Cutting Waste Across Cultures

Cutting Waste Across Cultures

The United Nations has proposed a goal to cut global food waste in half by 2030. Liz Goodwin, a senior fellow and director of food loss and waste at the World Resources Institute (WRI), has taken that mandate to heart. Goodwin, of all people, would know what that entails. During her tenure as CEO of the U.K.-based Waste and Resources Action Programme, U.K. food waste fell by 21 percent. Now she seeks to take lessons learned from that effort and apply them to other countries that have very different challenges with regard to food waste.

The specific opportunities to prevent food waste vary from place to place, Goodwin explains, for reasons that are cultural, economic and tied to infrastructure.

In China, the world’s most populous nation, good hospitality would suggest that as much food remains on the table at the end of the meal as was there at the beginning. Otherwise, it sends the message that the host hasn’t provided enough to eat. However, Goodwin notes that it’s heartening to see that the Chinese government has been encouraging people not to waste food at banquets and events. Many Muslim countries have similar edicts that are in direct conflict with the goals of preventing food waste. Meanwhile, many modern industrialized societies such as Switzerland and Singapore impose unnecessarily cautious food expiration dates, which results in the disposal of perfectly edible food.

By contrast, poor countries have less waste in the home than in wealthy nations, Goodwin says. Leftovers don’t go bad in the fridge when hunger is an issue. Food scraps are more likely to be fed to animals or composted. But waste isn’t a non-issue. In developing nations there are gaping holes in the supply chain infrastructure through which large amounts of food are lost.

“With slow transport and unrefrigerated storage conditions, the food just doesn’t get through to the end user in time,” Goodwin says. “And then there are gluts of food, such as massive numbers of mangos that ripen at the same time, and no infrastructure in place to process it all.”

In the developed world, the biggest source of food waste is in private residences. It’s where 70 percent of food waste happens in the U.K., and there are a range of causes, including getting portion sizes wrong, not using leftovers and letting food expire or go bad before using it.

On the other hand, food waste is less of a problem in commercial or institutional settings. “Organizations can control what goes on within their operations,” explains Goodwin, referring to the large farms, processors, distributors, grocery stores, institutional kitchens and restaurants where food is flowing. Not only are these big players easier to work with, they can make big deliveries of salvageable food that could be diverted from the waste stream — or of food waste that can’t be eaten but which can be digested anaerobically and converted to energy and fertilizer.

The world’s two most populous nations, India and China, have both first-world and developing world conditions. “China and India have a mixture of developed-world problems and developing-world problems. Their populations are big, and they are producing a lot of food, so supply chain issues are really important.”

With such differences from country to country, Goodwin explains, the first thing to do when evaluating a nation’s food waste profile is to look at where the food waste is happening. Is it in restaurants, the household or at various points in the supply chain?

“Start measuring,” she says. “Because that will help to identify where their biggest issues lie.”


From 2007 to 2016 she was CEO of Waste and Resources Action Program. During her tenure, recycling rates in the U.K. increased from 9 percent to 43 percent, and U.K. food waste was reduced by 21 percent. At WRI, her goal is to work with people and organizations around the world to cut global food waste in half by 2030, in line with UN sustainable development goals.

The Hunt for Food Waste

The Hunt for Food Waste

Not going to eat those carrots? Don’t throw them away. Once food reaches a landfill, its potential is lost. But unwanted food, captured before it’s tossed, can transform into energy, building materials — or even desirable food. Meet the new generation of hunters and gatherers.

Jake Milliner and Belinda Bonnen tend a towering vine of fresh malabar spinach at Joe’s Organics in Austin, Texas. Joe’s collects food waste from area restaurants and, with their composting partners, creates rich soil for their crops of baby greens.

Wherever there is food, there is food waste. Like water leaking from an aqueduct, food waste will find the gaps in the supply chain between field and plate, a journey filled with opportunities for loss.

A heartbreaking amount of produce rots in the field, unharvested. Some is culled for size, shape or another cosmetic factor. Even more food is thrown away or lost during cleaning, boxing, processing and distribution. It rots slowly in retail stores or commercial kitchens and in your fridge. Food is also tossed during meal preparation, at home or in restaurants or other commercial or institutional kitchens.

And then, far too often, the meal itself — or much of it — is thrown away. In the end, a third of the food we produce goes uneaten. Data from a new report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) indicate that Americans throw out more 400 pounds of food per person per year. Sadly, in the shadow of this massive overproduction and loss of food, 10 percent of humanity still doesn’t have enough to eat.

But it’s not just about feeding the world: The environmental consequences are significant. The amount of cropland needed to produce the food that ends up as waste is roughly equivalent to the acreage of China and requires a fourth of the country’s irrigation water. Feeding people is the largest single contributor of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere of any human pursuit, and roughly 10 percent of greenhouse gases that humans release are in service of food that will not be eaten. When this wasted food rots in a landfill or is burned in an incinerator, the process releases even more greenhouse gases.

The holes in the food supply chain through which food slips away represent more than hunger and pollution. It’s wasted investment and fruitless effort that could have been channeled into something more useful. Entire cities could be built, or rebuilt, with the effort that goes into the food we throw away.

But there’s another side of the coin. The scale of this waste, and the problems it causes, have created opportunities. Wasted food is essentially money that’s being left on the table, available to whomever is crafty enough to grab it and put it to use. It has potential value as energy, soil fertility and calories — all of which can add up to dollars that can be earned from harvesting food from the waste stream, or intercepting food before it gets tossed.

Austin-based Joe’s Organic’s grows microgreens and produce with rich compost derived from their restaurant waste-collection program. Founder Joe Diffie stands with his fleet of compost carts.

Executive producer Anthony Bourdain takes a deep dive into this issue in “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste.”

Above, from top: uneaten restaurant meals contribute to the enormous amount of edible food discarded daily; byproducts from food preparation, such as this watermelon rind, can be composted or even pickled rather than chucked; food waste is a cause of greenhouse gases.


The highest good to which a piece of wasted food could aspire (if wasted food had aspirations) is to be rerouted to a hungry human mouth before being discarded. The next-best thing would be for it to be eaten by something else, like a chicken or a pig, or — in the case of food that can’t be routed to organisms with recognizable mouths — a bacteria. Today, most food waste diverted from landfills or incineration is digested by anaerobic bacteria to produce natural gas and fertilizer. Food scraps left over from food processing and retail food preparation are suited for this, as is the majority of household waste. The challenge is getting food out of the waste stream and sending it to a better place than the dump.

That best-case scenario, in which food is rescued from the edge of waste and routed to other human mouths, has been deeply explored in Europe in recent years, while the United States is playing catch-up. The players, increasingly, are for-profit waste hunters that are bringing high-tech solutions to the task of reducing food waste.

Sometimes that initiative comes from the (would-be) food wasters themselves. Campbell Soup Company has been an early corporate leader in reducing its share.

“Food that meets our rigorous safety standards is donated to local food banks in and around our manufacturing plants and distribution networks,” says Thomas Hushen, a Campbell spokesman. “In most cases, we partner with Feeding America and their network of food banks to make donations.”

While some corporations have been early and eager to embrace measures to curb food waste, other companies want to jump on the bandwagon but don’t know where to start.

Left: Malabar spinach stalk — the stalk and ugly leaves often get wasted, but they’re perfect for green juices. Right: Sorting sweet potatoes at Johnson’s Backyard Garden.

To see what kinds of value-add products are being made from uneaten food — from floor tiles made from coconut shells to plastic-like pellets made from blood meal, a byproduct of the meat industry — check out our gallery.

The French corporation Phenix (a 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize finalist) offers support services to businesses interested in diverting their food waste away from landfills and incinerators. The company has a solid track record in Europe, where the culture of food-waste recovery is more evolved than in the U.S.

But Sarah Lenoble, who heads Phenix’s push to set up shop in the States, is that rare French person who looks at America and sees a land of opportunity. The biggest reason food-waste recovery isn’t as advanced in the U.S., she says, is that the food-waste hunters are just getting started. “Even though it is happening, it’s not happening in a very structured way,” Lenoble says. To a veteran organization like Phenix, this youthful discombobulation amounts to low-hanging fruit.

Phenix uses a market-based approach that capitalizes on the fact that unused food has value even if it isn’t sold. American supermarkets, for example, must pay a waste disposal company to get rid of expired food, a fee they could forego if the food were collected by a charity. Last year, according to the NRDC, companies spent $1.3 billion disposing of food scraps, thanks largely to transport and disposal fees. Meanwhile, a surprisingly robust tax credit is available to companies that donate food: the Federal Enhanced Tax Deduction for Food Donation. It allows retailers to recover the higher retail price of their donations, even though they paid the lower wholesale price. Another law, passed in early 2017 with bipartisan support, amends the Good Samaritan Act to offer stronger liability protections to those who donate food. With laws like these in place, and companies eager to exploit them, Lenoble is optimistic about Phenix’s planned rollout into the U.S. food recovery space.

She notes that the U.S. charity scene is much stronger than in Europe, in part because in European governments often handle issues that in the States are left to charities. Even though it’s out to make a profit, Phenix won’t be competing with the food banks, churches and ugly-produce resellers. Instead, they’ll be partnering with them, providing logistical and strategic support to help these charities become more effective in their food-recovery efforts. A rising tide will lift all boats, Lenoble believes, and she likes what she sees. “We believe the market here is going in the right direction.”

In addition to its work with charities, Campbell recently doubled down on its corporate introspection, implementing its Food Loss and Waste Reporting Standard. It’s an effort to develop a benchmark of lost and wasted food, and to identify hotspots and opportunities for reduction and diversion. Like any other hunter, a food-waste hunter needs to know where the opportunities are. “We believe measurement improves management,” Hushen says.

Sarah Lenoble

After completing her MBA, Sarah worked in finance in the private sector before switching to microfinance and finally social business. Originally from France, Sarah has also lived and worked in Argentina and Italy. She is now based in Washington D.C., where she is launching the U.S. subsidiary of PHENIX, a French waste diversion social startup.


The U.S. is so new at food recovery that one of the movement’s veteran waste hunters isn’t yet 30 years old. Fresh out of college in 2011, Claire Cummings started as a fellow at Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO), which runs more than 650 eateries on college and corporate campuses. A year later she became the company’s first food-waste specialist. She went on to create Imperfectly Delicious Produce (IDP), a BAMCO program that pursues ways to recover produce that usually goes to waste (mostly from farms and distributors) and serve it in the company’s many dining rooms.

Since it launched in 2014, IDP has recovered more than 3 million pounds of produce and served it as, for example, broccoli stem soup or cauliflower fritters made from small heads. While the figure sounds impressive, she admits it’s just a drop in the bucket.

“It’s a huge chunk of food that would have been wasted and was instead utilized in our operations, through purchasing and cooking it,” Cummings says. “But that is still such a small sliver of what actually is going to waste.”

She says many problems remain, but she believes they are solvable. “We’ve gone hunting for a lot of different products on farms. I’ve visited hundreds of farms at this point, large and small. I’ve seen all different types of operations: orchards, processing facilities, fields of produce,” she says. “There is so much product that is going to waste that could be rescued through purchasing if there were better systems for tackling those missed opportunities at harvest.”


Food contains energy, which powers life, makes the world go round — and happens to be worth money. The energy resides in the bonds between the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen atoms that make up the food molecules. When we eat, that energy is released into our bodies, where it fuels our daily escapades. Fed to animals, the energy transfers to other forms of edible potential energy, such as meat, milk and eggs, or some form of kinetic energy, such as chasing balls or pulling a plow.

Claire Cummings

Student activist turned garbage guru, Claire Cummings is the first-ever waste programs manager for Bon Appétit Management Company, the food service pioneer that operates more than 650 cafés in 33 states for universities, corporations and museums. Claire is one of Food Tank’s 30 Women Under 30 Changing Food, she’s a recipient of Saveur’s “Activist” Good Taste Award and her work has been featured in Bloomberg News, Sunset Magazine and The New York Times.

Keep up with the latest in food repurposing and follow Claire Cummings on Twitter @WasteAce.

But most food that isn’t eaten by humans is discarded, where, depending on the local trash disposal situation, it either gets buried or burned. Incineration releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants. And food in a landfill will break down anaerobically and release methane, which is even worse (about 18 percent of U.S. methane emissions comes from food scraps in landfills).

The best-case scenario is far from the most common, but it could be. The energy in that wasted food can be extracted as methane in an anaerobic digestor and captured. The resulting energy can be used to generate green electricity or heat houses.

Anaerobic digester operations are popping up wherever there is enough available food waste to make them feasible. Sewage treatment plants are the ideal places to build these operations because co-digesting allows the food-waste recovery process to piggyback on the existing infrastructure of the water-recovery process, rather than requiring a new facility.

Construction began in June 2017 on the Wasatch Resource Recovery Project (WRRP), Utah’s first anaerobic digester facility. A partnership between South Davis Sewer District in North Salt Lake City and the private Alpro Energy and Water, the WRRP is going up adjoining the county sewage treatment plant. Morgan Bowerman, sustainability manager for WRRP, is pleased with the arrangement.

“The South Davis Sewer District has been operating the most efficient wastewater treatment in the whole state for years,” Bowerman says. “The fact that we have these guys on board to run our digesters is huge. The other major advantage is that here in the West we are in a massive, 17-year drought. When we co-locate, we can use their wastewater, which is a huge boon to us and so much better for the environment.”

Step 1: Organic waste is separated into a designated container at a food business. Step 2: Waste is collected and delivered to Wasatch Resource Recovery facility. Step 3: Machines process the waste to remove contaminants or non-food. A. It goes into a grinder to be chopped into small pieces. B. Secondary (not potable) water is added to ground-up waste and mixed until it liquifies. C. The material passes through a screen where packaging or contaminants are washed free of remaining organic material, which is fed into the digester. Step 4: In the digester, waste is heated to aid growth of microbes, which break down organic matter without using oxygen. This produces biogas. Product 1: Biogas is captured and purified before being converted into biomethane (renewable natural gas), fed into nearby gas pipeline and sold as renewable “green” power. Product 2: The remaining product is a nutrient-rich, carbon-based fertilizer for crops.

Phase one of the project involves two 2.5-million-gallon digesters, to be operated, as mentioned, by the county sewer district. There will also be a “depackaging facility” to relieve expired edible goods of their containers. “It exponentially increases how much we can recycle. They can send it to us completely boxed and packaged, and we can do the depackaging and suddenly it’s viable,” Bowerman says.

They also have a F.O.G. (fats, oils and grease) receiving station and a depackaging station specifically for expired cans and bottles. “We can use the product inside to make energy and recycle the packaging.”

After the methane is recovered, what comes out is a nutrient-rich sludge, high in nitrogen, potassium, phosphate and organic matter — basically, fertilizer. Bowerman anticipates theirs will eventually be certified organic, once they determine its final form. Meanwhile, they’re also separating the ammonia and carbon gas from the methane for beneficial use. Wasatch plans to be operational in fall 2018.

Of the more than 1,000 sewage treatment plants in the U.S., about 216 are co-digesting food waste alongside sewage. That means 83 percent don’t yet have a food-waste digester, which amounts to a lot of money and energy being left on the table.

While pioneers like Wasatch are taking this plunge, the whole waste-to-energy industry is still coming of age. Groundbreaking advancements are frequent: Scientists at Cornell University have been playing with a process called hydrothermal liquefaction, which is a fancy way of saying “pressure-cook the food waste into oblivion.” It’s a process that recalls the way dinosaurs and their ecosystems were turned into oil under the ground. In the case of hydrothermal liquefaction, heat and pressure combine to turn food waste into an oily liquid that digests in days, rather than weeks, with more complete digestion and energy extraction.

Meanwhile, 97 percent of food waste is still getting away — for the moment anyway. But it’s only a matter of time before this low-hanging food waste will be plucked, because we can’t can afford not to.

“We wouldn’t take a barrel of oil and bury it,” Bowerman says. “And that is what we are doing with our food waste.”


The largest garbage disposal company in the world, Emerson, wants into the food-waste energy business. Any food industry player of a certain size that deals with large amounts of raw food can install Emerson’s subunit called Grind2Energy in a food disposal area. It includes a stainless steel work area, sink and a very powerful garbage disposal. Plumbing connects it to a special holding tank for the slurry, which features a sensor that notifies Grind2Energy when it’s time to be emptied. The free service saves the client in waste transport, disposal fees and kitchen labor.

Edible Materials

Edible Materials

Here’s some food for thought: The following products are derived from food system losses in agricultural and livestock production. These materials, currently used in buildings, apparel, consumer products and packaging, lead the way in replacing fossil-fuel derivatives and other strained natural resources with rapidly renewable food waste.

SORGHUM SURFACING The striking patterns of TorZo’s Tiikeri™ line come from post-harvest sorghum stalks. Acrylic resin combines with 50 percent agro-waste content to form a biocomposite material. Sorghum is a rapidly renewable crop grown worldwide, with many uses in food, alcoholic beverages, fodder, fuel and, of course, building materials. The panels are available in a variety of colors and are suitable for interior surfaces and furniture.

RICE HUSK CONCRETE Concrete is the most commonly used building material in the world, and it exerts enormous demand on natural resources. The production of Portland Cement, a critical ingredient in concrete, generates 5 percent of all CO₂ emissions. One agro-waste product that can be used as a partial substitute for cement is rice husk ash. Unburnt rice husk is also a promising aggregate in lightweight, insulative concrete.

PEANUT SHELL BOARD Another shell-based material used in buildings is Peanut Shell Board from Kokoboard, an alternative particleboard that flaunts its origins. The Thailand-based manufacturer purchases unwanted shells from local farmers and presses them into use. They also produce boards from post-harvest rice and coconut agro-waste. The boards, which are suitable for interior surfaces and furniture, are free of formaldehyde.

BIO-TREATED WOOD Some agro-waste materials are harder to spot. Kebony has the rich appearance and durability of tropical hardwood, but it’s manufactured through a patented process that uses bio-based liquid derived from byproducts of the sugarcane industry. This nontoxic process permanently enhances the cell structure of sustainably grown softwoods, producing an attractive alternative to lumber from old-growth forests.

FISH SKIN LEATHER Atlantic Leather uses animal-based byproducts of the fishing industry to produce an exotic leather alternative. The Icelandic tannery utilizes the skins of four species — salmon, cod, wolffish and perch — and recently introduced MIMOSA, a line of vegetable-tanned salmon leather processed with Mimosa bark.

CHOCOLATE PAPER Don’t be deceived by the somewhat unsavory term agro-waste. James Cropper, maker of luxury papers, offers Cocoa, which replaces 10 percent virgin fiber with cocoa shell powder. The line identifies a unique and higher use for this abundant byproduct of the chocolate industry. It was developed through a packaging collaboration with Barry Callebaut, maker of fine chocolates.

MUSHROOM MATERIALS Ecovative manufactures foam and wood substitutes from mushroom mycelium, which binds together agro-waste fibers such as flax, canola and hemp for a win-win. The material is molded or pressed into a variety of shapes and densities as packaging, acoustic and thermal insulation, and board material.

COCONUT SHELL TILES Indulge your fantasies of tropical escape with Coco Tiles from Kirei, made from coconut shells collected after harvest. The shells are an agricultural byproduct (agro-waste) otherwise subjected to open burning, a common practice that contributes to atmospheric pollution. Open burning is used in developing areas to quickly eliminate post-harvest waste and pests, and to prepare fields for planting. Converting coconut shells into building materials is a great example of transforming food-related waste into a higher-value use.

BLOODMEAL BIOPLASTIC Though you wouldn’t guess from its smooth, honey-colored appearance, Novatein from Aduro Biopolymers is made from blood meal, a byproduct of the meat industry. The bioplastic pellets have comparable capabilities to petroleum-based plastic and can be molded into a wide variety of products with different attributes, from pots and cutlery to softspun mats.

BARK CLOTH Harvested from the bark of the Mutuba fig tree, Bark Cloth is a non-woven textile with 600-year-old roots in Uganda. The trees are debarked annually and regenerate quickly, which qualifies the textile as a rapidly renewable material. Rapidly renewable content is defined by a short (less than 10-year) life or regeneration cycle. Bark cloth can be used for interior surfaces, furniture and apparel.

Feeding Remote Places: When the Last Food Mile is the Middle of Nowhere

Feeding Remote Places: When the Last Food Mile is the Middle of Nowhere

Provisioning the dwellers of far-flung places puts all the elements of the food supply chain on display — from production and distribution to preparation and consumption. But how do they actually get it there?

When the unmanned SpaceX Falcon blew up en route to the International Space Station (ISS) in June 2015, 4,000 pounds of food were lost. It was the third consecutive attempt to bring food to the orbiting astronauts that failed. The astronauts — though not in imminent danger — were left hanging.

Although there have been some preliminary, and successful, attempts to grow salad greens in the space station, the astronauts on board remain dependent on rations from earth. Luckily for them, subsequent vessels reached the space station in time to spare them a lettuce diet.

The ISS epitomizes the cliche, “So close, yet so far.” Its orbit is only 249 miles above the earth, but those are some problematic miles to cross. One can imagine the astronauts hovering above the earth, recognizing familiar cities and gazing toward the spot where they know an In-n-Out Burger to be.

And while the ISS is remote, there are many places on earth that are even trickier to get to, with situations that require similarly complex logistics. When feeding the dwellers of far-flung places, all the elements of the food supply chain are on display, including production, distribution, preparation and consumption. How the resulting waste is managed is also a reflection of how far away from home one is. At a certain point, that waste become less of a burden and more of a necessity.

After months of technical setbacks, the unmanned Falcon 9 Space X Rocket, with its Dragon Cargo Ship, delivered 2.5 tons of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) in April 2014. It was the first time a private company used its own rocket on a resupply mission. Image: courtesy
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, left, performs a replenishment at sea with the Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Arctic and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jay C. Pugh

Floating City

The U.S. Navy’s 10 Nimitz class aircraft carriers are the largest ships in the world. Nearly a quarter mile in length, these vessels are like floating cities, with many of the amenities of home, including a variety of foods. Unlike oil-powered ships of similar size that need to refuel every three days, the nuclear-powered Nimitz ships can cruise at 55 mph for 20 years straight — about 10 million miles — on a single “tank” of nuclear fuel.

But while the ship’s engines aren’t in danger of going hungry, the 6,000 hard-working sailors on board will eat through 25 pallets worth of food a day — roughly what an average family eats in five years. The ship’s pantries can store more than 60 days’ worth of dried food and 30 days’ worth of frozen, but only approximately two weeks’ worth of fresh fruits and vegetables. Bringing these massive ships to port every 14 days during a seven- to nine-month deployment is neither convenient nor strategic. Instead, the carriers can remain in position thanks to a maneuver known as Replenishment at Sea.

The procedure has the look of an elaborate mating ritual between two ships. They move forward on parallel courses, about 150 feet apart. Sailors on the carrier fire rifles loaded with weighted slugs at the replenishment ship. The slugs trail thin lines to which progressively heavier cables are attached and pulled across the chasm, until cables large enough to be winched connect both forward-moving ships. Eventually, the cables are hooked up to hydraulic rigs and tensioned to several thousand pounds of pressure, and mini cable cars ferry pallets of food (and other goods) between the two ships.

To speed things up, helicopters ferry pallets directly to the carrier’s flight deck, where forklifts are waiting to bring them into the bowels of the ship’s warehouse-sized pantries. Other cables strung between the two ships function as zip lines across the chasm, on which more loads of food travel. As the supplies are loaded, fuel lines are also stretched across, because fighter jets have to eat, too.

For an in-depth look at life on an aircraft carrier, check out the PBS series “Carrier.”

USS Ross receives pallets of supplies from USS John Lenthall during a replenishment-at-sea. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price.
Sailors heave a line during an underway replenishment aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence.
Sailors on the USS Blue Ridge look on as a refueling boom crosses over the South China Sea.
USS Ross receives supplies during a replenishment-at-sea with USS John Lenthall. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price
U.S. Sailors prepare to transport pallets during a replenishment at sea aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.
Sailors and Marines pass boxes in the hangar bay aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge during a replenishment-at-sea with the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic and the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaleb R. Staples

Meanwhile, waste from the floating city is offloaded to the replenishment vessel. Waste plastic, which has been compressed into discs, will be returned to port and disposed of according to local law. Paper products are burned in filtered incinerators. Food waste goes overboard, presumably to the delight of local fish. When far from shore, human waste feeds the fish too.

The basic configuration of cables binding two moving ships was designed by Lt. Chester Nimitz himself—for whom the world’s largest aircraft carriers are named—during World War I. Stationed 300 miles south of Greenland on the replenishment vessel USS Maumee, Nimitz tweaked and refined his system while refueling and replenishing 34 destroyers in difficult conditions during the spring of 1917. Now, as then, time is of the essence in this drill, as both ships are vulnerable to attack when they are intertwined. And accidents happen.

“Any time you put a 95,000-ton aircraft carrier next to a 50,000-ton replenishment vessel in heavy seas, tied together, sometimes King Neptune will reach up and knock things off the line and into the water,” says retired U.S. Navy Captain Dan Grieco. In Grieco’s 30-year career he’s seen only two items lost during replenishment, including an aircraft part, which they recovered after hastily suspending the replenishment and beginning a search operation.

While the replenishment operation itself is a well-oiled machine, its success depends on finding the time to conduct it. During operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Grieco says, they couldn’t replenish as often as they wanted, and it wasn’t good. “We were down to drinking boxed milk at times,” he says.

Further Afield

The difficulties involved in feeding an aircraft carrier full of sailors are rooted in the sheer quantities of food and in the windows of vulnerability that open when the food is handed off. But for those who overwinter on Antarctic bases, the challenge is reversed. The number of mouths are fewer, but the intervals between replenishments are considerably longer. And getting there, especially in winter, can be more dangerous than an off-planet jaunt to the space station. In fact, winter travel is so dangerous that even medical evacuations from Antarctica are extremely rare. Winter residents of Antarctica are generally stuck with what ails them until winter breaks. And the same goes for what nourishes them.

On the shifting surface of the Brunt Ice Shelf, on the coast of Antarctica, the British-run Halley VI research station was built on skis to stay atop the ice—something its five predecessors failed to accomplish. And while the Nimitz carriers wait two weeks between replenishments, and the ISS is paid a visit every 40 or so days, Halley IV gets only two visits per year, courtesy of the British icebreakers Shackleton and Ross.

The first visit of the summer season lands just before Christmas, when a seasonal crew of about 100 people arrives. The Antarctic summer doesn’t linger long, and before you know it a ship is back in February to take the snowbirds home. Those two visits constitute the only opportunities for replenishment that the base sees for an entire year. The crew of 11 that overwinters for nearly 10 months must make that food last until the following December atop the hungry ice.

The pantry at Halley VI is stocked with canned supplies and staples that must last through the winter for a crew of 11 to 16. Once the February shipment comes and goes, the pantry won’t be restocked until the following December.

The Christmas arrival delivers a summer stash of fresh veggies, but its main non-human cargo is a year’s supply of frozen and canned goods. The February delivery brings almost exclusively fresh veggies, explains John Eager, a former chef at the base who now does kitchen and meal planning from Halley’s administrative headquarters in the United Kingdom. The nature of the fresh vegetables tends to be along the lines of what you might find in a homesteader’s root cellar.

Halley VI is located on the Brunt Ice Shelf, a mass of ice floating on the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.


Take squash that’s just past fresh, roast and freeze it to make this fresh-tasting dish in the depths of the Antarctic winter. The tartlets make a great starter with reduced balsamic vinegar during the 105 days of darkness at Halley.

3 tbsp. olive oil
600 grams squash, peeled and diced
375 grams puff pastry
150 grams feta cheese
1 red chili, deseeded and finely chopped
2 tsp. thyme leaves
Salt and black pepper, freshly ground
2 baking trays, one lined with Teflon sheet

Set the oven to 400°F. Heat a baking tray with 1 tablespoon oil on it. Add the diced squash and roast for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened. Meanwhile, roll out the pastry and cut into 6 equal pieces. Put them on the Teflon-lined baking sheet. Mark a thin border around each one. Chill for 30 minutes.

Divide the cooked squash and place it on the pastry squares, inside the borders. Crumble cheese over top, then sprinkle with chili and thyme. Season and drizzle with the rest of the oil. Bake for 30 minutes, until golden and cooked through. Serve hot, with reduced balsamic vinegar dressing.

“We stick to hard, dense stuff that lasts a lot longer. Potatoes, carrots, onions, squash, turnips,” Eager says. “They store incredibly well, as the atmosphere is very dry. Eggs keep well, too. We can make them last six months by turning them over every week.”

Because it can take several weeks for the icebreakers to make their way to the station, anything more perishable might not even survive the journey to Antarctica, much less stick around through the winter. “Anything like salad is in a sorry state by the time it gets there,” Eager says.

Frozen foods, meanwhile, are in their element on the frozen continent. While the base itself endeavors to stay atop the ice, most of the frozen goods are buried about 10 feet down — which makes more sense than using electricity to power a freezer.

As veggies like squash approach their expiration dates, the cook will make them last longer by preparing finished dishes and freezing them. Many holiday meals are prepared and frozen months ahead of time.

Waste in Antarctica is carefully dealt with, in accordance to the Protocol for Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1991. Solid waste is sent home for incineration, while sewage and greywater are treated on site so that minimal trace is left behind.

Waste may be a liability in Antarctica, with massive effort and expense invested in its disposal. But when you get further away than the end of the Earth, waste suddenly becomes too valuable to part with.

Waste as Fuel

Any journey beyond the moon would reach the limits of the earthly supply chain. It’s not that food couldn’t be brought along; it’s just that replenishments can’t be counted on. If you don’t come back soon you will run out of food — unless you produce your own.

NASA hopes to complete a two-year mission to Mars by the 2030s. SpaceX hopes to get there a decade sooner. The present, consequently, is a fertile time for research into how to feed astronauts aboard space ships and on different planets. Because a growing portion of space exploration is being conducted by private enterprises, much of the research is closely guarded as trade secrets. But the studies being done in the public sphere are enough to shed light on how the space-age food scene could look.

For long-haul journeys through space, and for colonizing Mars, the primary means of food transport will be in the form of information, including knowledge about how to grow plants in space and in alien environments. And no information is more valuable, and less replaceable, than the DNA of seeds. These genetic blueprints are the primary way humans could transport food to places that are too far away to be replenished or to bring sufficient supplies. In the case of the two-year journey to Mars, it may be possible to pack enough calories to keep the astronauts alive. But growing edible plants on board the spacecraft would likely be vital to survival for other reasons entirely.

As plants grow, they remove carbon dioxide from the air and replace it with oxygen. On the long flight to Mars, this action would purify the air on board. Meanwhile, the sequestration of that atmospheric carbon, in the form of plants, would take care of the astronauts’ waste.

The interconnectedness of food, oxygen and waste disposal has led to a focus on closed-loop systems in research laboratories. In one study, rats are being kept alive with oxygen produced by algae. Depending on oxygen levels in the rats’ enclosure and the rats’ metabolic requirements, scientists can shine light on the the algae to trigger photosynthesis, the process by which plants consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. This is a simplified version of how astronauts and their food production systems could help regulate their shared atmosphere.

Any food grown in such a system could be considered a byproduct of the processes of waste management and atmospheric purification. The astronauts would have to do their part in the cycle by eating the food and excreting the waste products therefrom. As the astronauts would be eating much more than what they grow, thanks to the food they brought with them, the volume of their waste would likely exceed what they need for their little garden. But that extra poop would not be jettisoned. You don’t throw away gold.

While some researchers are studying the biospheres of space travel, others are looking into how food could be produced when and where the spaceship lands. Dutch scientists are attempting to grow crops like tomatoes, peas and wheat in red earth, dug from a Hawaiian volcano, thought to closely resemble Martian soil. According to Wieger Wamelink, an ecology researcher at Wageningen University, it took a little tweaking and some animal refuse, but plants eventually began growing quite well in the red dirt, which was purchased from NASA. On Mars, he explains, the plants will similarly have some extra help.

“The feces of the astronauts [produced] during the travel have to be stored and brought to Mars, where it can be used as fertilizer,” Wamelink explains.

Hundreds of thousands of seed samples from around the world are saved at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in arctic Norway.


The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in arctic Norway has been nicknamed the “Doomsday Vault” because its location and construction were designed to withstand a variety of manmade and natural disasters. North enough to withstand rising temperatures, high enough to avoid tsunamis and rising sea levels, remote enough to survive a nuclear war and deep enough in a mountain to withstand meteorites, bombs and tornadoes, Svalbard has as good a chance as any place on earth of surviving the big one.

While Svalbard is often referred to as a seed bank, it technically isn’t, as no regeneration of seed takes place on site. “We built a tunnel in a frozen mountain and put seeds in it,” explains Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which funded Svalbard’s construction and now covers its operating costs.

Humble remarks aside, Svalbard is no joke. The vault holds copies of seed collections from seed banks around the world, including ancient strains of wheat, lentil and chickpea from Aleppo’s imperiled seed collection. Every time a depositor seed bank regenerates any of its seed, they update Svalbard’s collection, which currently contains 860,000 varieties.

Future astronauts may grow some of their meals inside greenhouses, such as this Martian growth chamber, where fruits and vegetables could be grown hydroponically, without soil. Image: by Pat Rawlings, courtesy NASA SAIC.

Sowing nitrogen-binding plants like clovers, lupine, green bean and pea is another vital step in the process, according to the Dutch scientists. “Together with nitrogen-fixing bacteria they can take nitrogen gas from the air and turn that into eventually nitrate, which the plants can use for growth,” says Wamelink.

Obviously, growing food in actual Martian soil could present a host of obstacles. The food would have to be grown in some kind of space greenhouse that would be pressurized to Earth’s atmospheric pressure. It would need to be heated, lit and protected from cosmic radiation, which damages plant DNA. Perhaps it could be partially buried, with electric lights at night, powered by solar panels. The first colonists to arrive on Mars will have no shortage of work to keep them busy, as they attempt to construct a real-life biosphere experiment—not in the red sands of Arizona, but on the red planet itself.

Despite the challenges of feeding people in remote places, humans continue to push the limits of their range. When the distance from home reaches the point where growing food is more practical than bringing it, the journey from “farm” to table resets. Space travelers millions of miles from home, counterintuitively, will be eating more locally than the person on Earth who shops at his or her local grocery store. And in the closed-loop systems where plants and humans thrive on each other’s waste, some basic facts underlying the Earth’s ecosystems become crystal clear, even as our home planet fades in the rearview mirror. Food and waste are different sides of the same coin, part of an endless cycle.

If you were embarking on a two-year trip to Mars, what foods would you be sure to take? Tweet us. #FeedingMars