Irvington high schoolers’ experience at Outside2Inside

How can one person make a difference in the global fight against climate change? That is the question we, Diya Kavasseri, Wendy Li, and Russell Sue asked ourselves as we embarked our journey with Outside2Inside. What started out as a simple project for us turned into an exciting opportunity to make a difference. As we researched climate change, we quickly learned that the greenhouse gasses emitted from food waste in landfills are one of the most harmful and preventable parts of this global crisis.

Like most of you readers, we were skeptical of the differences we could make in our daily lives to help with this issue, but as we learned more about the severity of it, we realized what we had to do.

Step 1: The Research

To gain a fuller understanding of the food waste crisis, our group gathered research to learn how to be more proactive and help with this issue. As we researched, the severity of this crisis became clear with 40% of food wasted in America, 40% of that waste on the residential level. The differences between the producer, retailer, and consumer levels of food waste affect different groups of people but the result is the same; most of the food waste goes to landfills. Unfortunately, the food takes a long time to decompose; instead, the moisture inside the food creates a substance called lichate. Lichate causes greenhouse gas emissions, specifically methane. Food waste harms the environment while contributing to the global crisis against food waste. However, many people, our group included, are unaware of the tremendous toll food waste takes on our environment and we are unaware of what we can do personally to help with such a big issue. In spite of this confusion, the information we gathered proved that in a world where 12% of households in America are dealing with food insecurity, twenty-five million people could sustainably have enough food if food waste decreased by just 15% (“Food Waste”). The amazing benefits of  food waste reduction overwhelmed our state of confusion and we set to work on ways to educate ourselves and the public with the help of the non-profit organization Outside2Inside. Understanding that not all food waste can be prevented, we realized the incredible possibilities that accompanied a simple process called composting. However, to learn more about this process we conducted an experiment.

Step 2: The Experiment

Throughout the Compost in a Jar experiment, various changes in the compost occurred in response to the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. In the case of the compost with a 1:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen, the compost aged smoothly, decomposing at a consistent rate. Mold first appears on the banana around week 5, gradually spreading all parts of the compost. Simultaneously, the banana browns and develops a granular texture, integrating seamlessly with the soil by week 10. At this point, the materials have already decomposed into a high-quality compost that’s suitable for plants. However, the experiments with a different ratio decomposed differently. For a compost with a 2:1 ratio, the decomposition process started slow, gaining momentum only after water was added in week 2. The jar became filled with mold and bacteria, but the sudden burst of activity diminished quickly after week 8. From then on, the composting progress slowed down to a halt, rarely possessing any notable change. A similar challenge was observed in the compost with a 1:2 ratio. The banana only blackened by week 5, and mold and bacteria only started growing by week 6. However, once these microorganisms moved in, the decomposition process proceeded rapidly, grinding to a halt by week 9.

Step 3: The Results + Survey

Over the last 3 months, we have been engaging in our Compost in a jar experiment, observing and taking notes on the composting process weekly. The results of the survey led us to the optimal solution using a 1:1 ratio of carbon and nitrogen. The other 2 ratios of carbon and nitrogen showcased irregular progress and initial slow stages, which can be easily justified as non viable characteristics for an optimal compost. The experiment concluded with a banana peel that went through vigorous changes eventually turning into soil. Making sure your compost has a well balanced level of oxygen, organic material, and water is essential for composting. If not, the composting process will be slowed down or even incomplete with poor conditions. This includes  dry soil, too damp soil, or too little soil overall. The composting process could take 2 – 24 months depending on the resource being composted, some quicker than others.

Solution 1: Composting

Everyday citizens can help to reduce food waste by composting. The Environmental Protection Agency is an organization that promotes the use of composting at home. This agency states that composting at home requires minimal effort and equipment, and composting transforms waste into beneficial soil (“Composting at home”). Composting food helps divert waste out of landfills. Understanding the benefits of composting helps citizens become aware of the positive impact it has on the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency is an organization that encourages the use of composting and provides evidence and benefits of it. Some benefits of composting include reducing methane emissions, conserving water, gaining better air quality, etc. (“Composting”). Knowing the relevance of the benefits composting has on our environment can help mitigate climate change and most importantly food waste. Furthermore a real-world example of composting as a viable solution is when San Francisco required all citizens to separate compostable from all other trash bins leading to less waste generation and disposal to landfills (“Zero Waste Case Study”). Andrea Collins is a senior specialist for sustainable food systems and nature, she wrote an article for the Natural Resources Defense Council, (NRDC) which is an organization with plans to safeguard the earth, animals, people, and plants. According to reports from the NRDC 2 years later, San Francisco succeeded and diverted over 75% of its waste out of landfills (Andrea Collins). San Francisco turning to composting as a viable solution portrays the fact that it is a good solution, as well as the fact that composting worked to encourage citizens to compost. Additionally, promoting awareness among food retailers comes as a practical solution to reduce food waste.

Solution 2: Prevention and Awareness

Solutions to the food waste crisis can include spreading awareness about this issue and providing prevention strategies to minimize wastage. Firstly, food waste advocacy can be implemented by providing digital programs in accessible places: grocery store websites, community meetings, and city websites. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an organization dedicated to protecting Earth’s environment, promotes “Save The Food,” an informative website that is being utilized in multiple ways, “The assets can be used on public bulletin boards or in city-owned properties. Some cities have contracted time on private billboards or bus shelters to display the ads” (“Increasing Public Awareness”). Similarly to these utilization strategies, digital programs are an affordable method of advocacy that can be easily implemented in communities, educational environments, and public settings. Additionally, the awareness gained from digital programs enables citizens to understand how to minimize food wastage, creating a multitude of benefits. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some of these benefits include saving money, reducing methane emissions, and conserving resources that are used to maintain food (“Preventing Wasted Food”). By calling attention to common consumer wastage and providing prevention methods, food waste reduction will occur. While raising awareness seems like an ideal, unattainable solution, the Shasta county school district in California discouraged this opinion when they conducted a food waste experiment. The United States Department of Agriculture, a department focused on tackling food insecurity, shares the results of a food waste education week in Shasta county, “The competition yielded remarkable results, reducing food waste by an average of 44.2 pounds per school. This amounted to a total of 243 pounds per week of all the schools combined” (“Food Waste Reduction Success”). If this food waste week is implemented across schools throughout California, progress on the food waste crisis will be unavoidable. While an educational campaign may be expensive, the benefits of the increased awareness outweigh the cons as the economical profits for consumers, conservation of resources, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are simply unmatched. However, a little food waste is unavoidable, so composting is another phenomenal solution.

Solution 3: Retail

Lastly, a viable solution that can help reduce food waste in retail includes using demand planning software that helps in predicting how much food is going to be sold each day. In order to implement this technology, Dana Gunders says that investments “primarily made internally by the corporations that own grocery stores” is the best way in harnessing the full potential of this technology (Gunders). Beyond food waste reduction, demand planning software can also save retailers millions of dollars. According to ReFED’s food waste statistics, demand planning software can save stores $810 million annually, diverting 258 thousand tons of food waste from landfills and reduce 1.1 million metric tons of CO2 emissions (“Enhanced Demand Planning”). Not only can stores greatly benefit from this software financially, but it can also prevent excess food from entering landfills, inadvertently reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the environment. Furthermore, large retail empires such as Walmart have already proven demand planning technology to be extremely helpful in the long run. According to TraceConsultants, “the implementation of machine learning-based demand forecasting models enabled Walmart to reduce forecast errors by up to 50%” (“The Power of Demand Planning Technology”). This success highlights the precision in the software’s predictions, allowing retailers to avoid purchasing excess food, protecting the environment and reducing retail food waste along the way. Although small businesses may face challenges in implementing demand planning software due to its expensive costs, there are many affordable options on digital platforms to help fight this issue.

Overall, if a simple research project performed by highschoolers can make such a difference, so can you.

2:1 Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio Compost Progress

Diya, Wendy, Russell
O2I School Volunteers

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