Second Harvest Food Bank in Irvine used to budget $100,000 a year to buy cardboard boxes.
Those boxes helped transport food between donation centers, their facilities and the more than 300 sites throughout Orange County — from houses of worship to after-school programs to shelters for the unhoused — that rely on the nonprofit to help keep local residents fed.
But two years ago, the organization started replacing those boxes with plastic bins that can be used, disinfected and reused countless times. The bins cost $75,000, which means the investment paid itself off in less than a year. And now the food bank is no longer sending some 48,000 pounds of cardboard into the waste stream each month.
That’s one example of a change Second Harvest Food Bank made that helped it become the world’s first food bank to earn a “zero waste” certification from a division of the Green Business Council, the prestigious group behind LEED designations for buildings and other certifications for sustainable facilities.
“We are so proud of what we have done,” said Kelly Alesi, a director with Second Harvest who oversees the food bank’s Zero Waste initiative. “And we are hoping that other nonprofits and other companies will be able to see what we’ve done and realize that if a food bank can do it, then really any business, any organization can do it.”
By dramatically cutting its purchase of single-use products and doing more to recycle and compost, less than 5% of what Second Harvest’s operations generate, in terms of unused materials, now goes to a landfill. That’s down from 40% just two years ago.
The changes have a “huge ripple effect,” noted Stephanie Barger, a Newport Beach native who helped start the TRUE certification program. By changing up some supplies and rethinking the food bank’s recycling and composting strategies, fewer resources are needed to make the products, such as cardboard boxes, that support its operations. Fewer trucks are on the road to deliver those products, too, or to transport any resulting waste.
The changes also reduce the greenhouse gases generated by waste sent to landfills.
When food and other organic matter rots in landfills, it releases methane into the atmosphere. While carbon emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes get most of the attention due to how long they last in the atmosphere, trapping heat and raising global temperatures, other greenhouse gasses, such as methane, also contribute to climate change. And while methane breaks down much faster than carbon dioxide, it can trap 84 times as much heat over its first 20 years in the atmosphere.
A fifth of California’s methane emissions come from organic waste decomposing in landfills. That’s why California lawmakers in 2016 passed Senate Bill 1383, which set a goal of diverting 75% of organic waste (or some 27 million tons) away from landfills by 2025.
Though that organic waste recycling program so far has produced mixed results, food banks like Second Harvest are playing a key role in helping companies meet the law’s requirements by accepting food donations and keeping that food out of landfills. One example is the food bank’s Grocery Rescue program, which diverts food collected from local grocery stores. All told, Second Harvest distributed 32.4 million pounds of food to an average of 332,000 people in need each month during the 2021-22 fiscal year.
The nonprofit was already working on ways to reduce its carbon footprint. That includes harvesting 50,000-60,000 pounds of produce each week at the 45-acre Harvest Solutions Farm farm near its operations in Irvine. This helps cut carbon emissions, since the food doesn’t have to be taken as far to get to the food bank’s distribution center.
But two years ago, Second Harvest set a goal to go further and achieve zero waste certification. Since then, the organization has increased the waste it diverts away from landfills from 60% to 95.2%.
The nonprofit’s leaders say they’re just getting started.
“Though it’s been a long journey, this is just the beginning of an organizational shift we are making to continually improve our sustainability efforts and care for our community at all levels,” said Claudia Bonilla Keller, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank.
Thanks to its efforts, the food bank was recognized in a ceremony Tuesday morning with a TRUE, or Total Resource Use and Efficiency, certification, awarded by a division of the Green Business Council.
Just half a dozen sites and organizations in Southern California have received some level of TRUE certification. These include Best Buy’s Reverse Logistics Center in Chino, Evolution Fresh’s juice manufacturing facility in Rancho Cucamonga and Channel Islands Adventure Company.
Globally, more than 300 facilities and events across 28 countries have achieved TRUE certification. These projects have diverted an estimated 5.6 million tons of material from the world’s waste streams.
The TRUE certification process is extensive. As part of its application, Second Harvest Food Bank had to pass nearly three dozen checkpoints.
“Really we looked at every aspect of our organization of where we could be more effective and more efficient and more eco friendly,” Alesi said.
Other changes included:
Creating an environmental purchasing program that focuses on buying recycled and eco-friendly products, such as paper and janitorial supplies
Switching from disposable to reusable and multi-use items for staff to use in the office, including coffee cups, water bottles and utensils
Sending any food that can’t be distributed to a nearby composting company instead of to a landfill
Switching to 30% recycled paper and printing in black and white ink rather than color, which makes cartridges last longer
Swapping from paper to electronic communication where possible. Switching truck drivers from paper- to tablet-based daily fleet checks, for example, led to saving 20,000 sheets of paper a year.
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Implementing these changes meant getting buy-in from every team member, Alesi said, since frontline workers often have to carry out the new policies. Her team introduced the changes over time and had meetings to “over communicate” what they were doing and why. As a result, she said, they didn’t encounter any resistance.
Alesi said any company considering a similar change shouldn’t be intimidated. Instead, she suggested they simply dive in, go step-by-step, and take advantage of all the free resources the TRUE program and others provide.
There are often some upfront costs to move away from single-use products. But Barger said the changes typically pay for themselves 10 or even 100 times over, with her organization estimating that certified projects are now saving a combined $52 million a year by buying less, paying less for trash services, and turning some materials into commodities, such as compost.
Second Harvest still hopes to reduce its waste stream even further, with a potential to earn silver, gold or platinum TRUE certifications.
Such moves can be particularly challenging for food banks, Barger noted, since they have little control over the products that come to them. But Alesi said the organization is working to educate places that donate food to them to, say, swap the rolls of plastic wrap commonly used to pack pallets for thin straps instead.
“I know zero waste sounds like such an overwhelming concept,” Alesi said. “But so many places can do little things that make such a huge difference.”