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Don't just manage waste, prevent it

We are pleased that Maryland has developed the draft plan to reduce waste described in a recent Sun article ("State aims for 'zero' waste, but goal is far off," Jan. 2).

As the draft is refined, and in keeping with its "top priority," the state should shift its emphasis from waste management to waste prevention.

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Take the example of food: The U.S. wastes up to 40 percent of food leaving its farms, at a cost of $162 billion. Food is the largest component of municipal solid waste, and when it rots in landfills it accounts for a significant proportion of U.S. methane emissions.

Composting and anaerobic digestion, the focus of the plan's section on food waste, represent a great improvement over landfill disposal and also create environmental benefits if performed well.

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However, according to our recent national survey 41 percent of people who compost said that wasting food is not a concern for them precisely because they compost. Could the state's emphasis on composting actually lead to more a cavalier attitude toward food waste?

The state's plan recommends consumer education campaigns and technical assistance programs for businesses. While insufficient to the need for prevention activities, we hope these are well-supported. Moreover, we hope that all composting efforts will include reminders that putting food in a compost pile is still waste.

Roni Neff and Ruth Burrows, Baltimore

The writers are food system researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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