Week of 11/14/10

Dear EarthTalk: I work at a fast food place and I am appalled by the amount of unpurchased food we throw away. The boss says we can’t give it away for legal reasons. Where can I turn for help on this, so the food could instead go to people in need?

—Ryan Jones, Richland, WA

Many restaurants, fast food or otherwise, are hesitant to donate unused food due to concerns about liability if people get sick after eating it—especially because once any such food is out of the restaurant’s hands, who knows how long it might be before it is served again. But whether these restaurants know it or not, they cannot be held liable for food donated to organizations, and sometimes all it might take to change company policy would be a little advocacy from concerned employees.

A 1995 survey found that over 80 percent of food businesses in the U.S. did not donate excess food due to liability concerns. In response, Congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which releases restaurants and other food organizations from liability associated with the donation of food waste to nonprofits assisting individuals in need. The Act protects donors in all 50 states from civil and criminal liability for good faith donations of "apparently wholesome food"—defined as meeting "all quality and labeling standards imposed by Federal, State and local laws and regulations even though the food may not be readily marketable due to appearance, age, freshness, grade, size, surplus or other condition."

While homeless shelters, elder care organizations and boys and girls clubs are frequent beneficiaries of food donations, the most common recipients are food banks and food rescue programs. Food banks, according to California’s CalRecycle website, "collect food from a variety of sources, save the food in a warehouse, then distribute it to hungry families and individuals through local human service agencies." They usually collect less perishable items like canned goods, which can be stored and used any time. In contrast, food rescue programs typically trade in perishable and prepared foods, distributing it to agencies that feed hungry people, usually later that same day. Mama’s Health, a leading health education website, maintains an extensive free database of food banks and food rescue programs state-by-state.

Many U.S. food businesses will not donate excess food to those in need due to liability concerns. However, it is an unfounded fear because laws in all 50 states protect food donors from civil and criminal liability for good faith donations of 'apparently wholesome food.© Brand X Pictures

Unused or even partially eaten food waste can also be utilized even if it’s not edible by human standards. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approves of food businesses giving or selling food waste to local farmers for use in composting or as animal feed. If such food contains or has come into contact with meat, it should be boiled for 30 minutes to reduce the risk of bacterial infections in the animals that eat it. Many states have complementary laws on the books regulating the donation of food waste at the local level.

Many cities and town are now expanding curbside pickup programs to include kitchen scraps and yard waste and then diverting the food waste into profitable compost. Still, some 6.7 percent of the solid waste going into landfills consists of food discards, reports the North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance. Diverting food waste to feed hungry people or for animal feed or compost is a winning scenario for all concerned parties as it not only provides relief to overburdened landfills but also helps meet social welfare, agricultural and environmental needs. Also, those restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses that donate food will likely reap the additional reward of saving money on their actual waste removal bill as their trash bins and dumpsters won’t be filling up quite so fast.

CONTACTS: CalRecycle; Mama’s Health; North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance.

Dear EarthTalk: I am looking for a small, modular home to put on a piece of vacation property. What’s available that could meet my needs and be easier on the environment than building a traditional house from scratch?

—Rob Sherman, Minneapolis, MN

Self-contained modular homes that can be partially or even fully fabricated in advance are now all the rage among green architects and those committed to more sustainable living. Pictured: the exterior and interior of a modular home from the Latvian firm Esclice.© Esclice

First utilized by relief and aid missions around the world to house workers or refugees, self-contained modular homes that can be partially or even fully fabricated in advance are now all the rage among green architects and those committed to more sustainable living—and they’re beginning to pop all across North America and beyond, mostly for use as guest houses and vacation cabins. The benefits of such homes versus their larger traditional counterparts are many. In theory, prefabrication generates less waste, uses less energy, and provides more opportunities for the incorporation of greener construction methods and technologies. Most such buildings are also less demanding on the home site of choice.

One of the leaders in this fast-growing sector of residential construction is Toronto’s Sustain Design Studio, which has been building on its miniHome concept for almost a decade. The firm’s miniHomes range from single- to double-wide sizes and can fit into trailer parks or small urban lots accordingly, but are also optimized for off-grid self-sufficiency in wide open or wilderness areas. The buildings, which are mostly prefabricated at Sustain’s Toronto build facility, combine energy efficient systems with beautiful finishes that make owners feel like they are indulging yet remaining true to their green ideals.

Sustain’s California miniHome, for example, comes complete with all millwork, cabinets, plumbing fixtures and appliances, as well as high efficiency lighting circuits, plug-and-play connections to renewable power sources, sustainably sourced woods, and a built-in HVAC/water system that generates 20 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional home—all for under $150,000.

Another player is the Latvian firm Esclice, whose buildings can be installed on-site by two workers in two hours once foundation posts, water and wastewater hook-ups and electricity are in place. Other design studios building similar homes include Quikhouse, Zerocabin, Method Homes and Stem Design Works.

Of course, potential buyers should keep in mind that a home’s construction is just a fraction of its life-cycle carbon footprint—small pre-fab houses are built by people who also drive to work, watch TV and sometimes take long showers—plus, producing and shipping steel, concrete and other building materials are the major drivers behind any building’s carbon and energy footprint, wherever it’s manufactured.

Bearing that in mind, Seattle-based HyBrid Architecture has come up with an interesting slice on the sustainable small home idea: "cargotecture," which describes the buildings it creates out of empty ISO shipping containers (those large boxes used for long-distance international shipping that one sees stacked atop giant cargo ships). Since many of these containers make just one-way trips from China, HyBrid has a lot of raw material to choose from. A single 8" x 20" container yields 160 square feet of living space, and the structures can be placed side-by-side or stacked up to eight high for more interior square footage. And while no one wants to live in a shipping container, HyBrid cuts doors and

windows out of them and finishes them outside so that they look like modern yet nevertheless somewhat traditional buildings.

CONTACTS: Sustain; Esclice; Quikhouse; Stem Design Works; Zerocabin; Method Homes; HyBrid Architecture.

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