Waste Fighter

Christine Costello examines the high cost of uneaten food.

By Anita Neal Harrison

According to the most recently published data from U.S. Department of Agriculture, each year upwards of 31 percent of all the food produced in the United States — some 65 million tons of it — never gets eaten.

That’s a problem that Christine Costello, an assistant research professor in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, can’t ignore. “I passionately believe that humans can do a better job of managing our resources,” she says. “All of this feels very urgent to me.”

With results from a new study, Costello is urging us all to share her sense of urgency. She’s especially eager to help us understand that our nation’s penchant for producing food we don’t eat, especially animal protein, doesn’t just squander comestibles that might otherwise feed the hungry. It also hurts our planet.

“While many of us are concerned about food waste, we also need to consider the natural resources that are wasted when we throw away edible food,” Costello says. “Farm equipment used to feed and maintain livestock — and to plant and harvest [feed] crops — uses a lot of diesel fuel and other utilities from fossil fuels. When people waste meat, these fuels, as well as fertilizers, are also wasted.”

Costello first began exploring waste minimization at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering. It was quite a change from her first major — fashion design and merchandising. The switch, she says, resulted from a time of serious contemplation about what is fundamentally important in life. Taking care of the environment — “the place that provides all of the resources that enable us to live,” she says — seemed a satisfactory answer.

Much environmental engineering is about fixing things at the “tailpipe.” How do we, for example, capture and treat pollution coming out of a smokestack? But that’s not Costello’s preferred angle.

“My interest,” she says, “is ‘How do we just avoid that in the first place?’ ‘How do we optimize systems so they are mitigating environmental impacts from the design stage?”

Although Costello learned to appreciate this approach as an undergraduate, she didn’t immediately find a corresponding job. Instead, she spent a couple of frustrating years in pollution remediation. It was only after she made her way to the Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University that she found her focus: food production.

“I wasn’t enjoying the fossil fuel work,” she says, explaining it felt like everyone was working on that. “My [doctoral] advisor pitched me a project on land use,” and that led her to begin exploring agriculture’s environmental impacts.

All of that background came together for the food waste study, published last spring in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. Her research team collected and assessed pre- and post-consumer food waste from four all-you-care-to-eat MU dining facilities. They separated the food waste into four categories — grains, fruits/vegetables, dairy, and meat — then subdivided those categories into either edible or inedible (peelings and bones, for example) groups. Next, the researchers weighed the waste and then, using established formulas, calculated the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with producing the food.

The results showed that, for edible waste, grain-based products formed the largest food waste category by weight. This was followed closely by fruits/vegetables. There was significantly less wasted meat, but even so, Costello’s calculations showed it was the category with the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a perfect example, Costello says, of why we shouldn’t focus just on the tailpipe. “If, as a society, we were suddenly to become very concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, then we’d want to target reducing the amount of meat that we waste. If we just thought about the weight being sent to the landfill, then we’d also focus on ratcheting down waste of grains and fruits and vegetables,” she says.

The question of how to effect this change in society, she adds, is not one an environmental engineer alone can answer. So she’s working with researchers in other disciplines, such as sociology and public affairs, to brainstorm strategies.

“I think what fundamentally fuels me is a belief that all people are deserving of the resources required to survive,” she says. “A critical step toward that goal is to be able to quantitatively understand the impacts — for example, greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution and so on — associated with goods and services so that we can begin to prioritize efforts to reduce those impacts. And that is also where engineers play a huge, critical role, both in quantifying/identifying problem areas and then determining creative design solutions to minimize impact without reducing access to needed resources.”

Kelli Canada

Christine Costello

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