How an NYSP2I reimbursement program is helping the state waste less food

Nearly four million tons of food are wasted in New York State each year, ending up in landfills where it decomposes and produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The amount of food thrown out across the state represents 18 percent of the entire waste stream.

In 2018, the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) launched a program to tackle this growing problem by offering state-funded reimbursement grants to businesses that reduced or diverted their food waste. The goal was to rescue 30,100 tons of food waste from landfills or incineration over the course of the initiative, which has been extended by one year on two occasions since its original three-year contract ended. The program aims to avoid 805 tons of methane by providing direct capital assistance to clients.

NYSP2I’s Food Waste Reduction and Diversion Reimbursement Program reached that goal a year early and has now helped businesses in the state to avoid sending over 45,000 tons of food waste to landfills, averaging 255 tons of food a week.

“We have exceeded the goals for the program so we are now funding more businesses to achieve our objectives,” said Timothy Kirchgraber, New York State Small Business Environmental Ombudsman for Empire State Development (ESD), which finances the project.

Since the initiative began, 13 supermarket chains, food producers, composters, hotels, and farms have received $670,000 from the program to purchase new equipment and technology that will reduce food waste. Another 13 businesses are in the process of implementing their projects. Businesses in the program are reimbursed for 44 percent of their total project cost.

“It’s made a big difference in our business and it’s made a big difference for a lot of people who live in this area,” observed Linda D’Arco, owner of Little Farmhouse Flowers, which received a $17,000 grant to create a composting system to collect food waste from residents near its farm in Essex County, New York.

“We have exceeded the goals for the program so we are now funding more businesses to achieve our objectives.”
– Timothy Kirchgraber, New York State Small Business Environmental Ombudsman for Empire State Development (ESD)
A pile of food waste

Leveraging NYSP2I’s expertise

When the state of New York decided to create a food waste reimbursement program for businesses, it turned to NYSP2I. While the institute’s focus has been on helping organizations become more sustainable, NYSP2I had also started a technical assistance program to advise businesses on how to keep food waste out of landfills and, importantly, to prevent food from going to waste in the first place.

“We were already doing this work and the state realized we would be a good conduit in helping businesses around the state with this food diversion program,” said Chuck Ruffing, director of NYSP2I. “It was a natural fit.”

Specifically, NYSP2I had developed a track record of working with businesses and other organizations to reduce waste, conserve resources, adopt environmentally friendly materials, and save money, ESD’s Kirchgraber says. “I think we were able to look at that and hold them up as an example of an entity that would be well-suited to a program such as this that would divert food waste from landfills,” he said.

Food diversion and recycling is part of the state’s strategy for tackling climate change because of the methane—a gas that is 25 times more potent than CO2—generated by food decaying in landfills. The amount of methane released from landfills equals the greenhouse gas emissions from 20.3 million passenger vehicles driven for one year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Another concern the state wanted to address through the reimbursement program was the mismatch between the food not eaten in New York and the needs of people experiencing food insecurity. One in ten New York residents were food insecure in 2020, representing 7.8 million households, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The amount of food that is not consumed is staggering.”
– Charles Ruffing, Director, NYSP2I

“The amount of food that is not consumed is staggering, and as that goes into landfills and generates methane, it’s really a tragedy because there’s a lot of people who aren’t getting enough food,” Ruffing said.

A group of people work together at a volunteering event

Helping New York businesses and communities

Forty percent of wasted food in the United States occurs in businesses handling food, such as a restaurants, grocery stores, and food-service companies. Very often food waste is an unavoidable reality for these kinds of businesses, which includes inedible kitchen scraps like rinds and bones.

One grocery chain that received a grant from the food diversion program is Price Chopper/Market 32, which owns 132 stores across the northeastern United States. To make sure more of its perishable food was sold or donated before spoiling, the firm implemented an inventory management system that cuts waste and inventory loss in balance with customer demand for items like produce or refrigerated goods.

Price Chopper, based in Schenectady, received $100,000 to offset the cost of purchasing the inventory management system, Periscope. The platform that has helped businesses avoid losing more than 20 tons of food to spoilage each week.

Better inventory practices highlight another way that businesses are cutting down on food waste. By putting in place better logistics, they can keep more food from going to waste in the first place. Preventing food waste is a realistic strategy that works well alongside diversion methods, like composting or donation.  Over the next three years, Periscope customers are projected to save more than 3,000 tons of food waste from being created.

The Compassion Coalition, a nonprofit that runs a discount grocery store in Utica, has tackled food insecurity through the program by selling excess food that it buys from large retailers like Walmart at below-cost prices. In downtown Utica, the nonprofit’s Bargain Grocery not only resells food that would have ended up in a landfill but it also helps low-income residents access affordable produce.

“We’re rescuing food and we’re selling it in the middle of a food desert so people can put healthy, wholesome food on their table,” explained the Rev. Charles Sweet, the group’s vice president of business development and external relations. The Compassion Coalition received $94,000 from the program to purchase a refrigerated tractor trailer to transport food from retailers to its store.

A grocery store worker inspects products on display

One company that is working with both homeowners and grocery stores to reduce their food waste is Farmer Pirates Compost LLC, an organics composter in Buffalo. While the company had been collecting discarded food from about 450 residential customers, a $19,000 grant from the program has allowed it to upgrade its operations so that it can now pick up food that would otherwise go to waste from 15 Tops stores in Erie County.

With the grant, Farmer Pirates Compost bought 100 bins and six totes for the Tops stores it began working with last November. The company also purchased a second truck and a dump insert that unloads food scraps hydraulically, and upgraded the surface of its three-acre composting site.

The composter would not have been able to work with the Tops stores without the reimbursement, says Ignacio Villa, a co-owner of Farmer Pirates Compost. “We wouldn’t have had the capital to improve the site and to add capacity to the site,” he, said. “We wouldn’t have been able to buy the bins unless we took out a loan and started paying interest. It’s been a great help to increasing our business.”

A bulldozer pushes a large pile of compost

New law on food diversion 

Last January, a new law took effect in New York State that requires businesses and other institutions to donate edible food and recycle food scraps if they are generating an average of two tons of food waste a week. The law applies to businesses, colleges, and nonprofits that generate an average of two tons of food waste per week or more if they are within 25 miles of a food-scraps recycling facility.

Because of the law, a growing number of companies that want to compost organic waste have turned to the reimbursement program to increase their capacity to handle additional food waste. “We’ve noticed a modest uptick in business coming in from the program since the law came into effect,” Ruffing noted. “This is about companies trying to do the right thing, and this is a way to help them get moving on it.”

“This is about companies trying to do the right thing.”
– Charles Ruffing, Director, NYSP2I

Kirchgraber predicts that the new law will continue to be a driver for the reimbursement program because of the resources it can offer to businesses that are required to start diverting or donating their food waste. “It’s a real challenge to try and take two tons of food waste a week to your recycler,” he said. “You’re not going to put it in a compost bin and carry it down there. You have to be able to identify the proper resources, you have to find a hauler to take it, and you need a matchmaking service that is able to rescue or recycle. It’s a challenge and that’s one of the things we look to NYSP2I for.”

Mainstreaming diversion among businesses

Since the reimbursement program was launched in 2018, over 340 businesses have contacted RIT about submitting an application for a food-scraps diversion project. In addition to the 27 businesses that have already completed or are implementing projects, 16 additional organizations, including an airport and several colleges, have submitted applications that are under review, said Ava Labuzetta, the program manager.

The state originally allocated $4 million to the reimbursement program, which was expected to operate through 2021. “The program was extended to run until May 2023 and we still have adequate funding to accept more applications over that time,” Labuzetta explained. “We strongly encourage any businesses that might qualify to reach out.”

“Diversion is gaining momentum in the state and this is a way that can help get people jumpstarted,” Ruffing said. “Businesses believe it’s the right thing to do, and now we’ve got a regulation to help nudge them in that direction.”


Sustainability in Practice


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About the author

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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