Food waste is catalyzing everyone in the food, waste and recycling industries to create new solutions and best practices to convert a negative into value for the environment and for business. Here are insights from some food industry leaders about efforts to reduce waste first, then recycle what cannot be eliminated.
There’s a saying that “waste is only waste if you waste it!” At Vanguard Renewables, unavoidable food and beverage “waste” from manufacturing, and supply chain waste that cannot be consumed by people or animals and was once sent to landfills or incineration, is the fuel we use to power our farm-based renewable energy facilities. We are proud to be able to repurpose that inedible product into something beneficial. And, in the process, we remove the potential for it to emit powerful greenhouse gases that pollute the atmosphere.
We also combine that unusable product with farm manure, reducing the farm’s methane emissions and providing our host farms with a diversified income stream alongside a manure-and nutrient-management program. Here, I want to share some insights from some food industry leaders about efforts to reduce waste first, then recycle what cannot be eliminated.
40% of the US’s waste is organic
Organic materials — including manufacturing process waste, fats, oils and grease, wash water, packaged waste, discarded food (pre-consumer), and discarded food (post-consumer) — comprise 40 percent of waste in the US. So, we’ve got all of this waste that can be recycled — but only eight states (CA, CT, MA, MD, NJ, NY, RI, VT) have enacted organic waste bans. More and more municipalities are also working to create organics-recycling programs; but this process is slow to date, due to the complexities of waste collection and overall waste contamination.
Once a food manufacturer has done what they can to reduce waste upfront, and has shared edible leftovers to feed the hungry and animals, what options remain for the rest of the material? How can companies make a difference in our country’s waste challenge and use the results of that effort to attract new customers, enhance investor relations, and attract and retain team members?
Alternatives to landfilling
Most of the food waste at granola manufacturer New England Naturals is pre-consumer waste — including damaged raw materials, waste due to mechanical error or packaging failure, or waste generated when changing recipes. “We used to send it to local farmers for animal feed, but demand and reliability was inconsistent and there were seasonality issues. We never want to send it to landfill,” says CEO and President Chuck Marble.
To meet company sustainability goals, the company now recycles any waste it does generate at a Vanguard Farm PoweredⓇ anaerobic digester into renewable energy that helps power a local dairy farm.
King Arthur Baking Company has a long history of sustainability efforts. It has always donated leftover baked goods to local community partners; any products that could not be donated were given to local farmers for feed or they composted themselves, onsite.
“Years ago, we had a backyard compost pile that was tended to by employees, and people could bring a bucket and help themselves,” says James Kirkpatrick, Director of Facilities. Over the years, for a variety of reasons, the composting program at King Arthur has become more formal. While the company continues to donate finished goods to local partners, a local composter now picks up approximately 25,000 pounds of food scraps annually to make compost offsite.
Meanwhile, Chobani — best known for its Greek yogurt — tries to first reduce and next to find a beneficial use for every waste stream. “When I started at Chobani 11 years ago, everyone was concerned about what to do with whey, a major byproduct of the recipe,” says Dave Sheldon, Director of Environment and Sustainability. Today, whey trades on the feed market as a commodity like corn, and much of it goes back to dairy farmers. “Now, whey has value; and that helps support our farms,” Sheldon adds. “Also, we recognize that our manufacturing plant locations are in areas where people live; and we want to be good neighbors and handle any unavoidable waste responsibly, so we never negatively impact the community.”
Key organic waste challenges and opportunities
A continuing challenge to food waste recycling today is contamination. King Arthur sees this at its café, where there are labelled bins for separating organics from trash; after four years, some customers still don’t take the time to sort into the correct bins.
Packaged food waste is another key challenge, and separating packaging from food waste is both a challenge and an opportunity. One way to do this is through depackaging technology. A pallet of off-grade, packaged yogurt or boxed frozen food might normally be disposed of at the distributor or retail level and go right to a landfill or incinerator. Making something beneficial out of its inedible packaged waste is particularly attractive to Chobani: “This is one of our biggest waste challenges today,” Sheldon says. Now, that packaged waste can be removed from the packaging and recycled at an organics recycling facility that has specialized depackaging equipment. This enables both the depackaged waste and the packaging to be recycled.
Another way to facilitate this is through packaging innovation. There is a lot of research and experimentation happening, but solutions won’t happen overnight. “We need more sustainable packaging, while maintaining integrity and shelf life,” Marble says. “Microplastics are getting more attention these days. Frito Lay had a great idea with its compostable bag but that bombed because it was too crinkly.” In 2019, the CEO-led Consumer Goods Forum — which includes over 400 retail and manufacturing members including Amazon, Wegmans and Chobani — approved an initiative to eliminate plastic waste on land and sea. It aims to make the lifeline of plastic more circular by using less and better plastics, advancing chemical recycling, and improving the efficiency and collection of plastics.
As Marble advises, “First, track and measure your waste so that you understand it and make changes upfront. Second, make it a focus. Third, consider the finished product while at the product development stage to make it the most sustainable you can.”
New England Naturals has also learned to adapt. When it's most sustainably packaged product line, sold in grocers’ bulk bins, was discontinued during COVID-19; the company developed a clear, recyclable, one-pound bagged product with a simple label to replace it. “While the packaging is not as sustainable as with the bulk line, it is still a sustainable option and it kept the SKU,” Marble says.
“Don’t be discouraged,” Sheldon says. “Take advantage of the information that's out there and find other companies, organizations, and groups for collaboration.” In addition to the Consumer Goods Forum, Chobani participates in a packaging coalition. “We need to take care of the consumer and the planet. We can't do this in a silo. We've got to work together.”
Food waste is a dynamic challenge; and it is catalyzing everyone in the food, waste and recycling industries to create new solutions and best practices to convert a negative into value for the environment and for business. Reassessing how you do things to look for better solutions is always a valuable exercise, including looking for pre-competitive collaborations. Sometimes those initiatives require a capital investment; but often they can be implemented with behavioral change, innovative thinking and shared expertise.
Join us to learn more about recycling food waste and building regenerative supply chains with Chobani, PepsiCo, Starbucks, and Vanguard Renewables... June 23 at 1pm ET Farm to Plate: How Companies and Consumers are Catalyzing a More Regenerative Food System.