As a nation, we are foodies. It’s a national obsession.
Eating typically consumes two-and-a-half hours of our daily routines; for some as much as four-and-a-half hours. Food represents about 11 percent of our purchases, or approximately $3,000 per person per year. A testament to its significance in our culture is an entire cable television network devoted 24/7 to food preparation and consumption. Grocery stores, drive-through restaurants and vending machines all make food readily available, at least for most of us. With September being “Hunger Action Month,” it’s a good time to refocus on the paradox that food waste continues to be in our food supply chain.
We produce more food than any other country. To accomplish that, according to the National Resource Defense Council, food production utilizes 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, occupies 50 percent of U.S. land and accounts for 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, we manage to deliver only 60 percent of our crops to market and of that, manufacturers, retailers and consumers manage to waste another 40 percent.
Of more concern is that what we throw away represents the food energy value of 1,249 calories per person per day (about half of what the average person needs to maintain). At the same time, 50 million Americans are struggling to afford sufficient nutrition each day.
The amount of food wasted per person has doubled in the past 40 years. It now comprises approximately 14 percent of the municipal waste stream generated and more than 21 percent of the municipal waste disposed in landfills. A recent Harris Poll shows that we recognize the problem. In fact those surveyed consider food waste more important of an issue than pollution, water shortage, or climate change.
Unfortunately, 60 percent of us believe everybody else is the cause. This is in spite of the fact that 78 percent of the individuals surveyed admitted to throwing away food in the past six months. The American Institute for Packaging and the Environment claims that two-thirds of at-home food waste is due to spoilage before preparation, and one-third is due to cooking or serving more than can be eaten.
Ironically, food’s prevalence and availability in our lives has served to devalue it at the same time. Because food is relatively cheap in the U.S. compared to other nations where food purchases can represent up to 47 percent of a household income, the cost, and reality of our own wasting, doesn’t always register with us. Johnathan Bloom, author of the book American Wasteland, estimates in his work that the retail value of food lost in the overall U.S. supply chain is $250 billion annually. Waste & Resources Action Programme estimates the value of wasted food from consumers and food merchants is closer to $197 billion, based on 2011 dollars.
Interestingly, it’s considered better business to super-size portions than it is to increase the minimum wage per worker, even if the bulk of that extra food continually comes back uneaten and must be disposed. For the supersized portions that are consumed, in its September 8-15, 2014 issue, Time magazine claims that if we stay the course, by 2048, every American will be either overweight or obese.
Food Waste Diversion
A number of initiatives have been launched to increase the recovery of discarded food. There is a growing trend toward bans on commercial food waste disposal and the expansion of residential curbside source-separated collection programs. Both favor alternatives such as composting or digesters for energy recovery. Others, like Feeding America and the USDA Food Waste Challenge, are focused on ensuring that the still consumable food, which would otherwise be disposed, finds its way to the hungry.
None of these methods gets to the root causes of wasted food, which directly inflate prices, making healthy eating cost prohibitive for so many. In fact, having to manage the waste is just one more line item to add into the overall expense.
Shrinking the Loss
Food waste minimization education has largely been directed at individuals. With increasing consumer concerns, and the need to maintain and grow sales revenues, the food packaging industry, along with food merchants, are motivated to introduce measures to reduce food waste. Considering that packaging and food waste are the largest categories of discards in the municipal waste stream, for the industry’s sake, it is prudent to act before other sanctions can be instituted.
Packaging for Waste Reduction
Who hasn’t been frustrated by the amount of product that remains unreachable in the bottle of ketchup, mayonnaise, hot sauce and jelly? LiquiGlide is rigid coating that claims to create a-slick surface within food packages that allows foods with thick viscosity, like condiments, to be poured out easily. The coating reportedly reduces residual food waste from these items by up to 15 percent. An added benefit is that recycling plants could experience less leftover contaminants in food containers coated with LiquiGlide.
Is it a Keeper?
Misunderstanding of “sell by,” “use by,” labels leads to a significant amount of food being disposed although it remains consumable. Retailers and consumers are equally confused by the label meanings. An emerging innovation is a smart container that can report the condition of the food inside. Temperature and time indicators trigger the release of a special pigment printed directly to a food product’s package or label will change color as the product ages, indicating remaining shelf life.
We’ve often been told to buy in bulk to minimize packaging waste. It turns out that might not be the best advice in every situation, when reducing food waste would be the greater benefit. Package portioning allows consumers to take advantage of volume discounts, but to use only what they need at the time. For empty nesters, the elderly and other singles it can eliminate the effects of over-purchasing and wasting food. This is particularly true when the packaging itself is designed to prolong the life of the product better than rewrapping and containerizing food at home. These advantages are often lost when consumers follow old habits, leading them to discard the packaging.
There are a growing number of packaging initiatives that have been put into use or are developing across the entire supply chain. Only a few were mentioned here. It is true that in many instances protecting the food increases the amount of packaging. However, it is typically by a small percentage. Food and beverage packaging technology is worthy of tracking because, as we have seen in the past, new materials can create havoc for recycling facilities.
The good news for the recycling industry is that consumers are now more informed about packaging. In surveys, and confirmed by their purchasing habits, shoppers claim that package recyclability is a priority.
Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.