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 reduction.
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 climate change.
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 combating climate change — including electric cars, plant-rich diets 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.
So, what does an ideal food waste solution look like?
The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy provides a thorough answer to this question. In order of preference, food waste should:
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 quantities
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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 co-digester, 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 orders, and related high demand for more.
What’s a good game plan for food manufacturers and retailers?
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.
Option 1: Food recovery and rescue
Organizations that get edible, unused food to people who don’t have money to purchase it are widespread. The Spoiler Alert app 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” movement.
Option 2: Recycle food waste that cannot be recovered for human or animal consumption, or eliminated by waste-reduction strategies at the manufacturing or supply chain levels
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.
Food-waste recycling options
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 energy-savings benefits; and the biogas generates either renewable electricity or carbon-negative RNG, as well as low-carbon fertilizer that protects soil health and increases crop yields.
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.
Convert your recycling commitment into customer loyalty and sales
More and more consumers are making purchasing decisions based on sustainability. In fact, a survey by The Recycling Partnership 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 Unilever, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and Stonyfield — which have established or committed to science-based targets to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Starbucks, McCormick Spice, Mondelez, McCain Foods, Dairy Farmers of America, J.M. Smuckers, and Campbell Soup Company just joined in 2020.
Additionally, 14 companies — including General Mills, Kellogg Company, Nestlé, Sainsbury, Tesco and Walmart — recently founded the Coalition to End Food Waste; the group is committed to scaling up Champions 12.3’s 10x20x30 initiative, including engaging suppliers and other stakeholders in the food-waste reduction effort.
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.