IU graduate student Danni McPherron has made reducing food waste her mission

Guest post by Jill Bond, graduate assistant in the School of Public and Enviromental Affairs

Danni McPherron has spent plenty of time the last few years thinking about other people’s trash.

“I’m pretty sure that my friends and family think of my passion for trash as inspiring, amusing and at times, a bit annoying,” she said.

dannie mcpherron

While working for the Indiana Recycling Coalition, McPherron kept 1,400 pounds of bananas and banana peels from going to the landfill. Photo courtesy of the School of Public an Environmental Affairs.

The Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs graduate student will be spending even more time thinking of how to reduce waste after recently accepting a scholarship from the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, a nonprofit that supports research into sustainable waste management practices.

McPherron will focus specifically on food waste, which she says is a natural progression of her interest in recycling.

“It’s the next step in the frontier of waste management,” McPherron said.

Her obsession with waste management started at a young age, after having been raised in a recycling household.

“Slowly, I began noticing that not everyone recycled or composted at home like my family did,” she said. “I started to wonder how much stuff was being thrown away in our society and even began to take my recyclables home when I couldn’t find a place to properly handle them (and still do to this day).”

As a teenager, McPherron started the paper recycling program at her high school in Holland, Ind. Her waste management interest flourished as she earned an undergraduate degree at SPEA in environmental management. Her first course was “Intro to the Environment and People.”

“Instantly I was hooked,” she said. “I knew I had found my career path and passion in life.”

While working for the Indiana Recycling Coalition, McPherron managed public space recycling and composting efforts for several major events, including the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon. In 2016, McPherron’s efforts kept 1,400 pounds of bananas and banana peels from going to the landfill.

“The year before we only collected 50 pounds,” she said. “We were able to divert so many pounds of wasted food from that one event.”

McPherron hopes her research will expand on the work started by the Indiana Food Scrap Initiative and the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition to close the gap between those with excess organic materials and those with a use for them.

“Twenty-five percent of what we throw away is food and yard trimmings,” McPherron said. “Can it be diverted to something useful?”

Through literature and data review, McPherron hopes to create a report that others can use to get everyone on the supply chain to think about what can be done with their waste besides throwing it in the landfill.

“I’m just trying to be the connector for all these pieces,” she said.

danni mcpherron

Mcpherson  recently received a scholarship from the Environmental Research and Education Foundation. Photo courtesy of SPEA.

With the Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030, McPherron believes the time to lay the foundation for food waste recycling and reduction programs in the U.S. is now.

SPEA Assistant Professor Shahzeen Attari, who taught McPherron as an undergraduate student, said she is passionate, hardworking and very creative.

“She cares deeply for the environment and is an agent of change,” Attari said. “Her research area focuses on how to help stakeholders engage more deeply in food waste composting in our state.

“The U.S. EPA estimates that ‘more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash, about 21 percent of the waste stream.’ Reducing food waste is an important challenge, and who better than a talented ‘speon’ to see this through?”

McPherron’s research will quantify food waste sources, identify best management practices and model projects, map existing infrastructure and identify gaps, identify model regulatory policies, make recommendations for addressing infrastructure gaps and identify economic development opportunities.

McPherron hopes to give talks and make presentations about her findings once her report is complete.

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