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Consumers are increasingly aware of food waste, and its impact on food access and on climate change. Those businesses that commit to responsible food-waste recycling can turn a problem into a point of pride, customer loyalty and cost
You’ve probably heard that 30 to 40 percent of the total US waste stream is
organic waste; it is often landfilled, but it can be recycled. A 2014 US EPA
study found that each year, the country throws away more than 38 million tons of
food — more than the weight of 100 Empire State Buildings. With the USDA
estimating the cost of food loss at approximately $161 billion, this has
far-reaching impacts on food security, disposal costs, resource conservation and
What you may not know is the publication of Project Drawdown’s 2020 Review
cites food waste reduction as the #1 solution in a list of 80+ solutions for
— including electric cars, plant-rich
and walkable cities. Reducing food waste has the potential to draw 87 gigatons
of CO2 out of the atmosphere! Because about a third of the world’s food is never
eaten, land and resources used and greenhouse gases emitted in producing it were
unnecessary. Interventions can reduce loss and waste, as food moves from farm to
fork, thereby reducing overall demand.
The EPA’s Food Recovery
provides a thorough answer to this question. In order of preference, food waste
Be reduced. Methods include clarifying the difference between “sell by” and
“best by” dates, encouraging supermarkets to not dispose of produce that is
nutritious but malformed, eating leftovers, and buying food in smaller
Feed the hungry, such as by going to food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters
Be diverted to feed animals, including both pets and livestock
Go to anaerobic digesters and other industrial uses
Be landfilled or incinerated
In the US, upwards of 50 million tons of waste is still ending up in the final,
least desirable category. Landfills are very wet, and hence oxygen-poor,
environments; and landfilled food waste correspondingly produces a great deal of
methane. The best thing to do with this waste is to reduce its quantity or
divert it to feed people. For waste that can’t be eaten, such as rotten food,
grease traps and manufacturing byproducts, the best destination is an anaerobic
where the methane is recaptured and converted into renewable energy. Not
everyone has access to an anaerobic digester; but composting is an easily
accessible next-best solution, ahead of a landfill or waste-to-energy plant.
To force change, many states and cities have enacted residential and commercial
organics-to-landfill bans. In these areas, the mandates are catalyzing change;
but these programs are far from being a nationwide phenomenon. Consider the
separation and recycling of cardboard, previously co-mingled with all other
waste, as an example of what can happen with food waste. Today corrugated
“cardboard” is recycled more than any other packaging material; and most people
and companies wouldn’t begin to consider throwing a box in the trash, rather
than recycling it. It has even become a net revenue stream to municipalities,
especially during COVID — with the increase in available corrugated from mail
and related high demand for more.
What could be viewed as a liability can be converted to a brand and business
opportunity. Consumers are increasingly aware of the food waste problem, its
impact on food access, and on climate change. Those businesses that commit to
responsible food-waste recycling can turn a problem into a point of pride and
cost reduction. Companies that recycle food waste have an opportunity to present
a strong sustainability and brand platform that will generate business.
First, use the pyramid as a guide. Reduce, donate or recycle food waste before
sending it landfill.
Organizations that get edible, unused food to people who don’t have money to
purchase it are widespread. The Spoiler Alert
is one example of how entities with surplus food can connect to food rescue
organizations that pick it up to provide to those in need. Chefs around the
globe are turning food previously thrown out into new ingredients, and
committing to sustainable harvesting and food use — such as the “nose-to-tail”
Organics recycling is less expensive than landfill or incinerator disposal
because there is a secondary marketplace/revenue-generating use for the
resulting products. Organics recycling costs vary depending on the product, need
for packaging removal prior to recycling facility transfer, hauling distance,
and the value of the product resulting from the recycling process.
For food processors and food retailers, food waste and process wastewater are a
critical daily operations and management challenge with tremendous economic
impact. This is also true for corporations that have large corporate campuses
with food-service operations, as well as educational institutions and hospitals.
Food waste can be as simple as meat trimmings or as insidious as returned
expired products in a distribution warehouse — and it can be solid or liquid, as
in manufacturing wash water or grease trap sediment that results from beverage
or dairy products manufacturing. It all has the potential to be recycled — a
sustainable practice that will save money in the long run.
The anaerobic digestion process converts the energy potential in farm and food
waste into renewable electricity or Renewable Natural Gas (RNG). Food waste
producers get a safe, clean, and certifiable food-waste recycling solution that
reduces greenhouse gas emissions as compared to landfills by more than 85
percent. On-farm anaerobic digestion offers host farms financial and
and the biogas generates either renewable electricity or carbon-negative RNG, as
well as low-carbon fertilizer that protects soil health and increases crop
Composting is another food-waste recycling method; however, like landfills, it
doesn’t solve methane emissions/air-quality issues — in most composting
operations those emissions are still present. The process uses controlled
conditions and microorganisms to aerobically decompose organic materials into a
soil-like substance; and produces carbon dioxide, water, minerals and stabilized
organic matter (compost), as well as heat. Composting facilities can be aerated,
unaerated, covered or not covered; and composting methods include passive piles,
windrows, static piles, and in-vessel composting. The composting approach works
best for dry materials such as leaves, grass, sawdust and paper goods.
More and more consumers are making purchasing decisions based on sustainability.
In fact, a survey by The Recycling
found that 74 percent of US consumers polled said they’d rather spend money at a
“green business,” or a business that recycles. Better yet, become a first mover,
if you aren’t already, and make a real contribution to combat climate change.
There are now 30 North American food and beverage companies — including
PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and
Stonyfield — which have established or committed to science-based
to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
McCormick Spice, Mondelez, McCain Foods, Dairy Farmers of
America, J.M. Smuckers, and Campbell Soup
Company just joined
Additionally, 14 companies — including General
Mills, Kellogg Company,
and Walmart — recently founded the Coalition to End Food
the group is committed to scaling up Champions 12.3’s 10x20x30
including engaging suppliers and other stakeholders in the food-waste reduction
In all of this, workforce education is key to turning the tide toward food-waste
recycling. The challenge is to assess operating processes to identify
food-waste-generation areas and develop a segregation system for food-waste
recycling. The benefit is reduced waste-disposal costs in most markets, less
waste overall, increased sustainability, and positive branding opportunities.
Whether recycling via composting or anaerobic digestion, training employees
about waste segregation is critical to ensuring waste acceptance by the hauler
and recycling facility.
With sustainable business practice a top priority, taking the opportunity to do
the right thing for the environment, reduce the cost of organics disposal, and
produce renewable energy not only is a boost to your sustainability index and
corporate image, it has a measurable impact in protecting our planet from
further environmental degradation.
Published Nov 17, 2020 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
John Hanselman is Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Vanguard Renewables — the U.S. leader in farm-based organics to renewable energy. John launched Vanguard Renewables in 2014 to connect farm-based anaerobic digestion to agricultural resilience and produce renewable energy. His work includes finding a decarbonization pathway for the food and beverage industry by enabling the repurposing of unavoidable manufacturing and supply chain waste into renewable natural gas. John’s strength is bringing together partners in the decarbonization journey and Vanguard has strategic partnerships with Dairy Farmers of America and Dominion Energy, among others. (Read more ...)
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.