The U.S. wastes 63 million tons or $218 billion of food each year—that is roughly 40 percent of food in the country. In addition, food waste represents more than $75 billion in costs to American farms and food businesses, like grocery stores and restaurants. And it’s a $144 billion cost to American consumers, totaling nearly $1,600 per household.
“It’s a huge problem,” says Chris Cochran, executive director of Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED) and a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient. “It is not only an enormous issue, but it is solvable. It has huge opportunity for financial and economic benefit but also for environmental and social benefits as well.”
“First of all, food businesses can turn food waste into profit,” he adds. “We have found that in the grocery retail sector, for example, food waste is costing U.S. grocery stores $18.2 billion, and that’s roughly double their profits from food sales. But with a goal to cut food waste in half, they could double their profits from food sales.”
Cochran will speak during a Monday, May 6 WasteExpo keynote session titled “Solutions to Food Waste Prevention, Reduction & Recovery” from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. PT. Tiffany Derry, chef ambassador on food waste for The James Beard Foundation, and Ashley Zanolli, former senior policy and program advisor for Oregon DEQ Materials Management Program, will join Cochran as speakers. Stuart Buckner with Buckner Environmental Associates, LLC will moderate the panel.
Cochran explains that he hopes attendees will walk away from the session seeing food waste to value as a major theme of 2019.
“We are seeing food waste emerging as a major value creation opportunity in the same way we saw clean tech emerge 15 years ago,” he points out. “We’re at the start of the launch of this value creation sector.”
Cochran adds that because food waste uses about 20 percent of natural resources, including land, water and fertilizer, food waste reduction is one of the most obvious places to start for conserving resources—particularly in water-stressed areas, like California, where a lot of fruit and vegetables are produced. Food waste also accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
“Finally, it is a crazy juxtaposition to have up to 40 percent of food wasted in the U.S., meanwhile 42 million Americans are food insecure,” noted Cochran. “So, when you think about the purpose of food to feed people, that is a stark contrast with two seemingly juxtaposed problems of too much food and it being wasted while people are food insecure.”
As daunting as the global food waste problem is, two-thirds of the world’s 50 largest food companies are now committed to cutting food waste in half. This includes businesses like Kroger, which has committed to zero hunger and zero waste by 2025, and IKEA, which has set a goal to cut food waste in half by 2020. In addition, Walmart has announced a technology called Eden that will help the company save $2 billion in food waste over the next five years.
“Big food businesses are interested in this. We also see a number of prevention solutions, not only this Eden program to better order and manage inventory but also tech startups, including Apeel Sciences that has created a bio-based coating to double the shelf life of fruits and vegetables and has already successfully piloted that technology at Harps Grocery Store. It is currently piloting it with Kroger and Costco,” explains Cochran.
Apeel started out with a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation six years ago and most recently raised $125 million in venture capital from major venture capital funders, including Andreessen Horowitz, S2G Ventures and DBL Partners, he added.
Another example is a tech startup called Imperfect Produce, which sells fruits and vegetables to consumers at below retail prices directly to their door. In addition, ReFED has seen foundation funding reach $134 million per year from major funders like the Rockefeller Foundation.
“What people are excited about is this has a clear business case, it can create economic growth in jobs, it can save consumers money, it can help protect our environment and, critically important, it can help feed our neighbors,” emphasized Cochran. “Through the ReFED Roadmap to reduce U.S. food waste, we’ve outlined cost-effective and scalable solutions to cut food waste by 20 percent and create $100 billion in value over the next 10 years.”
As a chef, Derry believes reducing food waste begins with the individual and that chefs need to lead by example—whether it’s lobbying in Washington, D.C., or upcycling food (for example, making soup out of imperfect veggies) or donating leftovers to food banks.
“By taking these individual steps and educating our patrons, we can hopefully begin to see incremental change,” explains Derry. “In our kitchens, we need to make sure we use every part of the animal, vegetable, fruit, etc., that we buy (from nose to tail and root to stem) and promote that on our menus. We should support local farmers and only bring in what is needed.”
When it comes to food waste prevention, reduction and recovery, Derry says she’s seeing the following trends:
- Upcycling: Many companies are turning food waste into a new item they can sell at retail. For instance, Barnana, which upcycles imperfect bananas and turns them into snacks, has recently added plantain chips to its offering. Vermont-based maple syrup maker Runamok Maple shares resources with breweries and distilleries to create barrel-aged and infused maple syrups, trading barrels and other byproducts. Sustainable salad greens company Organicgirl offers value-added beverages that provide another avenue to leverage nutrition of highly perishable produce despite any aesthetic shortcomings. Salt & Straw has created ice cream from discarded foods. And New Foods uses wasted produce such as orange peels to create supplements.
- Better Technology and Efficiency: Amazon has equipped Alexa to answer questions such as how to buy, store and use fresh produce to minimize waste. In addition, secondary online markets like Imperfect Produce, Hungry Harvest and Food for All offer a discounted home delivery service for produce that would otherwise be rejected by retailers, restaurateurs or farmers for cosmetic reasons.
- Education: Boston-based Spoiler Alert company acts as the middleman and helps grocery stores, large food manufacturers, distributors and grocery retailers identify and access outlets that recover value from unsold inventory before it goes to waste. “Many retailers have been doing this on their own, providing unsold inventory to food banks, but new developments in the tech sector offer improved connectivity and efficiency in the process to benefit both sides of the exchange,” noted Derry. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute have partnered to streamline and standardize the wording on package labels to help minimize consumer confusion, i.e. sell by and use by labels.
- Food Waste as Fertilizer/Composting: Using food products rather than chemicals to fertilize new crops.
- Ugly Food is Good: In 2017, the National Resource Defense Council and ReFED reported that 20 billion pounds of produce is lost on farms each year. These are fruits and vegetables with small quirks in appearance that consumers rarely notice and do not impact the flavor or nutrition of the produce.
- Environmental Conservation: More consumers and restaurateurs are aware of the issues and doing something about it, “but we still have a long way to go,” stresses Derry.
- Buy Local: “You'll be strengthening your community by investing your food dollar close to home,” explained Derry. “Only 18 cents of every dollar, when buying at a large supermarket, go to the grower; 82 cents go to various unnecessary middlemen. Cut them out of the picture and buy your food directly from your local farmer—it will also be fresher as most produce is four to seven days old and travels 1,500 miles to get to you. Thus, you will be reducing the environmental impact, strengthening your community and investing in your community’s overall well-being (from eating better to job creation).”
Ultimately, Derry says, it’s all our responsibility, and that’s what she hopes attendees will take away from this WasteExpo session.
“It starts with you. If I can get one person in the audience not to just think differently but to act differently, then I have done my job,” she says. “The only way we will make a real change is one person at a time.”