Serving up a brighter future by reducing and recycling food waste

By Kati Behrens, VP, Commercial Banking

Did you know food waste costs U.S. companies $59 billion annually?

From farm to table, food loss and waste (FLW) is inescapable and affects the bottom line of businesses and consumers across the country and around the world. While there is no single comprehensive estimate of FLW in the United States, the National Resources Defense Council estimates that 40 percent of the food in the U.S. is never eaten. 

The effects of FLW are far-reaching
There are certainly benefits to committing to reducing food waste. According to Further with Food efforts to reduce FLW can: 

  • Improve access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food  for a growing population
  • Increase efficiency and reduce unnecessary expenses. For businesses, tackling food waste provides cost advantages by using all raw materials while spending less on disposal fees to discard food.
  • Improve nutrition
  • Conserve and protect natural resources. In the U.S., The Environmental Science and Technology Journal estimated that more than  2 percent of the nation’s energy use is dedicated to growing, manufacturing, transporting, refrigerating and cooking food that is not eaten.
  • Curb climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators in the U.S. than any other single material, about 21 percent of the waste stream.


Financial impact on businesses and consumers

Beyond the impetus to conserve our natural resources and feed the hungry, there’s also a financial incentive for both business and consumers to stem the tide of food waste. According to ReFed, the financial cost of food waste in the U.S. each year is $218 billion.  While consumers bear the lion’s share of that with $144 billion, consumer-facing businesses shouldered $57 billion, farmers $15 billion and manufacturers $2 billion.  

There’s also powerful evidence that committing resources to curbing food waste can have a direct impact on a business’ bottom line.  In a study of 700 restaurants, food manufacturers, retailers and hospitality companies in 17 countries, Champions 12.3 showed that for every $1 a company spent on reducing waste, it saved $14. 

In addition, 99 percent of the survey respondents experienced reduced expenses from their efforts to control FLW.  Some of the methods used include training staff on food loss and waste reduction practices; changing food storage, handling, and manufacturing processes; changing packaging to extend shelf-life; and quantifying and monitoring food loss and waste. 

Teaming up to tackle food waste
Coalition efforts are also already underway in the U.S. to help reverse the trend on food waste, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the EPA launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge in 2015. The campaign targets all entities along the food chain with a goal of reducing, recovering and recycling food waste.  In November 2016, the first set of 15 U.S. Food Loss and Waste Champions were announced—those U.S. businesses and organizations pledging concrete steps to achieve a 50 percent reduction of food loss and waste in their operations by 2030.

For example, Walmart reported the introduction of a new reusable, plastic egg crate which decreases damage rates while saving 39 million eggs and 5,000 labor hours per year. Unilever, another U.S. Food Loss and Waste Champion, developed a more natural way of preventing mayonnaise from sticking to the jar, reducing the amount left in the bottle from 13 percent to 3 percent. Efforts such as the U.S. Food Waste Challenge are spurring companies across the country to look for new technologies that can cut food waste in half.

Getting resources in place
As businesses look to develop new initiatives to fight food loss, they often run into financing and infrastructure barriers. To help support innovation, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) provides loans to startups that address food waste across the agriculture supply chain, helping them to take ideas from research and development to commercialization.  

For example, WholeVine, as reported on Waste 360, is a company whose products are sourced from California wine vineyards. With the aid of technology developed in a USDA lab, WholeVine is now able to repurpose grape seeds, once only used for compost, into flour that can be made into nutritious cookies and snack bars.

Changing the future from packaging to consumer kitchens
While opportunities to reduce food waste exist throughout the food chain, revising packaging processes and consumer education are two key ways of cutting food waste.

Capitalizing on existing innovative packaging solutions could reduce food currently sent to landfills. For example, increasing the application of vacuum-seal technology across product categories to extend shelf life, changing package sizing to deliver exactly what consumers need and developing food safety sensors are among the suggestions provided to the New Venture Fund by Arabella Advisors, which researched opportunities to accelerate food waste reduction.

In the nation’s fight again waste, consumer education provides one of the most significant opportunities for change. The USDA reports that the average American loses $370 in wasted food each year. Its website, choosemyplate.gov offers a variety of consumer tips for reducing food waste, from effective planning for shopping trips to a food storage app that provides specific storage timelines for the refrigerator, freezer and pantry.

Whether it’s changing behavior in American kitchens, developing new technologies for food conservation or building partnerships between business and government, teaming up to tackle food waste should be a priority for both business and consumers.  The benefits are great—more food to feed the hungry, an improvement to the bottom line and the preservation of our natural resources for generations to come.