A new ReFED report shows the percentage of retail food waste in the U.S. has dropped in the past three years, but not as much as had been thought. While the updated metrics (showing a .3 percent reduction in retail food waste) don’t reflect the improvement anticipated, based on trends in preceding reports, this latest figure and other findings are good news. Or so attests Jackie Suggitt, director of Capital, Innovation & Engagement at ReFED.
At the very least the data unveiled on ReFED’s Insight Engine in April 2023, gathered with enhanced methodologies, tells the number crunchers that the industry is getting better at measuring. And that’s the first step to figuring out how to tackle the problem.
The Insight Engine update replaces old survey information with more comprehensive and current data from Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment (PCFWC) signatories. PCFWC is a public-private partnership between governments and large food corporations –Walmart, Sodexo, Kroger, and Fresh Del Monte to name a few—along the West Coast. They are looking to halve food waste in their region by 2030.
This report digs into a deeper retail base. The signatories telling of what’s happening within their operations represent just over 50% of the market share along the West Coast.
“What’s really exciting is that it provides three years of new data that now gives us the first real-time, year-over-year comparable data set in retail,” Suggitt says.
PCFWC signatories receive in-depth analytics based on the food waste details they’ve been taught to collect. They get industry benchmarking data to compare themselves to peers and identify their strengths and weaknesses. And custom roadmaps, generated from findings, help them assess food waste reduction strategies specific for their business.
One new puzzle piece sheds light on a long-time mystery: what’s been happening with surplus or wasted food that fell off the radar and was written off as going to an unknown destination. The “unknown destination” lot has decreased from roughly 30% to about 21%.
“What’s exciting about this metric is we know where that 9% went now. Landfill rates went up. But it probably was not because [retailers are] throwing away more food. Rather they have better visibility into what was always there,” Suggitt says.
Some of the newly tracked tonnage ultimately went to destinations beyond landfill, whether to food rescue organizations, or sent for animal feed, biomaterials processing (meat rendering), anaerobic digestion, or composting, among stops.
ReFED, part of the PCFWC leadership team, makes sense of signatories’ data using a mass balance approach. This entails asking them for the total dollars of food they purchased and unsold food rates. Then they look to see where the unsold amount went—a reporting approach that has taken some retailers time to wrap their heads around.
Initially, PCFWC participants got a lot of guidance to understand how and why to measure. But by now they are building internal structures to be able to collect data and use it to identify their biggest problems.
For Albertson’s a huge realization is that weight data along the supply and fulfillment chains is especially hard to track. The grocery chain is leveraging an old, familiar tool to gain new insight.
“Retail stores rely on UPC data for sales transactions. It is logical to use that database to track unsold items, including donations to food insecure neighbors. And including inedible food diverted from landfill. Subtracting sold and unsold item weights from overall retail data makes it easier to track items sent to landfill. And reducing landfill weight reduces store operating costs and promotes resource conservation,” says John Bernardo, director of Sustainability, Albertsons Companies.
Albertsons extracts product data from UPC codes scanned at check stands, e-commerce, and DriveUp & Go transactions. And then tracks unsold items with handheld scanners when designating for donation. But the operation takes other steps, from incorporating weight data obtained from food waste diversion vendors to leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to inform ordering and production.
The discovery stage is ongoing, with PCFWC pilots helping inform creation and implementation of targeted strategies. They range from trials of upcycling to employee engagement campaigns to help drive site-specific food waste reduction. And they include pilots of AI-based ordering technology with participation from tech companies Afresh and Shelf Engine.
Today, even leading national grocers rely on manual processes for ordering and inventory management, creating an abundance of waste in grocery store back rooms and lost shelf life at home, says
Matt Schwartz, co-founder and CEO of Afresh.
“Fresh departments need purpose-built technology that can navigate its hard-to-predict and error-prone data to empower better decision-making and reduce waste on the retail floor,” Schwartz says.
Data points, such as shipments, sales, and promotions are fed into machine learning models to help prevent overstocking and waste.
Pilots led to a 15% reduction in food waste at each store and prevented 26,705 tons of CO2e. The real eye opener is the estimated impact, should the entire grocery sector implement these technologies: 907,372 less tons of food waste, representing 13.3 million metric tons of avoided CO2e emissions, and $2 billion-plus in financial benefits.
The City of Seattle/Seattle Public Utilities is one of several public agencies that is funding the PCFWC partnership and helping guide the work. At the same time the agency gains insight from anonymized data representing all retail signatories and learns from intervention projects that help identify replicable solutions.
“Business decisions and operations that lead to food waste reduction are largely invisible to jurisdictions until we see the results in garbage collection, compost contamination, and other results when food is no longer in use. The PCFWC project makes the invisible VISIBLE,” says Liz Fikejs, senior waste prevention program manager, City of Seattle, Seattle Public Utilities.
“Participating businesses have told us that they value the pre-competitive conversations and learning so that they can take individual and collective action across supply chains. This knowledge also enables jurisdictions to create more holistic (vs siloed) [food-waste-related] strategies,” Fikejs says.
One of the hardest parts in her eyes is being willing to jump in and test new ideas. Making sense of data is an iterative, on-going process that takes time.
“We need to continually build on existing data, use it as a tool to spring from, and not allow ourselves to slow down when we don't fully understand it or have all the information we desire,” she says.
Staying with it has helped Seattle prioritize funding, glean regional understanding for collective action, and see changes over time.
Still lacking is policy to support adoption of solutions and robust collaboration among food waste-generating businesses.
“We need to share more best practices. A lot has worked. It’s not like we are sitting here with no idea of where to start. But we need to see those practices scaled and shared more openly, pre-competitively and implemented across sectors,” Suggitt says.
Where will ReFED and PCFWC go next? The plan is to take knowledge gathered from the retail sector and expand to food service and manufacturing.
“There are nuance differences between sectors where we will have to design measurements specific to the sector. But the philosophy is the same,” Suggitt says.