at the Congress plastic free, and it will provide advance education, clear signage and volunteers stationed at the collection bins to help with this process.

If the pilot spurs other projects in Hawai‘i, it could be a breakthrough for the island state.

“We had an opportunity to think big and create a replicable model,” says Milholen. “We are capturing as a resource what would have been underutilised or wasted, recycling it into locally produced fertiliser. We hope this will be a huge step forward for composting models across the islands.”

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